Penny Pritzker is a Jewish American billionaire businesswoman, entrepreneur, and civic leader. President Barack Obama nominated Pritzker as United States Secretary of Commerce.
Pritzker spent her early career in business. She worked her way up through the Pritzker family business, eventually being appointed as one of three successors to her uncle, Jay Pritzker. She is the founder of PSP Capital Partners and Pritzker Realty Group. She is also co-founder of Artemis Real Estate Partners. As of October 2015 Forbes estimated her net worth at US $2.4 billion. In 2009 Forbes named Pritzker one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.
Pritzker was born in Chicago in 1959, the daughter of Sue (née Sandel) and Donald N. Pritzker. Pritzker is a member of the Pritzker family of Chicago, a wealthy and influential business family. Donald Pritzker was one of the co-founders of Hyatt Hotels. Don moved the family to Palo Alto, California, where business for the Hyatt Hotels began to grow. Penny has two younger brothers, Tony (born 1961) and J.B. (born 1965).
Young Penny would accompany her father to the hotels and check the cleanliness of the ladies restrooms. In 1972 Don died suddenly of a heart attack when Penny was 13 years old. Following Don's death, Sue began battling depression, requiring Penny to at times care for her mother and her younger brothers. At 16, Penny wrote a letter to her grandfather, and head of the family business empire, A. N. Pritzker, in which she asked why he talked business with the men in the family and not with her. Finally realizing Penny's interest in business, A.N. provided her with a summer course in accounting.
Penny attended Castilleja School until 1977. She earned an AB in Economics from Harvard College in 1981. The following year, Penny's mother died after falling out of the passenger side of a tow truck. Penny returned to school, earning both a JD and an MBA from Stanford University in 1985.
Encouraged by her cousin Nick Pritzker, Penny joined the Pritzker organization after she earned her degrees. A few years later, in 1987, she founded Classic Residence by Hyatt, later renamed Vi, upscale housing for seniors as an alternative to nursing homes. The project struggled at first, losing $40 million in the first 18 months. The venture turned around after changes in marketing and management. Jay Pritzker, Penny's uncle and the head of the Pritzker family businesses, named Penny as the director of the Pritzkers' non-hotel landholdings in 1991. With that appointment, Penny created the Pritzker Realty Group, an entity that developed apartment buildings, shopping centers, and the Baldwin Park neighborhood in Orlando, Florida.
The retirement of Jay Pritizker in 1995 left an opening at the helm of the Pritzker businesses. He named three successors: his son Tom, his cousin Nick, and Penny. Tom was named the official head of the businesses, with Nick and Penny each named vice-chairman. Jay's death in 1999 preceded multiple lawsuits from other Pritzker family members challenging Tom, Nick, and Penny's control of the businesses. Penny's brothers joined in one of the lawsuits. In 2001 Tom, Nick, and Penny decided to sell family assets to allow eleven cousins to receive a share, dissolving the family's business ties. Disentangling the family's business interests took nearly a decade.
Penny served as non-executive chairman of TransUnion starting in 2005. In 2009 she co-founded Artemis Real Estate Partners LLC, a real estate investment management company, with Deborah Harmon. In 2011 she founded an investment office, PSP Capital Partners. Altogether, Pritzker started five companies before joining the federal government.
Government and Political Involvement
Pritzker's friendship with Barack Obama and his family dates back to the 1990s when he was a professor at the University of Chicago. Pritzker met Obama at a Chicago YMCA where her son participated in a basketball program coached by Obama's brother-in-law Craig Robinson. Obama and his family were frequent guests at Pritzker's Lake Michigan vacation home.
Pritzker was an early supporter of Obama's political career, helping to finance his 2004 Senate campaign. Early in the democratic presidential primary, Pritzker's financing helped Obama's candidacy survive when Obama was trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls. Pritzker remained a major fundraiser for Obama during the 2008 democratic primary and raised millions overall for his White House bid. She served as the national finance chair of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Under her direction, the campaign reached out to small donors. Pritzker also hosted more lavish fundraisers as part of her effort to raise money.
Following Obama's victory in the 2008 presidential election, CNN reported Pritzker was president-elect Obama's top choice for Commerce Secretary. However, Pritzker took herself out of the running. According to the Chicago Tribune, she withdrew her name from consideration "due to obligations to her family, for whom she was still overseeing billions in assets, and the financial crisis, which was putting some of those assets at risk". As a result of her public support for President Obama, Pritzker found herself the target of labor groups for Hayatt Hotels' practices. The president of Unite Here cited her connection to Obama as a reason why the group expected her to use better labor practices as the group staged demonstrations against Pritzker.
Pritzker was a member of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. She also served on the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Although she was less active in the 2012 Obama campaign than she had been four years prior, she served as national co-chair of Obama for America 2012. She was also on the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank focused on world affairs and U.S. foreign policy.
Pritzker was nominated as United States Secretary of Commerce by President Barack Obama on May 2, 2013. To avoid conflicts of interest, Pritzker agreed to sell her interest in at least 221 companies and resign from 158 entities, including the Hyatt Board of Directors and the Chicago Board of Education. Pritzker was confirmed by the full Senate on June 25, 2013, by a vote of 97 to 1, and was sworn in as Secretary of Commerce the following day.
Among Pritzker's priorities was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade agreement that would have been the "largest regional trade agreement in history". Pritzker supported the TPP as a way to provide market access to U.S. businesses and as a way for the U.S. to set the standards for trade. Pritzker named a Digital Economy Board of Advisors, which included tech industry CEOs and academics, to advise on policy. Pritzker also expanded the IP attache program, which helps the tech industry protect their intellectual property abroad. As secretary, Pritzker also created the Commerce Data Advisory Council to identify priorities for the Department of Commerce, a prolific publisher of data intended to allow businesses to plan and innovate. Pritzker served as the lead negotiator for the United States in the E.U.–U.S. Privacy Shield, an agreement governing how companies transfer digital data from Europe to the United States.
Following her tenure as Secretary, Pritzker returned to PSP Capital Partners and the private sector.