Pritzker’s mission at Commerce: Open doors overseas

April 30, 2015

photo of Sec. Penny PritzkerPenny Pritzker, who has been President Obama's Commerce secretary since June 2013, is trying to send a message to businesses large and small: Don't underestimate what the Commerce Department can do for you.

She told a Global Conference audience that Obama asked her to "build a bridge to business ... and be the chief commercial advocate for U.S. business in the world."

One surprise to her, she said, was the sheer volume of data collected by Commerce—intelligence that companies may not realize is available to aid their strategic decision-making.

In addition to obvious responsibilities such as international trade, Pritzker noted that Commerce is in charge of myriad other departments, including the Census Bureau, coastline administration and National Weather Service.

"At just the Weather Service alone we produce somewhere between 20 and 40 terabytes of data a day," she said. To put that in perspective, 10 terabytes would hold the entire print collection of the Library of Congress.

When she arrived at Commerce, she realized that "we need to make more of that data available in a format that can be used by businesses." To that end, she said, "for the first time we've hired a chief data officer" at the department.

Pritzker, founder of PSP Capital Partners and Pritzker Realty Group and a member of the billionaire Pritzker family of Chicago (Hyatt Hotels), said her central strategy at Commerce is what she calls "commercial diplomacy." The basic idea, she said, is to "work with our U.S. business leaders to address impediments to doing more business around the world—for companies of all different sizes."

While the State Department works on political solutions in troubled Ukraine, for example, Commerce officials focus on long-term steps the Ukrainian government could take to open the country of 45 million to more American companies.

Pritzker said Commerce told Ukraine’s leadership that "you need to pass anti-corruption laws, there are certain tax laws and customs laws you need to address. And if you do, then American business will come."

In her travels worldwide, she said, "I have yet to meet a leader of a country who does not want more American business presence. Why? It's the way we treat our labor, and because of the standards that we bring to bear. They want our business."

Pritzker encouraged smaller companies, in particular, to look to Commerce for help in expanding their markets globally. She cited the U.S. Export Assistance Center, which has offices in more than 100 communities nationwide. "The job of the folks there is to help you, if you have a product and you want to export that product, to figure out in which markets around the world your product is competitive," she said.

What's more, Commerce has teams on the ground in 75 countries to help U.S. companies navigate foreign markets. "It's a service that gets very good feedback," Pritzker said.

Another service: the Manufacturing Extension Partnership. "If you're a small manufacturing business, you often are not able to take advantage of the latest technologies that could keep you globally competitive," she said. "We actually provide a service working in partnership with local organizations to help small manufacturers have the latest learning, technologies and processes so that they can remain globally competitive."

Pritzker said she was "very encouraged" by the continuing boom in technology startups, particularly in Silicon Valley.

"Taking risks in America,” she said, “is part of who we are."