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Who is Penny Pritzker, new US special representative for Ukraine's economic recovery?

by Elsa Court September 16, 2023 10:15 PM 5 min read
Penny Pritzker, former US secretary of commerce, speaks during the Semafor World Economy Summit in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2023. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Sept. 14 the creation of a new role – U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine's Economic Recovery.

The person to lead the new office is Penny Pritzker, 64, credited for her experience as an "accomplished public servant" and "transformative industry leader."

Pritzker has "deep familial ties to Ukraine," Biden added.

However, the brief description of the person chosen to "drive the United States' efforts to help rebuild the Ukrainian economy" only scratched the surface of Pritzker's resume.

The Kyiv Independent explains who Penny Pritzker is and what the new office is set to achieve.

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From business to politics

Born into one of the wealthiest families in the U.S., Pritzker's net worth is now valued at $3.3 billion, having started at least five companies and led dozens of businesses herself.

The Pritzkers are also known as one of the major philanthropic families of America.

In Chicago, where the family grew its fortune, there are parks, a museum, a zoo, and multiple educational institutions that carry the Pritzker name.

Yet Chicago was not mentioned in the appointment announcement. Instead, Biden referred to Pritzker's Ukrainian roots.

Her great-grandfather came to Chicago as a Jewish immigrant from the Kyiv region in 1881, taking on menial jobs and teaching himself English until he could enroll in law school.

The Pritzker name can be traced back to the village of Velyki Pritsky in Kyiv Oblast.

In the 20th century, Pritzkers grew their business empire and became best known for owning the Hyatt hotel group, as well as a range of other investments from real estate to cruise lines.

Penny Pritzker was an early supporter of Barack Obama. She soon moved from business to politics and helped fundraise for Obama's senate and, later, presidential bid.

Pritzker spearheaded the 2008 presidential fundraising campaign, which raised nearly $750 million. Five years later, President Obama appointed Pritzker as the commerce secretary, a role she held until the end of Obama's term in 2017.

Pritzker's family is also deeply involved in business and politics.

Penny Pritzker's brother, J.B. Pritzker, has been the governor of Illinois since 2019. Another brother, Anthony, heads the Pritzker Group, a private equity firm that has stakes in companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX.

A marathon, not a sprint

As Special Representative, her fundraising skills will be essential, as a major task will be to shape the priorities of international donors and align them with Ukraine's funding needs.

With Russia providing no signs it is ready for peace and the costs of Ukraine's reconstruction and recovery estimated to have spiraled beyond $400 billion, the task is immense.

Starting the job in the middle of the war means that Pritzker is taking on a challenge that "few would envy," said Dr. Alpaslan Özerdem, dean at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution and expert on post-conflict reconstruction.

"She will need to connect many dots to build sustainable momentum in the economic recovery of Ukraine both before and after the war's end," Özerdem told the Kyiv Independent.

Her experience in philanthropy will come in useful, Özerdem believes, not least because "war-affected communities appreciate the sensitive approach of empathy, passion, and solidarity" that experienced philanthropists can bring.

Top-level experience

As Commerce Secretary, Pritzker was focused on helping grow American business not just in the U.S. but also abroad. In her first year in office, she visited 19 countries and led four trade missions.

Through this role, she gained "a top-level understanding of the U.S. economy and how to mobilize it for Ukraine," partly what makes her an "excellent choice" as special representative, according to Özerdem.

The 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution and subsequent illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory by Russia put Ukraine in the spotlight for U.S. policymakers, including Pritzker.

In April 2014, she held a call with her Ukrainian counterpart, Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta, to discuss ways the U.S. private sector could support Ukraine's economic stability and attract new investment at the height of the crisis.

Six months later, Pritzker led a U.S. delegation to Kyiv to meet with Ukraine's senior government officials and with American companies.

In total, she made three official visits to the country as Commerce Secretary. Much of the focus of these trips was supporting the Ukrainian government in undertaking post-revolution reforms.

This experience will be key to her new role, as one of the tasks of the special representative will be to support Kyiv to make "reforms needed to strengthen its economy," Biden said.

Amidst the ongoing war, reforms to the ways the judiciary, government, and economy are run have also been central to Ukraine's path to starting accession talks with the European Union.

Similarly, U.S. assistance goes hand in hand with "accelerating Ukraine's reform process," Heather A. Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told the Kyiv Independent.

In an article for Foreign Policy in June, Conley called for Biden to create a position to lead Ukraine's reconstruction. "Given her background, Pritzker is extremely well placed to do this," Conley commented.

Private sector's role

Beyond shaping donor priorities and strengthening Ukraine's public sector, Pritzker will need to mobilize the U.S. private sector to invest in Ukraine.

As special representative, she will be responsible for mobilizing foreign investment, supporting the re-opening of businesses shut down by Russian attacks, and helping Ukraine grow its exports, Biden announced.

Conley explained that this will involve Pritzker providing the U.S. businesses with the tools they need to identify and invest in projects in Ukraine, such as war insurance and transparent procurement processes.

"The private sector is essential to Ukraine's long-term recovery," said Conley, adding that the U.S. particularly focused on Ukraine's energy, agricultural, infrastructure, and IT industries.

In the same way that "American companies played an important role in Europe's recovery following the Second World War," they should do the same for Ukraine's recovery, Conley believes.

Building bridges

One of the key tasks for Pritzker will be to build a broad base of understanding in the U.S. of why Ukraine needs to be supported not just militarily but also economically.

Conley hopes that Pritzker will travel across the U.S. and speak to Americans "about the importance of Ukraine's recovery to American security and prosperity," in the same way that leaders built support for the original Marshall Plan.

Daniel Runde, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of the center's Ukraine Economic Reconstruction Commission, agreed that building sustainable support for Ukraine's recovery in the U.S. will be a key challenge.

"She needs to build a political base for support beyond emergency assistance," he told the Kyiv Independent, adding that this will require investing time into bringing not just other Democrats, but also Republicans on board.

Another challenge will be for her to find allies not just in D.C. but also in Kyiv.

"Pritzker has so much to bring to the table," but her success in the role will depend on the levels of trust, respect, and legitimacy she builds with partners in Ukraine, Özerdem said.

It will be a long road to recovery, he believes, but "if she makes sure that she goes to Ukraine with patience in abundance," she will be successful in her role.

Special Representative Pritzker reportedly plans to travel to Ukraine in the coming weeks to meet with Ukraine's political and business leaders.


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