NACC leader honored with Nora Award
The prestigious award, named for Ibsen’s Nora, honors strong Norwegian women, and Inger Tallaksen, recently retired head of the NACC, has become its third recipient
The Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce bestows the Nora Award to “an outstanding Norwegian woman in recognition of her strength and character … who has made significant contributions to the betterment of society in the United States, Norway and the world at large.” It is named for the strong woman character in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In 2015, actress and humanitarian Liv Ullman received it, as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of NACC. The only previous recipient had been H.M. Queen Sonja, with the inaugural presentation in 2013, on the 100th anniversary of women being granted the right to vote in Norway.
On June 6, Inger Tallaksen joined that august company, receiving the Nora Award for her 37 years with NACC, the last 30 as General Manager. The event drew 110 people to the Scandinavia House in New York. W. Cameron Beard, Chairman, NACC Program Committee, introduced the award, and Giacomo Landi, NACC National President, presented it. Other speakers included Elin Bergithe Rognlie, New York Consul General; Steven Peri, Past President, NACC, and Chairman, American Scandinavian Foundation; Rolf Stang, Distinguished Member of the American Scandinavian community; Hege Barnes, Director, Innovation Norway, New York; and Rev. Øyvind Kvarstein, Pastor, Norwegian Seamen’s Church.
“It was very humbling,” Tallaksen said. “I did not expect the board would honor me with the award. It was a wonderful event. People were generous with their remarks. People knew each other so it was a congenial atmosphere.”
Tallaksen’s story is one of those “up the ranks” tales. Rewind over 50 years ago, to the little girl in Kristiansand, on the southern coast of Norway, who cast an eye toward America, her vision informed by Hollywood movies. At 14, she snuck into the movie houses to see the latest American films. The school children would stand on the docks waving flags and marching bands would play, as the huge ocean liners made a call at Kristiansand. Would she ever ride on one of those liners to America?
“Kristiansand was a very quiet small town,” she said. “I had a sister and my father was an engineer with a governmental entity. It was an epiphany growing up in Norway, but I was focused on this country.”
In 1967, at age 20, Tallaksen boarded the SS Bergensfjord for New York. “I was coming for a visit with relatives for six months to a year,” she said. “I had no intention of staying.”
Her first networking connection came on the ship, when she met a trainee who was to work for the Trade Council of Norway (Eksportrådet). He got Tallaksen a job there. The Trade Council, NACC, Norsk Hydro, Borregaard, Elkem, and Norwegian Information Service all occupied space at 290 Madison Avenue, which became known as “Norway House.”
Shipping company Øivind Lorentzen Rederi was looking for a secretary for its New York office. “Since shipping and the ocean always had been in my blood, I decided to apply,” she said. “I was hired. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted. I am forever grateful for the opportunities the Lorentzen family gave me.”
Through their sponsorship, Tallaksen earned a BBS degree from Pace University and a management degree from the New York University School of Continuing Education. At the company, she would eventually head human resources and serve as secretary to the family board.
Another “networking” relationship occurred shortly after she arrived in New York, when she was introduced to Carl Tallaksen. He was from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but his parents were from Kristiansand! They were married, but Carl died in 2006.
After the Lorentzens closed the New York office in the late 1970s, Tallaksen was ready for a new challenge. She tried working at Pepsi Cola but missed the Norwegian-American business community. Sophie Jarnes was retiring after 30 years as secretary for NACC, and Tallaksen replaced her. On July 1, 1980, she became Assistant General Manager. In 1987, she was appointed General Manager.
Tallaksen’s first assignment was to help with arrangements for a luncheon for a delegation of Norwegian ship owners. The delegation included (then) H.R.H. Crown Prince Harald as honored guest, and the site was the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
NACC events often featured government and industry leaders from Norway as speakers. Attending such events was a great way to learn what was happing back home. “This was a time when the telex machine was the main form of speedy business communication,” she said.
At the time she joined NACC as Assistant GM, there were six chapters in addition to the New York-based headquarters: Chicago, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston. New Orleans and Miami joined in 1983.
Washington, D.C., established a chapter in 2002 and Philadelphia in 2013. New Orleans and San Francisco recently had to disband.
The main events now are the annual awards dinner, the shipping conference with Hellenic American Chamber, now in its 24th year, and Julebord. In collaboration with Innovation Norway, NACC presents programs targeted toward entrepreneurs and young people starting a business. The Norwegian-American Achievement, Norwegian-American Trade, and Nora Awards were established while Tallaksen was GM.
The highlight of her career came in 1996 when H.M. King Harald V of Norway appointed her to Knight, First-Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit.
“I was proud,” she said. “I had a private audience with the King in the palace. I was in awe. I had to pinch my arm to see if I was there. I was pleasantly surprised to see a crystal American eagle on his desk, that we (NACC) had given him in the 1980s.”
In 2009, Tallaksen received the Norwegian Ambassador’s Award for “promoting modern Norway and the United States and her dedication to strengthening the ties between Norway and the U.S.”
NACC has enjoyed a long-time relationship with the royal family. When the office reopened, after having been closed for some years during the war, it was with (then) H.R.H. Crown Olav in attendance. For NACC’s 50th anniversary on October 1965, then H.R.H. Crown Prince Harald spoke, and then H.M. King Olav was the featured speaker at a later event in Oslo. For the 75th Anniversary in May 1990, NACC invited American members to Norway for a ball in the presence of (then) Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Harald and Crown Princess Sonja. At the 100th anniversary in October 2015, Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit were present.
“It started before my time,” said Tallaksen. “King Olav had traveled here many times and had lots of friends in this community. King Harald says he’s practically American because he went to school in Washington during the war. Olav and King Haakon went to England, but Olav’s wife (Princess Martha) and the children (Crown Prince Harald, Princess Ragnhild, and Princess Astrid) went to D.C. This fondness has made it easier to reach them for events, and we make sure they have an invitation here when they plan an official visit.”
Princess Ragnhild would later marry Øivind Lorentzen Rederi’s son, Erling.
Tallaksen has stewarded the organization in adapting to dramatic societal changes. NACC is no longer only dominated by the shipping, maritime, and oil and gas industries. New industries are coming in, including start-ups, mainly in the technical field, which is beneficial for the newer chapters. There are over 500 members of NACC working in banking, finance, maritime, fisheries, arts, music, and architecture, with the largest group of members being Norwegian subsidiaries or companies owned by Norwegians. More small businesses and sole proprietors in service industries are joining, wanting to do business with Norwegians. Second-generation Norwegian Americans, who have lived in America their entire lives, may not know Norwegian. Further, the advancements in communications and technology don’t necessitate a business being located in a specific city or attending an event.
“I’m proud of keeping the organization thriving in a very changing environment and reaching out to new businesses coming into the United States,” said Tallaksen. “Other Norwegian organizations, such as Innovation Norway and the Embassy, have similar purposes promoting Norwegian-American businesses. Some promote culture; some promote business. The two goals go hand in hand. We promote business through promoting culture, to reach people.
“The most dramatic change has been in the way we communicate, get information and news. We as an organization had to adapt. I read a Norwegian newspaper, but lots of members don’t speak Norwegian. We provide news of Norway in English. We used to have a magazine but we had to discontinue it.”
The challenges facing the next General Manager?
“We have to expand our membership base because we have so many small entities coming in,” said Tallaksen. “The new generation businesses coming from Norway are mainly small start ups and we need to provide services aimed at this group, which are rather different from the kind of members’ benefits expected by the larger organizations. When I started, every Norwegian company had to be in New York. That’s not the case any more. People can go anywhere and do their business. That makes it harder to retain and to grow memberships.”
One development she is pleased about is the strength of the Young Associates. “They have a position on the board,” said Tallaksen. “Over the last 10 years, there have been enthusiastic leaders. Other chapters have Young Associates.”
Regardless of what changes lie ahead, Tallaksen insists there is one that should never change: the need to network. “Some people don’t think we need events,” said Tallaksen. “The internet is great communication and learning tool, but it cannot replace going and meeting as many people as possible and establishing business relationships. They [NACC chapters] should continue to do networking events. The most important aspect for me has been the fantastic people I have met. The business community has amazing and dedicated people.”
What lies ahead for her? She will continue as chair of the board of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church and serve as a trustee of the board of the American Scandinavian Foundation, and a member of the American Scandinavian Society and Vesterheim Museum, while still circulating in NACC.
First, she was heading to Norway. On a liner?
“There’s no time for a ship. I don’t think you can take a ship from New York to Norway now. I’ll be on SAS. This is a short visit.”
The last time she thought there was going to be a “short visit…”
This time she’ll come home.
This article originally appeared in the June 30, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617. This article has been updated to correct a few factual errors.