On Friday, Carlson Companies Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson returned home from a long week of business travel to find literally hundreds of personal letters awaiting her attention. The one that mattered the most to her was from her 18-year-old granddaughter and it read, “I have never been more proud of you.”
The reason was a commentary penned by Carlson Nelson and published Jan. 14 in the Star Tribune. In it, she outlined her opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage in Minnesota from her perspective both as a civic and corporate leader and, as she disclosed near the end of the piece, the mother of a lesbian.
“Fairness, righteousness and equality are strong arguments for voting against this amendment,” she wrote. “Like many, I was taught to do unto others — to love thy neighbor (not just some neighbors) — and I was also taught that everyone has inalienable rights, the pursuit of happiness being one.
“But there is also a compelling economic case. As a CEO, I can say with certainty that to constitutionally mandate discrimination is bad for business and bad for the economic opportunities of all Minnesotans.”
The state’s largest employers understand the value of inclusivity, she added. They will be hard-pressed to stay competitive if top talent perceives the state as hostile.
From there, she described the personal sense of loss she would feel if the constitutional amendment were enacted:
“I see myself at the dock waving goodbye to a ship filled with friends, family and colleagues — all of whom happen to be gay. People who through a lifetime of ups and downs have laughed with me, supported me and enriched me.
“I wave goodbye to the hundreds of highly talented employees who have helped make Carlson a globally competitive and respected company. And, most painful of all, I wave goodbye to my daughter.”
The commentary quickly went viral, clogging the Twittersphere by breakfast time and drawing Internet traffic from a wide variety of sites that reposted links. On Jan 17, the Star Tribune published a short note saying it had received an extraordinary amount of mail about the piece and two other marriage-amendment op-eds that ran with it.
In an interview Monday, Carlson Nelson said the feedback she personally has received, including that mound of letters, has been entirely positive.
“What has been heart-rending to me is the number of people who have written to say they have an uncle or a parent or a son or someone who lived in the shadows and was disenfranchised,” she said. “I was surprised how many people in our community have experienced in a dramatic, negative way the exclusion of a loved one, relative or friend.”
Not the first time she’s spoken out
Carlson Nelson is the first Fortune 500 executive in Minnesota to address the marriage amendment (RBC Wealth Management CEO John Taft wrote a June Star Tribune op-ed opposing the measure), but it’s hardly the first time Carlson Nelson has spoken out on a controversial issue.
A decade ago, she took a strong stance against human trafficking, committing the company where she was CEO, a leading international power in the hospitality industry, to a global code of conduct http://www.thecode.org/ protecting children from sexual exploitation.
And then in 2008 she published a book, “How We Lead Matters: Reflections on a Life of Leadership.”
“I’ve spent the three years since then speaking around the country about the importance of speaking out when we feel there is injustice or speaking up as employees when we see things that we don’t feel are in full integrity,” she said.
“I heard about this proposal to put into our constitution something that would exclude a group for all time and I heard my own voice saying, ‘I have to speak out.’ ”
‘I think business has already voted’
Did Carlson Nelson see speaking on such a contentious topic as risky for the chair of a multinational corporation with customers who could potentially go elsewhere?
“I think business has already voted,” she said. “Over 300 companies in Minnesota cover same-sex partner benefits. I can’t think of a Fortune 500 company that doesn’t. That says to me that we’ve known for a long time in the business community that we want to attract and retain the best talents without regard to their sexual orientation.”
Carlson Nelson did imagine she would hear from lots of people who disagreed with her.
“I appreciate that this is not easy for many people,” she said. “I grew up in Minnesota. I know Minnesotans. I know my neighbors. I worked with the United Way. I’ve found the community is one that would debate these issues and it won’t be easy.”
If anything, hearing the experiences people have related to her in letters makes Carlson Nelson even more confident Minnesotans are up for the challenge.
“This is a last, large, very important step in fulfilling our constitutional promise to ensure equal protection for all,” she said. “Any time one of us has our freedoms impinged upon, we all do. So this is very important.”