Liesel Pritzker Simmons’ Family Values
Fairly or not, the Pritzker name carries certain connotations: the Hyatt hotel fortune; Illinois power brokers; one of America’s wealthiest families, whose fortune is spread widely among many family members, some of whom get along with each other. It’s tempting to make assumptions about those born into such fortune, especially with a family that has a knack for making headlines—surely anyone born into such an environment must be just a little bit different? But in the case of 35-year-old Liesel Pritzker Simmons, the temptation to prejudge would be a mistake. The striking thing about Pritzker Simmons, one of the family’s rising stars, is how absolutely, refreshingly down-to-earth she is—even as she’s doing her utmost to change the world.
As the cofounder—with her husband, Ian Simmons—of family office Blue Haven Initiative, Pritzker Simmons has developed a reputation for being one of the most driven and passionate individuals in the ESG and impact investing communities. The firm’s venture capital fund invests in early-stage businesses aimed at improving quality of life and offering economic opportunity for people in sub-Saharan Africa. “We don’t have it all figured out,” Pritzker Simmons told me recently. “We’re learning as we go. But we firmly believe that perfect is the enemy of the good….So if I sit on the sidelines and wait for something to be perfect, it’s never going to get there.”
“Liesel has a pretty remarkable combination of what seem like lofty ideals but with a profound pragmatism,” says John Goldstein, who heads Goldman Sachs’ sustainable finance group and advises Blue Haven on investment strategy. “She approaches challenges—in life and in investing—with a mindset of, ‘Let’s get to the heart of things, let’s understand them, and let’s roll up our sleeves. Let’s execute.’”
Many of us met Pritzker Simmons, née Liesel Pritzker, before we knew who she really was. Born in Chicago in 1984, she was a precocious star of stage and screen. Under the stage name Liesel Matthews, she played Scout in a Chicago production of To Kill a Mockingbird, then the lead in The Little Princess, director Alfonso Cuarón’s 1995 breakout film. The Little Princess is about a young girl with a penchant for storytelling who attends a posh New York boarding school. When her father is killed in the World War I trenches, she is thrown from a life of luxury and ease into poverty and hard labor as a servant at the school. Film critic Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety that “golden-faced, clear-eyed and utterly self-confident…Matthews is a constant delight as Sara, entirely believable as a born leader among girls….She carries the film effortlessly.”
Two years later, she played opposite Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman and Glenn Close in 1997 popcorn flick Air Force One. Ford compared his 13-year-old costar to “a young Jodie Foster” and described her as “just so real, it’s like a breath of fresh air.” The macho action thriller, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, brought in $315 million at the box office and for many young actors would have been a launching pad for a Hollywood career. Yet she appeared in only one other film, Blast, a small 2000 production from Viennese director Martin Schenk. Liesel Matthews simply disappeared from the silver screen.
To understand why, you have to go back a few years earlier, to 1995. About the time that Liesel Matthews was making her film debut in The Little Princess, her uncle and family patriarch, Jay Pritzker—cofounder, with his brother Donald, of Hyatt Hotels Corp. in 1957— gathered his sons and their children to discuss the gradual disbursement of the family fortune, then valued at some $15 billion. Liesel and her brother, Matthew, two years her senior, were not invited, according to a 2003 article in Vanity Fair. Liesel’s and Matthew’s parents, Robert Pritzker (Jay’s brother) and Irene Dryburgh Pritzker, had undergone a bitter divorce in 1991. Reportedly furious at Irene, Robert transferred funds and Hyatt shares that belonged to Liesel and Matthew out of their names and into trusts controlled by the family.
After Jay Pritzker died in 1999, his children and nieces and nephews, again leaving out Liesel and Matthew, made a secret pact to liquidate the family business—a complete repudiation of Jay’s wishes—and distribute the money among themselves. But their financial machinations did not stay private for long. In 2002, Liesel—then studying African history at Columbia University in New York and appearing in a Broadway play called Vincent in Brixton—filed a $6 billion lawsuit against her own family, including her father. She was, at the time, 18 years old. The details of that lawsuit, and the Pritzkers’ inner turmoil, made splashy fodder for magazines and tabloids, and demonstrated how quickly even the best-led families can fall apart after the death of their principal. After more than two years of litigation, Liesel and the family settled, and she found herself the steward of a fortune then valued at roughly $500 million.
Over lunch at Butter, on West 45th Street in Manhattan (she had a $27 chicken paillard and two small bottles of Diet Coke), I asked Pritzker Simmons why she ended her film career. “It was when I inherited,” she says. “I was in college. I was still doing shows—I’ve always done a lot of theater. So I was in New York, and I was like, I’m not sure that this is the highest and best use of my time. I love it, I always will. And there are elements of that training that I found enormously useful in the rest of my life. But it comes back to responsibility. There are very few people that have the opportunity to do what I’m doing, and so I think I owe it to go down that path.”
She pauses for a long beat.
“To be an actor…If you don’t want it with 150 percent of every cell in your body, you shouldn’t be doing it. That’s not a good thing.
“So naturally, I pivoted,” she says. “Such a clear pivot—from child actor to investor.”
Pritzker Simmons and her husband, Ian, a scion of the family that built the locks on the Erie Canal and cofounded the Montgomery Ward department store chain, are engaged in compelling work. Their family office, Blue Haven Initiative, has become known for the meticulous way it approaches impact investing and ESG; the couple pay particular attention to trying to ensure that all their investments—from their equities portfolio to philanthropic donations to venture capital—are aligned for “financial performance and public benefit.”
When they met in 2010, Ian recalls, he and his now-wife started “cooking together, apple picking together. We went to a [New York] Giants game, had a nice time getting to know each other.” They also bonded over how they were “both frustrated by our introductory economics courses,” recalls Ian, who graduated Harvard in 2000. “They were teaching economics in a pretty boring and often wrongheaded way. There were so many assumptions involved, and we weren’t really talking about the economy, we were talking about theory.”
That impatience with the status quo permeates the way the couple approach the investments they make through Blue Haven. Their greatest commitment is probably to environmental issues. “The climate crisis is something we care about not just from a moral perspective but also from an investment perspective,” Ian says, arguing that green R&D investments will “help accelerate economic growth in the future.” Yet investors and the financial industry as a whole, says Pritzker Simmons, “just keep doing business as usual from a climate standpoint and from a social standpoint. Things aren’t going to go well, and so I’m trying to be a thoughtful investor. I’m trying to be a thoughtful philanthropist.”
To help her get there, Blue Haven employs both internal experts and outside advisors and portfolio managers like Goldman Sachs’ Goldstein. “On the passive side…we’re right in the middle of this frustration” over the paucity of meaningful ESG data, an environment in which, Pritzker Simmons says, “putting out a report earns you a gold star.” So she and Ian turned to Goldstein’s team to analyze the extant data. They make an effort to do more than just engage in negative screening—removing from their portfolio companies that don’t pass the smell test—but positive screening as well. And most important, Pritzker Simmons says, “we vote our proxies.”
On the venture investing side, Blue Haven’s focus on sub-Saharan Africa is inspired by Pritzker Simmons’ academic interests. The firm makes initial investments of $500,000 to $1 million in promising new enterprises. These companies have ranged from M-Kopa Solar, a “pay-as-you-go” home solar power company based in Kenya, and PEG Africa, which provides financing for home solar infrastructure development, to Waste Enterprisers, a Ghanaian company that converts human fecal matter to fuel. “Liesel has one of the most thought-out theories of change around impact and capital that I have seen,” says Goldstein. “There’s a clear central thesis, which is that if you can show that you can thoughtfully and profitably have an impact portfolio, then that unlocks deep pools of capital for things that are important. Step one is to do the work really well and create proof points as opposed to cautionary tales. And step two is to share that expertise and amplify that message.”
Pritzker Simmons and her husband’s broadest impact may be in their ability to socialize smart, rigorous investing practices among their peers. “I always talk to new entrants into impact investing, and maybe they’ve got a huge family office, or they’re a big asset manager, and they tell me proudly about the $50,000 investment they made in a Ugandan clean cookstove company,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Listen, that’s great. We do some of that too. But maybe clean up your public equity portfolios, too. Just start with analyzing what you own and clean that up first.’”
Pritzker Simmons has become an evangelist for making impact investing a core function of family offices. With Justin Rockefeller, another scion of a famous family, among others, she cofounded the ImPact, a network of family offices focused on impact investing. She also sits on the board of Toniic, which provides tools for investors to evaluate impact investments. And Blue Haven is part of the investors council for the Global Impact Investing Network.
Pritzker Simmons uses each of these positions, and the circuit of family office meetings and conferences, as a bully pulpit to promote rigorous thinking about impact investing. “I spend a lot of time talking with principals of family offices and showing them what we’re investing in,” she says. “Just chatting through things, introducing them to a manager. How do I quantify if that’s a good use of time? Getting one person who is in control of a billion dollars to start doing, I think, does matter.”
Financial experts aren’t the only people Pritzker Simmons turns to for investment perspectives; she also bounces ideas off her elder daughter, who is approaching 5 years old. (Her younger daughter is about 2.) “If I can’t explain the company or the fund to [her], then I shouldn’t be in it,” she says.
A passion for social justice pervades Pritzker Simmons’s life. Last June, she and her husband joined the likes of George Soros, Abigail Disney, Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes and Regan Pritzker (her second cousin), among others, in calling for the 2020 presidential candidates to back the creation of a wealth tax. (Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren was the first candidate to put forward such a proposal; the couple say they are “in the Warren camp.”)
I want to be able to say to my kids, ‘These are the values that I was raised with. These are the values you were raised with.’
For Pritzker Simmons, it’s about more than passing wealth down through generations—it’s about passing along values as well. “I want to be a really responsible steward of these assets,” she explains. “I want to be able to say to my kids, ‘These are the values that I was raised with. These are the values you were raised with.’”