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Penny Pritzker

The billionaire former U.S. secretary of commerce, 60, on the duty of the rich and why she avoids caffeine

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

I grew up in a household where the mantra was, To whom much is given, much is expected. It sounds trite, but that was the ethos.

My great-grandfather came here from Ukraine with nothing. He learned English selling newspapers at age 9 on Maxwell Street. He grew up to become a pharmacist, then a lawyer. But he couldn’t get into any fancy law firms because he was Jewish. So he had his own little practice. He was not wealthy at all. But he and my great-grandmother started this thing called the Nickel Club, where once a week they’d set aside, with their friends, a nickel to help others. So it’s ingrained in who we are.

I hate that people know my net worth. That’s not how I want to be defined.

I lived in Washington, D.C., for three and a half years when I was in government. We hadn’t sold our house in Chicago, hadn’t moved our business. At the end of my term, it was like, Am I going to come back? At this stage of my life, I want to focus on big, interesting problems with people I like in a place that feels like home. Chicago’s home.

I lost my father at 13 and my mother at 23, and my mom wasn’t well during the period after my dad died. So it was time to grow up and take on responsibility. There just wasn’t a choice about that. It shaped me, for sure, and influenced how I spent my life with a sense of urgency.

I started my first company when I was 27. I had come up through a family organization that was all men, older than me, and it felt like, to make a place for myself, I had to create something so I could grow it and put my own signature on it. I really threw myself into it. I hate failing.

One of the biggest mistakes I made early in my career was that I wouldn’t let something go. I thought, I’m gonna fix it. If I give it enough energy, enough focus, enough this and that … And that’s not always true. It took me a while to learn that sometimes the best thing to do is just say, “This is a bad idea; let’s move on.”

There is a lot of gray and a lot of messy out there, so learning how to navigate in all of that is important. I’m really bad at the gray. I want to make everything organized and planful — that’s my nature. But I’m trying to embrace the messy.

My husband, Bryan, and I have been married almost 32 years. He’s a Renaissance man and a terrific judge of character. Plus, he’s funny and fun to be around. I tend to be too serious. Bryan brings out the inner youth in me.

“Intensity” is a funny word. I like “passion” better. I’m a passionate person. I have a lot of energy. As my husband would say, I don’t do relaxed well. That’s why no one gives me caffeinated coffee, because imagine me caffeinated. Don’t ever give me caffeine.

I’ve done a bunch of triathlons, a bunch of road races, and a handful of marathons. I am constantly training. I need to get up every day and do something athletic. It helps with my physical health and mental well-being. And it helps me to start the day on a good note.

My grandfather used to say, “Your reputation and education are all you’ve really got. The rest of it is ephemeral.”

I have been extraordinarily lucky, and I appreciate that as much as probably anyone on this earth. I think about the person who has nothing or who lives in a violent place or is a woman born in a country with no opportunity for education and who could easily be kidnapped or raped. Whatever my challenges are, they pale in comparison. The real question is, What are you doing with the opportunity you’ve been given?

The older I get, the less confident I am that I’ve got it all figured out.

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