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BACKGROUND CHECK: Meet Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker

(Photo courtesy of the Department of Commerce) (Photo courtesy of the Department of Commerce)

Penny Pritzker knows a thing or two about business. The family business of the third commerce secretary to be sworn in during President Obama’s tenure was a little chain of hotels you might have heard of: Hyatt.

She’s also founded a few companies of her own, including real-estate development and a capital-investment firms, and done some serious philanthropy.

Fresh off a “listening tour” and poised to release a strategic plan for her agency, the Chicago native opened up to the Loop about what private-sector expertise can bring to the government and about some of her less-known accomplishments (Sudoku chops and an Ironman trialthalon!).

If you were going to open a retail store or small business, what would it sell? 

Businesses have an incredibly positive impact on their community.  I would start something that allowed me to exercise my appreciation for design and architecture.

Which cabinet secretary would you most like to hang out with, and what would you do?

Chuck Hagel. He’s a great leader and I have such respect and admiration for our military. I have spent most of my career focused on economic issues, but our entire economic security is built on the national security that is protected by our brave armed forces.

What’s your favorite non-work-related Web site/blog/app/magazine?

My Sudoku app – I love it.

Fill in the blank: People would be surprised to know that …

Fitness is a family passion. My son just completed a Chicago marathon under three hours and my daughter rows crew on her college team.  Yes, I am a proud mom.  My husband, who is a triathlete and marathoner, has brought fitness to 16,000 Chicago public school children with an NGO he started called Chicago Run.  And I am a triathlete, having run multiple marathons and triathlons as well as the Hawaii Ironman.

What’s your dream job (other than your current gig)?

I stepped out of my dream job of building businesses to help our country and I am loving leading the Department of Commerce.

What motivated you to go into public service?

This country has been unbelievably good to my family.  I believe that “to whom much is given, much is expected,” and that it is incredibly important that leaders from the private sector play a leadership role in government. I am very honored to have this job helping American businesses grow and create jobs.  Public service is crucial to our country, and my hope is that out of the shutdown will come a better appreciation of the amazing public servants at the Department of Commerce and across government who serve everyday to make our country a better place.

Favorite TV show?

“House of Cards” and the [PBS] “NewsHour.”

Which character from that show do you most identify with?

Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill of course.  They are indeed women of powerful character!

What subject, other than your work, do you know the most about?

Building businesses first. And contemporary art, second.

What’s the best job you ever had (other than the current one)?

Mom to Don and Rose. My husband and I raised our children together, and it is the endeavor that makes us most proud.

Fill in the blank: I’m scared of _________________.

Not having our country make critically needed investments in infrastructure, education, and ensuring that every American has the skills to compete in the global economy.  Tackling these are the fastest way to create jobs and economic growth.

What’s one word you wish people would use to describe you?


You can draft one person in the private sector to come work for the federal government. Who would it be, and what would you have them do?

It is hard to pick just one as I’ve met with hundreds of terrific business leaders across America in my first few months in office. To name just a few, how about Ginny Rometty of IBM, Ursula Burns of Xerox or Chinwe Onyeagoro of O-H Community Partners?  They are all amazing talents, and we could let them do whatever they wanted — America would be lucky to have them serve.


Background Check is a Loop feature in which we grill various government types about their lives on and off the clock. Please send suggestions for future subjects to

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.



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