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What Penny Pritzker Will Do as Commerce Secretary

The Chicago billionaire tells how she’s approaching her new job as America’s top CEO.

Penny Pritzker
Photo: Bob Stefko

Last year, this billionaire businesswoman ranked No. 6 on our Power 100 based on the strength of her empire and her tireless enthusiasm for a wide range of civic causes. In June, she was sworn in as U.S. commerce secretary. She spoke to Chicago on January 17.

After you were sworn in as commerce secretary last summer, you took a listening tour of CEOs. What did you hear?

We travel a lot. I’ve met with almost 800 CEOs now! What’s nice is that the details change, but the issues are the same, whether I’m meeting with a semi-conductor manufacturer or a songwriter. They want trade agreements. Immigration reform. Investment in infrastructure. Skilled labor.

Which Chicagoans’ advice resonated?

I didn’t bring our listening tour here. Up until the day I was sworn in, business leaders here were calling and telling me what they thought. [Laughs.]

[Former U.S. commerce secretary] Bill Daley has been extraordinarily helpful to me, as has [former U.S. ambassador to Britain] Lou Susman. So have people like Byron Trott [No. 67], Rick Waddell [No. 53], [former UAL chairman] Glenn Tilton, Jim Crown [No. 55], and Sam Zell [No. 8]—I have relationships in the Chicago business community that cross the political spectrum.

You’ve spoken out about the need for more women in the senior levels of business. What advice would you offer?

If you want to end up leading a company, you need P and L responsibility. Even if it’s just a smaller division but you’re running it—you’ve got the bottom-line responsibility, you’ve got the hiring and the firing responsibilities—you’ve begun to develop all the capabilities necessary to be a CEO.

Your brothers, J.B. and Tony, have invested mightily in Chicago’s tech sector. Is their goal of making Chicago a Silicon Prairie a realistic one?

I really admire my brother J.B. [No. 3]. He has been an advocate for a very long time about developing the tech sector in Chicago, and he’s right: A city that does not invest in its innovation future is going to fall behind.

Are there enough qualified people to do that kind of work here?

We have the universities, and we have a phenomenal community college system here. And look— we’re a gritty people. All my compatriots from Washington are complaining, How could you live here? It’s so cold. We know how to do things here—we survived a long time, sometimes against the odds.

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