For Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the fight against child sexual trafficking has gone way beyond traditional CSR initiatives. This is a moral imperative, not a competitive advantage, she says.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson
Co - CEO
Carlson Holdings
“Cross-sector engagement is the only way to disrupt an injustice of this magnitude.”

It took some courage. The CEO and Chairman of the travel and hospitality giant Carlson was facing 2,000 of the company’s most important stakeholders and was about to tell them that Carlson was taking a stand against child sex trafficking.

“We had employees, owners and suppliers in that room. I was basically asking my entire stakeholder population to become 21st century abolitionists,” she recalls with a laugh.

“You know they were just getting used to the fact that they had a female CEO, and now I was ending an otherwise joyous meeting by bringing everyone down to earth with a discussion about children being forced to have sex in hotels,” she says.

Her decision to take action against the sex trafficking of children was greeted first with a long silence and then with standing applause. In the following weeks and months, she received numerous e-mails from employees expressing how proud they were of their company’s leadership, and managers and owners across the system began enrolling their employees in Carlson-developed training programmes on how to react to suspected child trafficking.

That was in 2004. Five years earlier, Carlson Nelson first became involved in the issue when the company became a co-founder of the World Childhood Foundation initiated by Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden. And in doing so, she eventually became aware of the preventive role that the travel and hospitality business can play in protecting children at risk.

“The travel and hospitality industry is an environment in which the sexual trafficking of children plays out, and everyone in our industry could be complicit without any intention to be,” she says.

At first, the involvement was via the Carlson Family Foundation, but it quickly took root in the business too via training programmes, zero-tolerance supplier and employee policies on the sexual exploitation of children and the dissemination of information on the issue to travellers. Many companies would perhaps stop there and feel they had done a pretty good job. Carlson did not.

It quickly became clear that the national hotline number for hotel staff who suspected acts of child sexual trafficking did not work. Carlson Nelson tried it herself, but gave up after being put on hold for 20 minutes. She voiced her concern to the authorities. Not long after, a new hotline partner was found that did not just answer the phone promptly, but did so in multiple languages, tracked statistics state by state and then leveraged the data to engage in advocacy to strengthen  anti-trafficking statutes across the US.

Carlson would go on to support an initiative to partner with governments around the globe to establish similar hotlines and share trafficking data across borders. After that, Carlson moved on to support legislation proper, helping to get safe harbour
laws passed in several US states. Just the day before this interview, a piece of what Carlson Nelson calls “next generation” legislation was passed in Washington after coordinated pressure from, among others, Carlson and the NGO Human Rights
First. This particular bill focused on giving law enforcement more authority in the fight against human trafficking.

This synergistic collaboration between a company and its foundation has put significant pressure on the US and the international travel industry to adopt the same standards as Carlson. “This is a moral imperative, not a competitive advantage,” as Carlson Nelson puts it. Carlson has also encouraged the financial community to be involved in the fight against human trafficking. “It’s the second-largest underground activity and in many cases, it can be traced,” she adds. The Carlson Family Foundation and Carlson have funded the training of law enforcement, helped to underwrite the production of a world-acclaimed documentary on the topic and supported local, national and global initiatives. They have also helped to expand the fight outside the travel industry by being a founding member of the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking, partnering with major corporations such as Ford, Coca-Cola, Manpower and Microsoft.

Carlson Nelson calls it a multipronged response to corporate citizenship. “It’s the recognition,” she says, “that first, you can integrate philanthropic initiatives with corporate platforms to create greater impact and second, that you still cannot do it
alone. Cross-sector engagement is the only way to disrupt an injustice of this magnitude.

“At every turn, it’s a collaboration. Businesses cannot do everything, governments cannot do everything and nonprofits cannot do everything. We must partner,” says Carlson Nelson, “and it’s very important that each of us plays our own role and brings to these partnerships the capabilities that we can best offer.”


If there is one thing that can really make people in power uncomfortable, it is knowing that their peers are doing better than they are. Marilyn Carlson Nelson remembers a discussion at the World Economic Forum about a ranking of countries based on women’s roles in society: political participation, employment, ownership of property, education, etc.

“There was also a list of how the countries were doing. I learned first-hand, sitting in a circle of country leaders, that nobody wants to be at the bottom of those lists,” she says and suggests that rankings can be used to motivate stronger action on corporate responsibility in the coming years.

“Those lists absolutely motivate the competitive nature of government leaders and corporate leaders at every level.”