Investor Spotlight: Meet Penny Pritzker

By Sallie Krawcheck

There’s research that says if you actually want to solve a problem, sleep can help you solve it. Believe it or not, this approach actually led me to one of Ellevest’s newest backers.

One night when I was falling asleep, I asked myself, “If we could have anyone in the world back Ellevest, who would it be?” I racked my brain for a bit and then decided to give it a rest...and went to sleep. Only for few hours though, because I woke up at 3:30 A.M. and immediately thought, “Penny Pritzker.”

Penny is a force. She’s the founder and chairman of PSP Capital (the venture capital arm, PSP Growth, participated in our latest funding round) and was the U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the Obama Administration. She and I sat down in Chicago to talk about her start in business, why she cares so strongly about diversity, and how her passion for challenging dated views on women and money led her to invest in Ellevest.

Meet Penny:

For a long time, you've been breaking barriers for women in business — even with your family, even when you were much younger. Can you share some stories with us?
When I was a little girl, I used to go to the office with my dad — starting at age five. I very much wanted, after seeing him working in the office environment and building a business, to go into business. Unfortunately, my dad died when I was 13, but my determination and love of building businesses had been set long before that.

So, when I was 16 years old, it was my grandfather's 80th birthday. My grandfather was a very successful lawyer turned businessman and also someone who was very versatile in accounting. What do you give a man who has been so successful for his 80th birthday? I wrote him a letter.

The idea that women would be interested in business is something that just hadn't entered his mind or his reality.

"Dear Grandpa, I don't understand why you only talk business to the boys in the family instead of to me? I'm interested in business. Why won't you spend more time with me talking about business?"

So, my grandfather's 80th birthday: big party, 400 people, lots of important folks. My grandfather grabs me, takes me out into the hall. I had written this letter — I was 16 years old — on green stationery, and the green stationery is in his breast pocket, sticking out of his suit. He pulls it out, he turns to me, and he says, "Penny, I was born in 1896. How am I supposed to know women are interested in business? But if you are, come spend time with me this summer and I'll teach you the fundamentals of accounting and the basics of business," which, of course, I did that following summer.

One of the things that was really interesting about his response, that sticks with me 40 years later, is thinking about the issue from his perspective. That really stuck with me: The idea that women would be interested in business is something that just hadn't entered his mind or his reality.

But I think it's part of our responsibility also to point out that times are changing and continue to change.

Has being a woman in business helped or hurt you?
It's helped. I think you use all your assets and frankly, as a woman, [it’s] the opportunity to bring a new perspective. To learn all you can from all the men around you, but also [to] bring your instinct and intuition, [which] as a woman, has been very beneficial.

Women and money are in the news constantly lately: the need to hire more women at all levels, to fund more women in venture capital, and to increase women's pay to close the gender pay gap. Why have you made focusing on women and money such a priority?
Well, first of all, all the studies over the last five to seven years have shown that if you have greater diversity in your workforce, your performance is much better. Your return on capital. Your return on equity or profitability. Your return to shareholders. So, why wouldn't you want a more diverse and more gender-neutral workforce?

Second, I think that it's ridiculous that we even think this way. Why is it that we're paying women differently than we're paying men? What is that legacy thinking that doesn't allow for us to recognize a job is a job?

I really believe as a leader that you have to be intentional about creating a diverse workplace.

And finally, I would say, when I had the privilege of serving in the Obama Administration, I really got to work [in] an intensely and densely diverse organization. I saw the benefits up close and personal. I got to see conversations that were very much positively affected by having the room being 40%, 50% women with strong voices, with great ethnic diversity as well. So, I saw the benefit of it for myself.

How do you incorporate your own values when you're advocating for women?
Well, first of all, I like to work with people I like, trust, and respect. That's the first screen that I use when I think about who's going to work in our own organization, who we're gonna partner with.

Second is I really believe as a leader that you have to be intentional about creating a diverse've got to interview people of diverse backgrounds, women, different ethnicities, for every single job. It can't be that there's no one available for that job. It requires that kind of leadership and intention from the top that is important in order to create a workplace that gives you the benefit of these different perspectives.

My experience is if it doesn't come from the top, it doesn't happen.

And you can't say it once.
No. In fact, you have to be incredibly intentional and you have to send people back [if they haven’t done it].

All right. What advice do you have for women who are trying to get comfortable thinking or talking about money and their financial future. Was there some great advice you received along the way?
The first thing is knowledge is power. Do your homework. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Have people who can advise you. If you have a know, go out and get a mentor if you don't have one. But, you know, don't be afraid. This is not something to be afraid of.

My second piece of advice...I really learned it from my mother: "You want to control your finances as a woman. Don't be beholden to someone else." I saw my mom who was not in control of her finances and the negative impact that had on her life.

Okay, all right. Why did you invest with Ellevest?
Because I've seen over my career something you recognized: Financial services organizations don't know how to deal with women. They don't understand the personal nature, the priorities that women have. They don't understand how to communicate with women and engage with them in a deep way. And Ellevest is committed to that in every aspect of what it does.

Second is the team. Not only you as a leader, Sallie, but the team that you've assembled. I think that success comes from having a really good vision about what you want to accomplish, executing with precision, and commitment to excellence. And finally, having a team that knows how to block, tackle, adjust, and be flexible.

I would add having investors like you and PSP Capital that have a track record of building long-term quality businesses is also important.
Well, I think that this is where we can work together to help each other.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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Sallie Krawcheck

Sallie Krawcheck is the Founder & CEO of Ellevest.