Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker ’85 talks careers, future of business

Oct. 26, 2016, 1:00 a.m.

On Tuesday evening, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker M.B.A. ’85 J.D. ’85 discussed her career in the context of mid-life transitions. Pritzker was the Distinguished Careers Institute’s (DCI) annual fall speaker and received the organization’s inaugural Life Journey Inspiration Award.

Pritzker described her own “life journey,” discussed the future of the economy and the workforce in the face of historic demographic shifts and gave advice based on her own preparations to return to the private sector after the next president is inaugurated.

(MICHAEL SPENCER/The Stanford Daily)
(MICHAEL SPENCER/The Stanford Daily)

The Distinguished Careers Institute, a three-year-old program founded by former School of Medicine Dean Philip Pizzo, brings small groups of mid-career individuals to Stanford to reorient their careers toward social impact. According to Pizzo, Secretary Pritzker — the 38th Secretary of Commerce and fifth female Secretary of Commerce — is the perfect recipient for the institute’s new award because she embodies the three tenets of the DCI: purpose, community building and wellness.

“I think it was very inspirational, and I think that [Pritzker’s] story is unique on so many levels, both as this business leader and as a public servant while also being a female through this whole thing,” audience member and DCI 2016 fellow Michael Levinthal ’76 said.

Pritzker’s career

Pritzker spent 27 years in the private sector founding companies while simultaneously building entrepreneurship communities, Pizzo said. Fulfilling the Institute’s third “wellness” tenet, Pritzker also made time to compete in the Ironman Triathlon and run or work out every day.

Pritzker grew up in a wealthy Chicago family known for owning the Hyatt hotel chain. Living in an environment of businessmen and, more importantly, businesswomen, Pritzker decided from a young age that she would be a business builder.

“I grew up in a household where the dinner table conversation between my mom and dad was about business challenges and business opportunities,” Pritzker said.

After graduating Stanford with an MBA and JD, Pritzker went into entrepreneurship in Chicago, where she noticed an atmosphere of male domination.

“Women were secretaries but not Secretaries of Commerce,” Pritzker said.

She became good friends with President Obama through Michelle Obama’s brother, a fellow parent of her son’s basketball team. Obama asked for Pritzker’s support when he ran for a Senate seat and then asked her to be his presidential campaign’s National Finance Chair two years later.

Obama asked Pritzker to be his Secretary of Commerce in 2013, expressing his hope that Pritzker would bring the voice of business into commerce legislation.

“The bar was low,” Pritzker joked about Obama’s expectations for Pritzker’s performance, noting that the job had been vacant for the past year.

Obama announced her nomination on her birthday May 2 and told her that her birthday present was Senate confirmation hearings.

“I met with the full spectrum from Senator [Jay] Rockefeller, this marvelous dean of the Senate, all the way down to Senator [Ted] Cruz,” Pritzker said. “I was confirmed 97 to one and I won’t tell you who the one was, but I will tell you that I felt the ‘Bern.’”

As for her upcoming career transition, Pritzker said that she is compartmentalizing her plan into buckets of decreasing importance. She will prioritize family, she said.

Having walked away from her entire business enterprise upon confirmation as Commerce Secretary, Pritzker plans to return to her family business. However, after four years in the Cabinet, she also wants to continue to offer her opinions on government, leadership and working. Her final goal is community service, though she is still deciding how she will engage in this priority.

“Once you become a cabinet secretary, you resign from everything [because everything is considered a potential conflict],” Pritzker said. “So, on January 20, I face nothing.”

The future of U.S. business

Asked how the country will deal with some of the biggest demographic shifts in its history as the workforce ages and diversifies racially, while also adapting to increasing digitization and technology innovation, Pritzker hypothesized that the vast majority of the workforce will need to retrain. The government will also need to evaluate whether the basic educational structure requires change, she said, adding that it is unclear what role the next administration will play in potential changes.

“We cannot overlook the knowledge that’s in this room, the accumulated wisdom about how to get things done, the dynamics of teams [and] the importance of network,” Pritzker said, referring to her audience of DCI fellows and senior members of the workforce.

Pritzker said the government cannot simply ignore the existing workforce and “put them out to pasture” to make room for new workers, as she put it.

She also refused to consider the idea that jobs will not exist in the future due to automation.

(MICHAEL SPENCER/The Stanford Daily)
(MICHAEL SPENCER/The Stanford Daily)

“I’m an optimist,” Pritzker said. “That’s my bias.”

Pritzker advocated bringing greater social consciousness to business leadership, explaining that senior members of the workforce should take advantage of their experience and act as coaches and explainers for younger generations. She also argued that building confidence among senior citizens is important for the economy. Finally, she called to diversify the workforce, saying that business leaders must evolve and offer more jobs to non-white men as the white, male demographic group shrinks.

“This is just smart, but you’ve got to be intentional, and if we as business leaders are intentional, then we’ll change our environment,” Pritzker said.


Contact Jonathan Seymour at seymourj ‘at’


An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Prtizker’s graduation year and degrees earned. While her social graduation year was 1984 as originally stated, Pritzker officially graduated in 1985 with both M.B.A. and J.D. degrees. The Daily regrets this error.

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