International Citizen Award Honorees
Marilyn Carlson Nelson

International Citizen Award Honorees

This year’s International Citizen Award honorees have championed global business growth, innovation, and philanthropy.

Each year, the Minneapolis-based International Leadership Institute honors Minnesotans who have significantly strengthened global interchange and understanding. This year, the list includes a corporate leader respected around the world, a health care innovator, and a Minnesota company addressing the global water crisis.

The International Citizen Awards were established 19 years ago by then-Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser. Today, the program is spearheaded by International Leadership Institute founder and retired Hennepin County judge LaJune Lange. Nominations come from the Minnesota business community and awards are given in three categories: 

• Minnesotans born in the United States are eligible for the International Citizen Award; 

• foreign-born Minnesotans may receive the International Immigrant Achievement Award; 

• and the International Corporate Award celebrates a local company’s achievements on the world stage.


Marilyn Carlson Nelson

Chair, Carlson

International Citizen Award

Nelson had to win the confidence of her father, founder Curt Carlson, by working in several roles at Carlson Companies before she made it onto the board of directors in 1990. She knew as she moved into corporate leadership that for the Minnetonka-based hospitality and travel company to be resilient, it had to become more global. 

She engineered a 1994 merger with Paris-based Wagonlit Travel, extending Carlson’s reach to 140 countries. The same year, she signed on Scandinavian Air Services (SAS) as a partner to grow the Radisson hotel brand outside of the United States. Carlson became one of the first U.S. hospitality companies to expand substantially in Russia and India. Today, Carlson has about 2,000 hotels and restaurants across the globe. It plans to add at least 500 more by 2015. 

“While European growth was slowing, Asia was growing fast, and we saw that market as key to the future,” Nelson says.

She became CEO of Carlson in 1998, a position she would hold for the next 10 years. In that time, the company’s annual system-wide sales increased from $22 billion to nearly $40 billion. Nelson also transformed the corporate culture, encouraging greater gender and ethnic diversity. 

“When my father was CEO, the leadership team here was all male, and everyone was American,” Nelson recalls. “Today, women compose 48 percent of our executives, and our elevators feel more like the United Nations’, and I find that extremely exciting. I think our diversity is enhancing our ability to compete in the 21st century.”

Under her leadership, Carlson invested in the infrastructure of poor regions as it built hotels in South Africa, Tunisia, and Nigeria. Jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities for residents followed.

Nelson’s global outreach hasn’t been limited to business development. In 1999, with her guidance, Carlson cofounded the World Childhood Foundation with Queen Silvia of Sweden, and remains active in its work. The foundation funds programs that support better living conditions and protection from sexual exploitation for homeless children.

Nelson also is a member of the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council, which is made up of CEOs of some of the world’s biggest corporations. The council works on globally relevant business issues, such as the need to conserve and protect water resources.

Reatha Clark King, former president and board chair of the General Mills Foundation, nominated Nelson for the International Citizen Award. “Marilyn is a global person across economic, social, and cultural issues, improving communities and our economy,” King says. “[The fact that] she has been a longtime participant at the World Economic Forum shows the respect leaders in other countries have for her.”


Nazie Eftekhari

Founder, CEO, The Araz Group

International Immigrant Achievement Award

Nazie Eftekhari came to the Twin Cities in 1978 as part of an initiative of the government of Iran, where she was born. Her plan was to earn a master’s degree in health care management from the University of Minnesota, then return home to help the government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi set up a universal health plan for Iranians. 

Two weeks after she left Iran, Pahlavi’s regime was overthrown by a fundamentalist revolution. Eftekhari never went back. Instead, upon graduating, she accepted an internship at Fairview Health Services, where she was later hired as an administrator. 

In 1982, together with Fairview colleague Stephen Gregg, Eftekhari cofounded Family Health Plan, the nation’s first preferred provider organization (PPO). She signed up Dayton-Hudson Corporation as one of their first major clients. PPOs, which have sprung up around the country since, are managed networks of health care providers with whom insurers and third-party administrators can negotiate discounted rates for their clients. 

Eftekhari eventually bought out Gregg’s stake and renamed the company the Araz Group, an umbrella with three businesses underneath it: America’s PPO, America’s IME (independent medical evaluation services), and HealthEZ, which manages benefits programs for employers. Bloomington-based Araz Group has continued to develop innovative services, saying it’s the first to consolidate insurance and consumer payments to doctors and hospitals, the first to offer paperless statements, and the first to allow consumers to pay multiple unrelated providers through a single Web portal. It now has 100 employees, and its clients include Life Time Fitness and Sun Country Airlines. 

In 1991, Eftekhari started a nonprofit organization that provides life-saving surgeries and treatments to Iranian children. Each year, the Foundation for the Children of Iran brings up to three children to the United States for medical care.

“I was literally the poster child of the American dream, and yet I was doing nothing for Iran, which bothered me,” Eftekhari says. “So I got together with a cousin and started [this] small effort. Now, almost 20 years later, we have treated dozens and dozens of children with really complex conditions.” 



International Corporate Award

According to World Health Organization estimates, 5.5 billion people will live in areas facing moderate to severe water stress by 2025. Pentair, Inc., based in Golden Valley, knows that social and economic development will depend on addressing the world’s developing water crisis. 

Pentair’s technology helps people tap into new water resources—seawater, and ground and surface water. Approximately 70 percent of the company’s business is derived from its water group, which manufactures water treatment products. Pentair also manufactures enclosures for cooling electrical and electronic equipment. The company, started in 1966, now has 14,000 employees, operates in more than 40 countries, and generates annual revenues of more than $3 billion. 

“What caught my attention is the work that they are doing in developing nations,” says Paschal Nwokocha, a Minneapolis attorney who nominated Pentair for this award. “You have these communities that have very limited access to safe drinking water, and the company comes in and focuses not just on water, but on making lives better for those people.”

In water purification projects in India and Bangladesh, for example, Pentair’s research and development team works to reduce the energy required for water filtration and desalination. This makes safe water available at minimal cost to people in these countries, who also get education about preventing water-borne illnesses.

In 2006, Pentair launched Project Safewater in Honduras, where about two-thirds of people live in poverty and one-third lack access to safe water. To date, the company has invested $4.7 million to install filtration systems and sanitation facilities there, improving access to water for more than 200,000 people.

Pentair’s products are often deployed in recovery efforts after natural disasters. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Pentair donated $200,000 to fund portable water treatment systems and related supplies. According to Pentair’s Betsy Day, that equipment provided drinking water to approximately 100,000 people each day. In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2005, Pentair employees volunteered to install the company’s products in some of the worst affected areas. 

“As a global company, we are committed to remaining active with our international efforts to drive awareness and sustainability,” Day says. “Pentair is helping to improve lives every day.”