2010 Women of Influence: Mary Nelson
Saturday, July 31, 2010 7:00 AM
Mary Nelson's vision, generosity and willingness to serve have touched lives across the globe, from inner-city school children in Des Moines to people in a remote fishing village in India.
Nelson is vice president and co-owner of Kemin Industries Inc., which she and her husband, R.W. Nelson, founded in 1961. The Des Moines-based nutrition ingredient manufacturer has grown into a multinational operation with 1,100 employees, doing business in more than 60 countries.
As a lifelong community volunteer, Mary Nelson has tirelessly advocated for housing and education issues and the needs of women and children. She currently serves on the boards of Anawim Housing, Holy Family School, Living History Farms, the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines and Bankers Trust Co.
After graduating from what was then Iowa State College in Ames, Nelson worked briefly as a home economics teacher at Winterset High School and then as a social worker for Polk County. She served as the business manager of Kemin, then known as Chemical Industries Inc., for the company's first seven years. After a stint as a stay-at-home mom, she returned to Kemin in 1975 as vice president.
Nelson said she's proud of the vision and values that she and her husband have instilled at Kemin, particularly the opportunities it has created for women.
"We feel that women have been a very important part of the growth of the company," she said, noting that at least half of the research and development staff is made up of women, and a female heads one of the company's major business units.
At Kemin, Nelson has strived to create a caring corporate culture that reaches out to the disadvantaged and those in distress. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, she organized fund-raising efforts to assist those families. To help victims of a tsunami in India, she led a campaign through which employees raised $30,000, which her company matched to buy boats, motors and fishing equipment for a village that had lost all of its boats in the disaster. Nelson also coordinated Kemin's efforts to help a village in China to build a school, which was dedicated in September 2009.
Nelson's involvement in volunteer work for education has spanned decades, beginning at Sacred Heart School in the 1960s, where she organized volunteers to catalog the school's library books. Later, serving on Dowling High School's board of directors, she coordinated fund-raising and capital construction efforts to ensure the girls' sports programs and facilities were equal to the boys'. As a member of the Holy Family School board, she led a citywide fund-raising effort in 1992 that saved the school from closing due to financial reasons, and has remained involved on the school's board.
As a long-time volunteer for Anawim Housing, Nelson has actively assisted low-income families in finding decent, affordable housing.
"She has a wisdom that comes from having been in business the number of years that she has," said Sister Stella Neil, who retired as Anawim's executive director earlier this year. "She is a gracious lady; she is just a woman of integrity."
Nelson said she tries to inspire others, especially women, to serve.
"Whenever someone approaches me about serving on a board, I say I really don't really need any other boards, but I tell them there are other people in our company who would be good on boards."
Education: Iowa State College, bachelor of science degree with honors, home economics education, 1950
Family: Husband R.W. "Bud" Nelson; two sons, Chris and David; three daughters, Elizabeth, Janet and Molly
Hobbies: Fishing, knitting
Words to live by: If people are given the right tools to succeed, they will.