Most Powerful Women

Q&A with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker

November 15, 2013: 11:47 AM ET

The Chicago billionaire and recent Obama appointee talks about her access to the President, investing in America, and income inequality.

By Tory Newmyer, writer

Pritzker assumed office as Secretary of Commerce in June.

Pritzker assumed office as Secretary of Commerce in June.

FORTUNE -- The Department of Commerce, the administration's chief advocate for business interests, had been effectively leaderless for over a year until Penny Pritzker took the reins in June. The billionaire Hyatt hotel heiress and real estate mogul launched her term by conducting a private-sector "listening tour" to help form her agenda.

And on Thursday, in a speech at local incubator 1776, she unveiled the results: expanding trade and foreign investment; promoting the manufacturing resurgence through workforce training and federal investments in innovation; and making more government data available to entrepreneurs.

Afterward, she sat down with Fortune for a conversation about her first months on the job and her priorities. A transcript edited for length and clarity follows.

Fortune: This administration's troubled relationship with the business community has gotten a lot of attention. What's your impression of where it stands now?

Pritzker: What's been really actually nice for me is the reception's been very open. One of the things I've always loved about business is you just kind of have to accept the landscape as it is and move forward. And there seems to be an attitude of, I'm here, the President made it very clear he wants me to be a bridge to the business community for the administration, and that's a two-way bridge.

POLITICO's magazine is out with a splashy story about how isolated this cabinet is from White House decision-making. Did you get guarantees from the President about your access to him and your participation with the economic team before you took the job?

The President and I did talk, not so much about access, but for me to be effective in being a bridge to the business community, I had to have a real seat at the table on economic policy, and he understood that and agreed with that. That hasn't been a problem. It's not like I feel left out. I don't think I should be sitting on their front doorstep every day. I have a job to do, and we've agreed on what they want me to do, and so I'm out doing it. I'm not a person who's looking for every day a pat on the head.

New foreign direct investment is off nearly half from its pre-recession highs, and also down year-over-year over the last couple of years. What are the impediments to new investment here in the U.S.?

Foreign business leaders have a much longer-term perspective. They see the United States as a generational opportunity right now, and so whatever the momentary issues are, they're less focused on that. They really see now's the time to plant a flag here. What I hear from business leaders about the challenges -- we need to invest more infrastructure, from bridges to broadband. They want to make sure they can get their goods to market, that their people can get to work. I was in the real estate business. You can get away with not funding your deferred maintenance for a while, but it catches up with you.

The second thing is skilled labor. That's a place where I believe the private sector and the government have to work closely together, because we have a lot of Americans who are out of work who want work. And long term, we need to be training young people for the jobs that are available in this country.

When you were in Asia during the government shutdown, you didn't hear our political dysfunction also register with foreign business leaders?

I would say it's not serving as a deterrent. Look, when your government is shut down, everyone's aware there's a challenge. So to say I didn't hear about it, that's not an appropriate way to describe the situation. What I heard from people who are decision-makers is they see this opportunity in the United States and their view is, "Your government will get its act together." Frankly we need to get our act together. Now, we're in regular order. We're trying to do regular order. And I think that that's really important. And I'm not an expert in all the procedure, but seeing an effort trying to come together I think is really important.

How does wage disparity and economic inequality figure into your portfolio?

The biggest place at the Commerce Department we can make a difference is working closely with the Department of Labor on making sure we help our labor force get the right skills for the good jobs that are open. And that's why I made skills one of our priorities. It's something where business leaders need to work together with local governments -- and there is a role for the federal government.

The President in the closing days of his reelection campaign proposed a federal reorganization that would fold Commerce into a new Department of Business. Is that dead?

Right now it's not where the energy is, and I haven't heard any new discussions about it.

(Pritzker at the end of the interview walked over to an OPEN FOR BUSINESS sign she's hung on a nail in a door.)

I'm not allowed to put anything in the wall. So when I came I found the nail in the door and I was like, "Ok I'm hanging up my sign."

It seems like you should be able to assert some prerogative power and put nails in the wall if that's what you want to do.

Well, it's a historic room. It needs a little tender loving care right now. Rest assured I have not been shy to assert my prerogatives.

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