News & Politics

What Made Me: Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker

Once an outsider in the family hotel empire, she talks about her rise and her turn to public life.

“The first thing you need if you want to work is a job.” Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

The inspiration: My father was this gregarious figure, very talented, who built Hyatt from one motel to a national presence. When I was growing up in California, I used to go on the weekends to my dad’s office. I saw how fun it was to build something. He and my mother were having this amazing experience. I was inspired to build companies.

Breaking in: My father passed away when I was 13, and I didn’t have a sponsor in the family. Eventually, my uncle Jay took me under his wing, but it was my cousin Nick who really welcomed me into the family enterprise, made it okay for me to be there. The first thing you need if you want to work is a job, and Nick gave me a job.

Building up: I wanted to work with my family. They are really cool people. But as a woman 30 years ago, even in a family business, it was easier to start from scratch. So I looked for what they call in retail “the white space,” where I wasn’t competing with family members but was adding value.

History knocks: When the Obama campaign asked me to be finance chair in 2008, I said, “I can’t quit my job. How would I meet your expectations?” I called my husband and said, “There’s just no way.” When I got home and walked into our kitchen, my husband started knocking on the door. I asked him what he was doing. He said, “This is destiny knocking on the door of our country. You’ve got to find a way to do this.”

This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Paul O'Donnell

Freelance writer Paul O’Donnell is @paulwodonnell on Twitter.