A discussion with the philanthropic, business and fundraising powerhouse, by Jane Ammeson.
By JANE AMMESON
Barack Obama met Penny Pritzker, it wasn’t in a corporate boardroom or
at a swank cocktail party. They met, along with their spouses, by
chance at a local YMCA where Pritzker’s two children were playing
basketball and the Obamas were watching Michelle’s brother coach the
“My first impression was that he was
an extraordinary man, but also that they are wonderful couple,” says
Pritzker, president and CEO of Pritzker Realty Group, chairman of the
board for TransUnion, a credit reporting company, and founder of
Classic Residence by Hyatt, the luxury retirement community. “Both are
terrific people who have incredible core values, integrity, great
judgment and intellectual capacity.”
who served as the Obama for America national finance chairman and is
assisting in his transition, is credited with raising the prodigious
and record-breaking amounts of money that helped fuel the campaign.
Despite finding commonality in mission, Pritzker and Obama’s
backgrounds began on opposite ends of the country, both in reality and
metaphorically. Her grandfather founded the Hyatt hotel chain, while
Obama, as he has mentioned, was raised by a single mother who at times
depended upon welfare to take care of her children. But both Pritzker,
along with her husband, Dr. Bryan Traubert, and the Obamas are driven
by the same desires, to make a difference in the world, to bring about
change and to better the lives of others.
For Pritzker, who is 49, this worldview has been imbedded since she can remember.
parents set an incredible example for me and my brothers,” she says.
“My mother volunteered at the local children’s hospital and was active
in the arts. My father was active in many civic
organizations, including the Jewish United Fund. They always told us
that to who much is given, much is expected, and they really lived it. Bryan and I are trying to set the same example for our [two teenage] children.”
Pritzker kids are required to give 25 percent of their allowance to
charities, and during the holidays, the family works together to help
the hungry. Last year, on December 23, they arrived at the Inspiration
Café in Chicago at 7 a.m. to begin a day of cooking and serving food.
Some couples play golf or plant gardens together. Pritzker and Traubert
pursue philanthropic efforts.
something we enjoy sharing and doing together as a couple,” says
Pritzker, who studied economics at Harvard University and received J.D.
and M.B.A. degrees from Stanford University. “We believe that it is
important to get personally involved. We support other charitable
endeavors, but there are several that we are very much involved in and
Pritzker is no helicopter
donor who hovers overhead and drops checks. Instead, she rolls up her
sleeves and gets to work. She and her husband formed the Pritzker
Traubert Family Foundation (www.ptffoundation.org
which is funding a pilot program that creates a pipeline of principals
for the Chicago Public Schools in collaboration with the Harvard School
“We are also
very involved in the Chicago Public Education Fund,” says Pritzker,
“because we believe education is the foundation of our society. What I
like about the CPEF is that we use it to be a catalyst for change in
are, in essence, struggling schools where the adults are terminated,
leaving the students behind, and a complete new administration and set
of teachers are brought in,” says Pritzker.
are the single largest factor affecting students’ school performance.”
Chicago Public Schools has successfully used the Turnaround strategy
with two historically struggling schools, Sherman and Harvard
elementary schools, which has brought not only a new culture and
climate to the schools, but also higher expectations for academic
“One of the
things that Bryan and I have also been involved with is New Leadership
for New Schools,” says Pritzker, referring to the national organization
whose goal is to produce outstanding leaders who have the skills to
dramatically impact school performance and foster educational
Obama shares Pritzker’s
commitment to education. “President-elect Obama is extremely committed
to education and knows that it’s extremely important that we provide
quality education,” she says.
and Traubert also take an interest in health issues. There’s the Donald
and Sue Pritzker Nutrition and Fitness Initiative, run in conjunction
with the YMCA and Harvard School of Public Health, designed to combat
childhood obesity and includes a focus on after-school exercise.
husband started ChicagoRun,” says Pritzker, “which is a program where
elementary students agree to run 15 minutes a day, three to five times
a week. We started with 2,300 children in 12 Chicago
Public Schools and now have 4,000 in 18 schools. When they accumulate
10 miles, they get a water bottle. When they get 26.2 miles, like a
marathon, they get a medal. We did a jamboree last year for seven- to
10-year-olds who did a one-mile fun run. They got t-shirts, and Nike
gave out 1,000 pairs of shoes—one pair for each child that ran. We also
received $10,000 from Aetna and $50,000 from Bank of America to help
with the program. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of the children who
participated are on the federal lunch program.”
that, Pritzker is an honorary co-chair of the Children’s Memorial
Hospital campaign to build a new $750 million hospital, and she is
co-chair of the Chicago 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games
and also chairs the Olympic Village Committee.
it all sounds somewhat overwhelming, Pritzker says she is able to
manage so many responsibilities by running her charities the same way
she runs her businesses.
include focusing on placing the right people in leadership positions,
making sure that investments are made in the right area and that the
right teams are in place with people who have the same approach and
philosophy,” she says. “It means that we work as partners and believe in what we do.”
Published: December 05, 2008
Issue: Winter 2008 - Annual Philanthropy Guide