Penny Pritzker on Manufacturing, Big Data, and the State of American Business

A full transcript of her interview with The Atlantic's James Fallows.
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Reuters

It's been six months since Penny Pritzker started her job as Secretary of Commerce. On Wednesday, Atlantic National Correspondent James Fallows spoke with her about the president's economic priorities, which include promoting better data use, building a stronger manufacturing sector, and facilitating higher levels of trade and exporting. You can read the full transcript of the conversation below. 

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FALLOWS: I thank you all for joining us.  Our great thanks to Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, who you all know from her background and her work. She's now spent about six months in this job. I think you're the 38th ...

(CROSSTALK)

PRITZKER: ... Why yes, that's close.

FALLOWS: And you managed to get confirmed ...

(CROSSTALK)

PRITZKER: .... Yes.

FALLOWS: And I think you all know the business background that Secretary Pritzker brings to this job coming from one of America's leading business families, but yourself, the founder of five startup companies, Harvard College Degree; Stanford JD and MBA; and I think maybe the most impressive of your many achievements may have been this Woodrow Wilson Award you won last year for public service which is really, really a big deal.

And we're going to talk about—the—you may have noticed, those of you with sharp eyesight can see the sign on the secretary's lapel saying, 'Open for Business'.  This is part of a new Commerce Department motto. We're going to get to that.  But first, I just wanted to ask you an introductory question.

You have a career of running businesses and observing how public life—public policy affects them.  What's been different about seeing it from the inside these past, nearly six months?  What didn't you know before you got here?

PRITZKER: Well there are a lot of things I didn't know. The most interesting thing for me as coming from the business world, having run businesses, knowing how business works has been really trying to understand how does government work? And who does what? And we were just talking about China.

And I said, you know, one of the things that I've learned coming into this job is what does it mean to be a deputy? What does it mean to be a Chief of Staff? What does it mean to be an Under Secretary and Assistant? And what do those folks actually do? And how does it work? And that's been a big learning curve.

Whereas I know what a CEO does. I know what a Chairman of the Board does. I know what a CFO does.  And so learning these things has helped—it's taken me a little bit to understand, and frankly I have to live it a little bit to get the feeling and to better understand how to be effective.

FALLOWS: And so turning now to your areas of effectiveness. I've been reading a number of your speeches and policy papers over the last few months about the whole 'open for business' approach.  Will you—I know what this involves. So would you explain to some of our audience why—especially for small business, what 'open for business' program means and how it affects small businesses?

PRITZKER:  Well Jim, I appreciate your asking. So let me tell you a little bit of this story. When I came—when I was sworn in, I brought with me to the Department of Commerce a sign that said—and I put it on the door and the office—the secretary has quite a history to it and it's sort of a grand space.  Far grander than anything I've ever worked in.

And so -but there was nail on the door. I did not nail—put a nail on the door. And I hung a sign that said, 'Open for Business'. And the reason for that was really came from the president—the conversation the president and I had about the role that he wanted me to play and he wanted the Department of Commerce to play which is really to be a bridge between the business community and the Administration-a two-way bridge.

In other words, to not only to hear what's going on in the business community and to bring those ideas back to the Administration and to take thoughts and ideas that are emanating from the administration to the business community to understand, you know, their reactions. So that there's not this miscommunication or disconnect going on.  And frankly, our 'open for business' agenda which we have rolled out a couple of weeks ago is a distillation of something you all would appreciate as business people in this room, which is we went about a process of developing a strategic plan for the Department of Commerce.

And this is the summary of the strategic plan, which really falls into three categories and three areas of focus.  One is around trade and investment. One is around innovation.  And one is around data.  And really—and that all sits upon a platform of operational excellence and operational management and execution.

And this is a way to take a very large organization that has nine different agencies under it and say, "What are we going to focus on?& And what are the things that are important to us?"  So trade and investment, for example. We're very committed to exports, imports, re-shoring, and what are the things the federal government can be doing and I can go into detail about them.

But I'll just give you kind of a broad overview now. Innovation really has three components to it.  One is around advanced manufacturing. And what do we do—what's the role of the federal government to support advanced manufacturing. And that really falls into a lot around pre-competitive research and things like that.

Skills.  What I heard—I went on a listening tour. One of the things that I did during my first hundred days in my position was I went around the country 13 different cities meeting with hundreds of CEOs, folks who are starting businesses, who have small businesses, who have large businesses.  And talk to them about what's on their mind.

One thing I heard—I heard many things—lot about trade, but also and obviously, our strategy reflects a lot of what I heard.  But also around skilled labor and skilled workforce and how do we make sure that we have the labor force we need for companies, such as yours, who are—want to grow, to be able to grow.

And that was a big issue.  So under innovation, advance manufacturing, skilled labor, and then really the digital enterprise, which I'm sure is for many people in this room, extremely important to your businesses, either to what you're building right now or just to running your business.

The digital enterprise is, in my mind, is—needs—is under some stress.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that the governance of the internet today is run by I-CAN.  And there's a lot of pressure globally for it not to be this kind of independent governance.  But rather for it to be run by maybe the UN or somebody, or some other kind of organization which we do not support.

We believe that we should leave the internet as fluid and flexible and free as it has been. Now maybe the governance needs some adjustment but it—these kinds of issues are an area for us to focus around privacy.  That's a place for the Commerce Department. Third area of our 'open for business' agenda is data.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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