17 Conference Report #techonomy17

A Conversation With Beth Comstock and Penny Pritzker


  • Beth Comstock of GE (far left) and Penny Pritzker from PSP Capital Partners (middle) in conversation with David Kirkpatrick. Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma Photography


Beth Comstock
Vice Chair, GE

Penny Pritzker
Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce


David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy

A conversation with Penny Pritzker and Beth Comstock, moderated by David Kirkpatrick. An excerpt of the talk can be found below, with the full transcript available here.

Kirkpatrick: Next, we have two of the great leaders of American business, one of them with very recent government experience as well. We’re going to have a conversation about what’s happening with a lot of different things, employment, education, management, and the intersection between business and society.

Penny Pritzker was until quite recently the secretary of commerce. She actually appeared at Techonomy two years ago, so we’re happy to have you back.

Pritzker: Thanks for having me.

Kirkpatrick: Now she’s running PSP Capital, which is an investment operation with a lot of different activities of different kinds of investing, and also very involved in work around the future of jobs with the Markle Foundation, which Beth Comstock and I actually have also both worked with in their previous task force, trying to figure out what was happening with automation and jobs.

Beth Comstock is currently the vice chair of GE, also runs the lighting division there, oversees all communications and marketing, and previously worked at NBC and has had a wonderful career. She’s announced that she’s leaving GE as of the end of the year, so we’ll want to hear a little bit about what you’re doing.

There’s so many things that we could talk about, but one thing I know that both of you are extremely interested in, as I mentioned, is this issue of automation and the future of work. Now, we didn’t get to that in the discussion about the intersection of people and machines before, but it’s a subtext even of that discussion that this is going to change the nature of work.

Were there any things that you heard already on this stage that make you think that’s going to be an even more either challenging or exciting opportunity, or anything about what we’ve talked about so far and what it might mean for the future of work?

Pritzker: Well, there were many different technologies being talked about in your first panel that create great opportunity but very much might displace individuals in what their job is, or change the nature of the job. If room service, instead of coming by an individual, comes with a robot, if the robot has a Taser, that might make me a little nervous, that part of the conversation. But no, there’s definitely work implications in much of what was discussed, and I think that that’s something that we as a society and we as business leaders need to think through and make sure that the folks whose jobs are changing or being displaced, we’re helping them.

Kirkpatrick: So Beth, in the bottom line—forget about what’s been said on stage, although feel free to address it, but are you worried or excited at a macro level about what technology’s going to do for the way people work?

Comstock: Both. I mean, I think there’s huge reason to be optimistic in the things we’re going to be able to do. But I worry about the unintended consequences and I think companies, business maybe isn’t set up for some of the unintended consequences of what technology is going to do. I think looking at your earlier panel, I mean, it’s so exciting—every time I hear Mary Lou, I get really excited. I also am nervous, I mean we’re already dealing with data issues, privacy issues. Now I’ve got to think about that my boss can read my mind? I mean, sometimes I wish he could do that anyway. It’d make it a lot easier. But we haven’t even dealt with the issues that we have in front of us now, because things are moving so fast. So I worry about the pace of change and our ability to be contextually relevant in the world with that.

Kirkpatrick: Which goes beyond the issue of jobs, obviously. But you know, this is something that we talked about on the phone. Having just had a couple years of government experience, my feeling was that you didn’t come out of there super confident that government has a great grip on technological change.

Pritzker: Well, I think the challenge for government is—you know, there’s been too long a divide between technologists and government. And I think post-Snowden, there was definitely a bigger divide. And I think in fact we need to create opportunities for people who are really knowledgeable in technology to be serving in government, even for a year or two. You know, we had presidential innovation fellows. It was fabulous because the amount of knowledge transfer that went on to people who are policymakers was extraordinary. Imagine if that was more normal as part of your career in a company like GE or any other technology company in this room if you said, okay, it’s going to be part of your development as an executive, spend a year in government, helping the government be more knowledgeable. Imagine then the regulations or rules or things that are being considered to address some of the things you raised in the very first video that you showed. They’ll probably be less analog and more digital in terms of solutions to deal with these challenges.

Kirkpatrick: Yes, and that exact issue is going to come up in the next panel. But it worries me, to be frank, when somebody says, “What we’ve got to do…” I mean, there are so many things, particularly around education and the future of work—I mean, in many arenas, but just in that area, where I think rational people can really almost universally agree on what is needed, more educational capability in the American workforce. And yet, we don’t really see much movement at the macro level. So how are we going to get the change we need?

I’d like both of you to address this, because I know it’s something you’ve both spent a lot of time thinking about. You know, we need better education, both vocational and liberal arts, in order to have supple thinkers who can adapt, and we also need specific skills. But we are not evolving our system to achieve either of those goals right now as far as I can tell. So what is actually going to happen?

Pritzker: Well, I actually think there’s a lot of change going on. You mentioned the Markle Foundation. Let’s take the work they’re doing in Colorado. I think fundamentally in order to get the kind of supple, more evolving education, you ultimately have to bring local government—this is not a federal solution. It’s going to be local. You’re going to have to have local business leaders and you have to have the educational institutions locally, and by that I mean K-12, community college, universities, local colleges that are agreeing here’s what are the kinds of trainings that need to be going on to create that worker for the twenty-first century, that educated employee that we want. And we need to then work together to achieve that. That’s not something that can be done by business leaders alone, nor can it be done by government alone, and for sure can’t be done by educational institutions alone. And oftentimes educational institutions, particularly state and local, they can’t even change their curriculum without often some kind of either legislative or bureaucratic challenge. You saw that with the Markle work, and ultimately what Governor Hickenlooper did in Colorado. He had to change 15 laws in order to be able to create a more supple system, a more flexible system that allowed someone to get the training and the credentialing that allowed them to access work more quickly.

And so I think we need a rethink of our systems, but the work has got to go on locally, so that’s why I’ve been very focused on governors and mayors and business leadership. Because the educational institutions want to be a part of this, for the most part. Sometimes the unions are not as flexible, but for the most part they want to be a part of the solution too. So bringing all those groups together and saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do in service of our local communities,” I think there’s a lot of motivation, and you’re seeing it happening. You’re seeing green shoots, you’re seeing this kind of innovation happening in Colorado, Rhode Island, South Carolina. I see it in Chicago happening to a certain extent. The question is how do we make it systemic?

Comstock: So, I’ve seen this in business, certainly at GE. We spent about 18 months mapping out a vision of the future of work. Over the next ten years, largely ten-plus years—

Kirkpatrick: At GE? For your own purposes?

Comstock: For our own purposes. Basically, to start to look around the world, where are the jobs going to be, how do we get there, what skills, what capability—it goes way beyond workforce planning. A couple of interesting things, I mean, one thing I’d say is that everybody who came out of it, they got really excited about the future of their jobs. It made me sort of wonder that maybe they weren’t maybe as excited about their current job, so we’ve got some work to do there.


But I think you could imagine that if every business is doing this, it makes it quite easy to get together with education and with business, but there has to be that kind of action to do it. I just wrapped up—actually, it’s just wrapping up. I’ve been on this advisory council for the government of Australia. It’s called Innovation and Science Australia and they’re looking at Australia 2030. And they brought global people in, they brought business, local, and it was with that kind of idea in mind, what’s it going to take to get Australia to what we need to be—mind you, this is an economy that’s had 26 years of interrupted growth, so things are pretty good there, but realizing they may not always be. So I think—you know, Australia is a small country, but I think that can happen.