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Penny Wise

A discussion with the philanthropic, business and fundraising powerhouse, by Jane Ammeson.

    When 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 team.
    “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.”
Pritzker, 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.
    “My 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.”
    The 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.
    “It’s 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 believe in.”
    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 of Education. 
    “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 the schools.”
    One of those catalysts for change is the Turnaround Schools program (www.teachchicagoturnarounds.org).
    “They 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.
    “Teachers 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 performance. 
    “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 excellence.
    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. 
    Pritzker 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.
    “My 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.”
    Besides 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.
    If 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.  
    “Those 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