Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has spent the week in Alaska talking with staffers in the various federal agencies she’s in charge of, including the Census and the Bureau of Standards, the Economic Development Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Heiress to a hotel fortune that runs into the billons, Penny Pritzker has been a close friend to President Obama and his family since his law school days, and a major campaign supporter and fundraiser. When Obama’s second term came around, the commerce position open, and economic recovery a priority, it’s no surprise he turned to his Stanford MBA friend with a 27-year record as a business startup specialist:
“He said to me there are a couple things I would like you to do – build a bridge with the business community, and then make sure the voice of the business community is heard in my administration and be part of my economic team,” Pritzker says. “And then finally be the chief commercial advocate for American business both domestically and around the world.
“And I have to tell you, you know, I feel like we’re making a lot of progress on all those fronts.”
Thursday morning found the Commerce Secretary in a closed-door huddle with business leaders at a downtown Anchorage Native corporation office. Asked what they talked about, she said there were the usual pleas for more infrastructure investment, and concerns about federal fishery policies, but she was also briefed on Alaska’s status as an international air cargo hub, and the importance of the visitor industry. And Transportation Security and Customs checks are areas where she might be able to apply some influence on another cabinet members.
“You’ve got about two million visitors a year now coming to Alaska. They’d like to see more more travelers, and more foreign travelers, And so they’re quite interested in how do we improve the experience of someone who’s arriving from a foreign country into the United States. And I expressed that the Secretary of Homeland Security and I are working very closely to try and improve that experience,” Pritzker says. “I think we can do national security and hospitality at the same time. And the Secretary of Homeland Security agrees, and the President has asked us to focus on that.”
Pritzker talked about Arctic trade, and wants to see the proposed Arctic deepwater port site outside of Nome. With the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration undersecretary Kathy Sullivan at her side, she met with staff at the National Weather Service and vowed to make sure the U.S. keeps up its weather satellite coverage. She said she’s been impressed with their work.
“Satellites, we have algorithms, we have all kinds of technical information that we’re gathering as the National Weather Service, but we’re also working with our customers to make sure we’re filling in the gaps. And that, to me, is what we’re trying to do to be a weather-ready nation all over the country. But obviously in Alaska it really hits home. I mean I am very much struck by that,” Pritzker says.
Pritzker also vowed to put a priority on funding research into the cause of the decline of Chinook Salmon runs in many Alaska river systems, which Sullivan was quick to explain would be done in consultation with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
“We’re working very hard, both in setting our research priorities and working hard with the Secretary’s support to go forward and get the funding that we need to try to step up our efforts and do the work that we require here. It’s not a simple solution. I think looking all across the causal chain to the best degree we can is what we’re trying very hard to do and around the Council table try to target those questions that are most pertinent to the decisions we need to make and provide the best possible information there, as a kind of triage mechanism.”
If that sounds like the NOAA scientist defending her boss, it’s no coincidence. Loyalty to Penny Pritzker is evident, and it’s consistent with her past as a Stanford MBA in an over-achieving family who has run businesses for 27 years and talks about workforce development and employee involvement as her passions. That’s something that deeply resonates with Sullivan, herself an over-achiever, the first woman to do a space walk.