Illustrated collage of business leader Marilyn Carlson Nelson and Curt Carlson, her father.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson Leads Carlson School Transformation

Friday, April 5, 2024

By Steve Henneberry


$40M donor-funded project launches, with prominent business leader Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s lead gift earning a historic naming on the Carlson School building.


Thanks to visionary leadership, excellent faculty, and generous donors, the University of Minnesota’s business school has provided transformational education and experiences for future business leaders for more than 100 years. For a good chunk of those years, that impact has been accelerated by one family: the Carlsons. Such a transformation reflects the work of entrepreneur and family patriarch Curt Carlson, who turned his stamps business into a multinational, $8 billion travel, hospitality, and marketing conglomerate. His $25 million gift in 1986 established the Carlson School of Management, pushing the school forward in innumerable ways. 

Marilyn Carlson Nelson speaks at the Connecting Carlson launch event in December 2023.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson speaks at the Connecting Carlson launch event in December 2023.

His descendants have carried on his generous commitment through the continuous support of the Carlson Family Foundation and the Carlson Company itself. And now his daughter, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, retired CEO, has chosen to make the Connecting Carlson building project her legacy. She is looking forward to partnering with others to make the transformative dream a new reality. Across a career that stacks up against any business leader in state history, Carlson Nelson has stood up for herself, other women, and underserved populations. That’s what makes the Connecting Carlson building project much more than a reimagination. Inspired by the past, responsive to the present, and oriented toward the future, it will modernize core spaces within the school, bolstering world-class education and providing a competitive edge for students. The building will be named Marilyn Carlson Nelson Hall, becoming the first building on the University’s Twin Cities campus named for a female philanthropist—and one of the only flagship business school buildings in the country named solely for a female industry leader.

Successful business people can envision the future. They see a blank canvas and know how to fill it. Or, as Carlson School Professor Myles Shaver puts it, they can “get up on the balcony,” gaining perspective that defines the next move.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson was the CEO of Carlson Companies when she heard that last idea, as her executive team was earning a customized MBA in the early 2000s. She applied the concept throughout her career, leading not only the company but also many civic causes.

On a cold December evening in 2023, that history and Shaver’s apt description were front and center as Carlson Nelson stood on the second-floor balcony in the school’s flagship building. Overlooking an atrium filled with nearly 200 people, she described her vision of the future: “I see this space alive with activity and energy. ... This will no longer be a pass-through space; I see a destination space, a happening place where memories are made, and allegiance inspired.”

Carlson Nelson resonated with the vision of school leaders and her personal gift was the catalyst for launching the Connecting Carlson project that promises to remake the school, literally and figuratively. Joining her are 11 other individual, family, and foundation gifts that, combined, provide a strong foundation for this project.

Crowd gathered in the Carlson School atrium looking up at Dean Jaime Prenkert giving a speech on the second floor landing.
Faculty, staff, alumni, and friends filled the Carlson School atrium for the launch of the building project.
Carlson School leadership and Goldy Gopher posing before maroon and gold squares and balloons.
Goldy Gopher (from left) strikes a pose with Interim University President Jeff Ettinger, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Dean Jamie Prenkert, Professor and Dean Emerita Sri Zaheer, and Board of Advisors Chair Catherine Mathis at the launch event.

“I see a destination space, a happening place where memories are made, and allegiance inspired.”

Marilyn Carlson Nelson

Targeting Core Spaces

Blueprints for the Carlson School building were drawn in 1995. The world, and the school, have changed since then. The building, while well maintained, still faces challenges in meeting the business needs of today. “We simply can’t expect our renowned faculty to do the job of teaching and innovating for tomorrow’s connected world in yesterday’s 27-year-old spaces; an analog space in an AI world,” says Carlson Nelson.

A rendering of the atrium looking east in the Connecting Carlson project.
A view of the atrium, from the ground floor, looking east, showing new collaboration spaces, large media wall, and the staircase moved for even more room.

The project targets core spaces to promote greater student collaboration, elevate experiential learning opportunities, strengthen a sense of belonging, and enhance connections with the greater business community.

“Learning, collaboration, and community spaces matter. A lot. And we’re adding many more of them with this project,” shares Dean Jamie Prenkert. “Connecting Carlson ensures that we remain competitive as a top business school by elevating and enhancing those critical connections.”

Prenkert is completing a project that began during Professor and Dean Emerita Sri Zaheer’s tenure. It was sidelined when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After updating its scope to reflect current needs, there was one element missing: a lead donor. Carlson Nelson stepped up.


A rendering of the updated auditorium for the Connecting Carlson project.
A renovated auditorium has more capacity, better lighting, and new technology.

‘A Beacon For Women and Girls’

One of the most prominent and accomplished business executives in Minnesota history, Carlson Nelson joined the family business in 1968, beginning a run of success that continues today. That included doubling the company’s systemwide revenues while CEO, navigating a host of industry changes, and helping bring two Super Bowls to Minnesota.

Considering when she made her mark, her achievements are all the more impressive. “I discovered the challenge of being the only woman on corporate boards and trying to contribute and succeed as part of a marginalized community,” she explained. “That was nearly 60 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday, and that experience informs my work here at Carlson to attract more women to see business as a positive way to make a difference.”

That meaning isn’t lost on current Carlson School faculty and staff. In a LinkedIn post, Professor Pinar Karaca-Mandic said, “As a woman academic, a professor in business, economics, and finance, how happy, how proud, and how welcome it makes me to be walking to my workplace, especially now that our building will be named the Marilyn Carlson Nelson Hall!”

It’s the first time in the 160-year history of the University of Minnesota that a female name will grace a campus building because of an individual philanthropic gift. That history-making aspect isn’t lost on its benefactor: “It is my fervent hope that seeing my name on this flagship Carlson School building will attract and inspire more young women to seek business leadership as their opportunity to be a force for good.”


By The Numbers


sq. ft. being transformed


sq. ft. of new student collaboration space


new breakout and single study rooms


integrated suite for experiential learning


Thank you to these generous donors for their leadership commitments to the Connecting Carlson project.

  • Marilyn Carlson Nelson
  • John & Annette Whaley
  • The Glaser Family Foundation
  • Norm & Conni Bjornnes
  • Brian Gerhardson & John Shade
  • Doug & Peg Schmalz
  • George Reiling
  • David & Shirley Hubers Family
  • Craig & Jessica Schmidt
  • Jody Gunderson
  • John W. Mooty Foundation

Interested in making a gift?

Contact Jess Kowal, assistant dean for Institutional Advancement, at

Spring 2024 alumni magazine cover

This article appeared in the Spring 2024 alumni magazine

See how Carlson School community members are pushing boundaries and elevating business and education.

Spring 2024 table of contents