clock menu more-arrow no yes

Let's Talk About Policy, Please? Maybe? Secretary of Commerce Comes to Silicon Valley.

Trying to talk politics with Silicon Valley.

Nellie Bowles

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker arrived in Silicon Valley early Monday morning to check in with entrepreneurs.

A marathon-running, no-nonsense woman in gray slacks, Pritzker has been working hard to build a better relationship between Washington, D.C., and the sometimes notoriously anti-government, nearly secessionist tech founders of Silicon Valley. It’s an insular culture, and its attempts at government intervention, such as immigration reform with the well-funded advocacy group Fwd.us, have largely failed.

“Part of what I’m trying to demonstrate is what the role of government is and where government can be constructive,” she said.

Startups are especially hard to reach, Pritzker said.

“There’s plenty of established companies that know how to find us,” she said. “But there’s a lot of industry out here that’s really not engaging.”

A billionaire Hyatt hotel scion, extreme sports enthusiast and five-time entrepreneur, Pritzker grew up in Atherton, Calif., before going on to Harvard and then taking lead roles expanding the family empire. She posits her role as commerce secretary as a homecoming — “I’m a Silicon Valley girl,” she often says.

The commerce secretary is appointed by the president “to foster, promote, and develop the foreign and domestic commerce.” Filled with many hundreds of meetings with businesspeople around the world, Pritzker has 40,000 people in her department. The job includes running the National Weather Service, the International Trade Administration, the Census Bureau and, perhaps most importantly to Silicon Valley these days, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

At EA Games, a designer showed the 55-year-old Pritzker a game called Peggle, which he described as being “very bright, very colorful, and run by a unicorn named Bjorn.”

Pritzker, who purses her lips when people talk and speaks with a firm, flat authority, asked how they make money on this Peggle.

“You can say, you know what, I don’t have time to play 10 hours, I’m going to just buy the Jaguar,” the demonstrator explained.

 Pritzker at Glass Lab
Pritzker at Glass Lab
Nellie Bowles

Pritzker and gaming executives convened around a conference table. They all talked about how important gaming was ($21 billion in revenue last year and 146,000 jobs). She wanted their help on government data.

“We produce 20 terabytes of data a day just in the weather service,” she said, eyeing the gaming executives. “We’re full of information. How do we use that data?”

The executives, for their part, said they were concerned about piracy, immigration reform and trade with China and Latin America. They all agreed to write memos. Behind the conference table were cookies and coffee and a large tubular vase of strawberries that no one touched.

The gaming execs led her to Glass Lab, a studio that builds educational games. Their investors, the MacArthur foundation, are working on a “badging system” that allows players to exchange in-game achievements for credits at a community college and spoke about their work making institutions recognize the skills that can come from games.

Pritzker said she was excited about this software and the badges: “The future of education exists on devices,” she said.

A game designer cued up Plants v. Zombies — you fight zombies by planting your garden. She then showed Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy. This, said general manager Jessica Lindl, is about teaching critical reasoning and, even, training young people for Mars.

“Now this is very real,” Lindl said. “NASA wanted to reach little kids because they’re who they will try to recruit as colonists.”

 Pritzker checking out Peggle
Pritzker checking out Peggle
Nellie Bowles

Next, we drove to Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s preeminent seed accelerator, which trains and invests in entrepreneurs.

Pritzker said she had a challenge for them and wanted to talk about setting up incubators around the world: Y Combinators in all the cities!

“The president is quite interested in making sure that we can do things to help places in the world where there’s large youth unemployment and so people are choosing not constructive ways of living,” Pritzker had told me earlier.

Or, as her senior adviser Bert Kaufman phrased it: “If people become entrepreneurs, they don’t join ISIS.”

Y Combinator representatives were a little hesitant about this. Y Combinator Boston had failed, and that’s Boston. Vienna or Erbil would be decidedly harder and maybe not really possible at all.

Everyone agreed to think about it. They shook hands, and Pritzker headed to Ben Horowitz’s Atherton home where Valley players like LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and Wired Editor-in-Chief Scott Dadich toasted her arrival.

She left on a red-eye, but most of the table stayed behind, gossiping about startups, thinking of new plot lines for HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and debating how exactly to cook an uncut bacon slab.

Correction: This article was updated to include the name of the company Glass Labs, which was incorrectly referred to as Glass Frog in one reference.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.