SBA Nominee Focused on Minority Empowerment

Maria Contreras-Sweet listens to US President Barack Obama announce her as his nomination to lead the Small Business Administration during an event on the White House grounds January 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama nominated Maria Contreras-Sweet, ­owner of ProAmerica Bank, to replace Karen Mills as the head of the Small Business Administration.  
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
Jan. 16, 2014, 3:23 p.m.

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.”

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