Born on May 2, 1959, Penny Pritzker earned a BA in economics from Harvard College in 1981 and a JD/MBA from Stanford University in 1984. She is a member of the wealthy and influential Pritzker family of Chicago. Her father, Donald Pritzker (born 1932), was chiefly responsible for the meteoric growth of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation. Today Ms. Pritzker is an owner of that same Hyatt hotel chain. She first established herself as a major entrepreneurial figure in 1987, when she founded Classic Residence by Hyatt (now called Vi), a leader in luxury dwellings for older adults.
In 1988, Pritzker’s family purchased from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation a 50% stake in a failing, Illinois-based savings-and-loan, and turned it into an institution called Superior Bank. Penny Pritzker, who in 1991 founded both Centergate Residential (a luxury home-and-apartment rental company) and the Pritzker Realty Group, served as chairwoman of Superior Bank from 1991-94; thereafter, she sat on the board of the bank’s holding company. In 1993 Superior became a leading lender in the subprime home mortgages market.
By May 2001, Superior Bank was on the verge of insolvency. To allay the fears of bank employees who worried that their jobs were in jeopardy, Ms. Pritzker wrote them all a letter pledging that her family would soon jump-start Superior with a large infusion of cash, and declaring that “our commitment to subprime lending has never been stronger.” But Pritzker’s promise was broken, and just two months later Superior shuttered its operations and was seized by the FDIC, which would ultimately trace the bank’s failure “directly … to bank management and the board of directors ignoring sound risk management principles and failing to adequately oversee Superior operations.” According to the Wall Street Journal, government investigators and consumer advocates alike condemned Superior’s “unsound financial activities and predatory lending practices.” In 2001 the Pritzkers agreed to pay the FDIC some $460 million over a 15-year period to cover claims by depositors. Nevertheless, more than 1,400 depositors whose savings accounts had accumulated more than $100,000—the maximum amount insured by the federal government—lost about $50 million collectively.
From 2004-11, Penny Pritzker served as board chair of the credit bureau TransUnion, LLC. In 2010 she co-founded Artemis Real Estate Partners, a real-estate investment management company. And two years after that, she established PSP Capital Partners, a private investment firm.
In 2008, Pritzker, who had been a friend of Barack Obama since the mid-1990s, became one of the Obama presidential campaign’s leading money bundlers, personally raising more than $200,000 for the senator’s White House bid. Pritzker also served as the Obama campaign’s national finance chair, a role in which she use her professional credentials and personal connections to persuade a host of wealthy bankers, business leaders, and political bundlers that the former radical community organizer was worthy of their support. All told, Pritzker oversaw the raising of more than $745 million for Obama’s campaign, plus another $53 million for the president’s 2009 inauguration. According to The New York Times: “Without Penny Pritzker, it is unlikely that Barack Obama ever would have been elected to the United States Senate or the presidency…. For most of 2007, Obama trailed Hillary Rodham Clinton in polls, and yet his candidacy survived in large part because of the money collected by Pritzker and her team.”
Soon after Obama was elected in 2008, he was widely expected to nominate Pritzker for the post of commerce secretary. But he ultimately decided otherwise—likely because the nation was in the throes of a severe financial crisis caused in large part by precisely the kind of reckless subprime lending in which the Pritzker family’s Superior Bank had been so heavily engaged. Instead, Obama appointed Pritzker to the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, and then to his Council for Jobs and Competitiveness.
In May 2011, Chicago mayor (and former Obama chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel named Pritzker to the Chicago Board of Education, where she served until March 2013.
When President Obama ran for re-election in 2012, Pritzker served as national co-chair of Obama for America (an affiliate of Organizing For America) and personally raised more than $500,000 for the campaign.
On May 2, 2013, Obama nominated Pritzker to serve as Secretary of Commerce. Upon receiving the nomination, Pritzker pledged to divest her financial portfolio of any investments that might represent potential conflicts of interest in her new position. In accordance with that promise, Pritzker, two days after her Senate confirmation in June 2013, transferred her interests in two companies that were incorporated in the tax haven of Bermuda — IAS Holdings Limited and Triton Container International Limited. Those interests were transferred to a limited liability company registered in Delaware which: (a) used the same mailing address as Pritzker’s private investment firm in Chicago, and (b) was owned by trusts for the benefit of her two children. Larry Noble, senior director and general counsel of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, noted that when a government employee is asked to divest assets to avoid potential conflicts, “the best divestiture is selling the assets to an unrelated third party.” “The problem is,” he added, “when people put assets that they’re supposed to divest into a trust for their children or close family members, a potential for conflict still exists because they’re still interested in how those assets do.”
During her tenure as Commerce Secretary, Pritzker was a major backer of President Obama’s effort to restore U.S. trade with Cuba.
In 2009 Forbes magazine ranked Pritzker as #82 in its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. In 2012 the Forbes 400 list showed Pritzker to be the 255th wealthiest person in the U.S., with a personal net worth estimated at $1.8 billion. On March 26, 2014, Elle honored Pritzker during its annual “Women in Washington Power List.”
In addition to her many other duties, Pritzker currently directs the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation which, from 2007-09, donated a total of $400,000 to Media Matters For America, an organization with extremely close ties to the Obama administration.
When her time as Commerce Secretary ended in January 2017, Pritzker returned to PSP and the private sector. She also joined the boards of Measure, a drone technology startup company, and Microsoft.
As of May 2019, Pritzker’s net worth was $2.7 billion.
For additional information on Penny Pritzker, click here.
Further Reading: “Penny Pritzker” (Jewish Virtual Library, Forbes.com, UpClosed.com, ); “Obama Fund-Raiser Knocks Down Cabinet Rumors” (NY Times, 11-20-2008); “Obama’s Commerce Pick Is Major Media Matters Funder” (WorldNet Daily, 2-7-2013); “Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker?” (by John Fund, 2-8-2013); “Penny Pritzker Resigns from the School Board” (Chicago Tribune, 3-14-2013); “The Fascinating Life of Penny Pritzker (So Far)” (Forbes.com, 6-2-2014); “Former Commerce Chief Pritzker Shifted [IAS & Triton] Assets to Kids’ Trust” (Chicago Tribune, 11-7-2017); “Obama Finance Chief [Pritzker] Funded Media Matters [with $400,000]” (WorldNet Daily, 2-20-2012).