Washington's Latest Overture to Silicon Valley
Penny Pritzker might be best known as a Chicago billionaire who's founded five companies, which have created thousands of jobs. But for the past eight months, she's been serving in Washington as U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
Monday, she seemed served a slightly different, temporary (and unofficial) role: Goodwill Ambassador to Silicon Valley.
New Doors to Data
Opening her tour of the San Francisco Bay Area's business community, which will include visits to the offices of Facebook and eBay, Pritzker spoke at the Plug and Play Tech Center, a startup accelerator in Sunnyvale, California, where hundreds of startups--including PayPal and Dropbox--have gotten their start.
She was nothing if not encouraging about the government's attitude toward the startup ecosystem to the room of entrepreneurs, investors, and would-be entrepreneurs.
"With the country moving at warp speed toward the 'Internet of Everything,' our goal at the Department of Commerce as a service organization is to support you, whether you are a researcher, inventor, entrepreneur, mentor, or investor," she said.
It's not her first time extending an olive branch from the Obama administration to entrepreneurs. Since taking office, she's visited the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, a finance startup Dwolla in Iowa, and an incubator called 1776 in Washington, D.C. She has also stopped by the Detroit Auto Show and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
"I saw technologies in everything from cars to thermostats to wearable health devices that will improve our lives," she said.
Pritzker touted President Obama's achievements to date that affect entrepreneurs, including launching Startup America, passing the JOBS Act, and hiring the country's first chief technology officer.
She also announced two new government initiatives aimed at helping entrepreneurs access and employ the ample government data her department collects. The first is expansion of an interactive online map called Census Explorer to also include detailed regional data on the tech work force, including payroll, education, and home-ownership rates of tech employees. It could help business-owners spot regions with high concentrations of tech workers.
The second is what could be a bridge to a future public-private partnership. It's a new way to request information from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which collects a massive amount of environmental data daily--20 terabytes. Pritzker said this is twice the amount of data contained in the entire print collection of the Library of Congress.
"This new partnership will unlock more weather and climate information to stimulate the creation of new industries, boost economic growth, and spur employment," she said.
If this seems like a niche market, consider that weather and climate-sensitive industries account for roughly one-third of the U.S. GDP.
In a conversation with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Pritzker spoke candidly about her transition from the business world to her position in government, and offered advice to businesses looking to work with Washington.
Government might seem like a massive entity to a scrappy business, but Pritzker said working with the Washington isn't so different from any other partnership.
"Relationships matter," she said, advising entrepreneurs to get to know people in leadership positions, including your congressional representative and senator. She also said her door is open.
"Those of us running departments, we are in service positions," she said. "If the Department of Commerce can help you, or guide you, we are your ombudsman."
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.