To fill the last vacancy in his Cabinet, President Obama has turned to a Latina businesswoman who epitomizes upward mobility and minority empowerment.
Maria Contreras-Sweet, the founder of a community bank in downtown Los Angeles, was tapped by the president Wednesday to lead the Small Business Administration. If confirmed, she will be the second Latino in the president’s second-term Cabinet — with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez — and the seventh woman.
Contreras-Sweet, 58, is renowned in the L.A. business community for her elegance — she often sports a string of pearls — her business savvy, and the circumstances of her upbringing. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, she came to the United States at the age of 5. Her mother worked at a chicken-packaging plant near Los Angeles.
When Contreras-Sweet was a young woman, her goal was to be a secretary, not a business executive. Nonetheless, a chance encounter when she was in high school led to a low-level position in the California State Assembly. After college, Contreras-Sweet opened her own management-consulting company.
She went on to found a succession of companies in the financial-services space, starting with Fortius Holdings, a California-based private equity firm. From 1999 to 2003, Contreras-Sweet served as head of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, where she oversaw 40,000 employees and a $12-billion budget. Under Democratic then-Gov. Gray Davis, she created the Department of Managed Care and initiated construction of the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened last September.
In 2006, Contreras-Sweet founded the Los Angeles-based ProAmérica Bank, which caters to small and mid-sized businesses. ProAmérica is geared toward the Latino community and offers bilingual services.
In remarks delivered Wednesday, Obama expounded on Contreras-Sweet’s credentials — but did not explain why the position had been vacant for close to six months. The most recent SBA administrator, Karen Mills, left in August to teach at Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The job is currently filled by acting Administrator Jeanne Hulit.
“I wanted somebody with a proven track record of helping small businesses succeed,” Obama said. “I wanted somebody who understands entrepreneurs, and it would be even better if that somebody had actually started a business of her own.”¦ Maria knows how hard it is to get started on a business — the grueling hours, the stress, the occasional self-doubt — although I have not yet seen self-doubt out of Maria.
“She’s a champion of women-owned and family-owned businesses. When she started her bank, she said she wanted the bank to be a place where families would come for help, ‘because when family businesses thrive’ — and I’m quoting — ‘the community thrives and the economy thrives.’ And as someone who moved to California from Mexico as a young girl, and whose mother worked long hours to support Maria and her five siblings, she knows firsthand the challenges that working families and recent immigrants are facing.”
White House nominees are advised not to do media interviews while their confirmation is pending.
The selection met with unanimous praise from Hispanic leaders, who had applied pressure on the Obama administration to select a Latino candidate for the SBA job.
“Her nomination comes at a distinct time when Latinas are among the most underrepresented groups in public-service leadership roles,” said Hector E. Sanchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. “Ms. Contreras-Sweet will be an even more exceptional role model for our community and bring a sound voice with great perspective to Washington, D.C.”
Others were hopeful that the announcement signaled a new chapter at the SBA, which reportedly has been less engaged with its constituents since Mills announced her resignation last February.
“Hopefully, upon confirmation, she will reach out to small-business organizations and the entrepreneurs themselves to listen to their ideas and concerns,” said Karen Kerrigan, head of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. “For the past year or more, the SBA has gone dark in terms of outreach.”