The granddaughter of a migrant worker and founder of a Los Angeles bank was nominated by President Barack Obama yesterday to lead the Small Business Administration.
Maria Contreras-Sweet, 58, founded ProAmerica Bank in 2006 to cater to small- and mid-sized Latino-owned businesses. The job of SBA Administrator, which has been vacant since last year, is a cabinet-level position and requires confirmation by the Senate.
Prior to opening the bank, Contreras-Sweet was the first Latina to hold a state cabinet position, serving as secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. She oversaw 42,000 employees and a budget of $14 billion during her five years in the position.
Contreras-Sweet also helped found private-equity firm Fortius Holdings, served on the Board of Blue Cross of California and was an equity partner in the 7UP/RC Bottling Co.
“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,” Obama said. “So not only did she start small businesses, but those have also been her customers, and she understands all too often that the lack of access to capital means a lack of opportunity.”
Contreras-Sweet, “whose mother worked long hours to support Maria and her five siblings,” has personally experienced the “challenges that working families and recent immigrants face,” Obama said.
Contreras-Sweet, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, moved with her family at age 5 to the Los Angeles area, where her mother worked in an El Monte chicken-packaging plant.
According to Obama, Contreras-Sweet said her grandmother, who toiled as a migrant worker in Mexico, told her that if she “worked hard, studied, stayed in school, that someday” she would get to work as an office secretary and “really make her proud.”
Gary Tobin, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said Contreras-Sweet “is highly regarded in Los Angeles and throughout the state of California,” reported the Washington Post.
“She is articulate and passionate about helping small businesses,” Tobin said in an interview with the newspaper.
Contreras Sweet is also a founding member of HOPE – Hispanas Organized for Political Equality – a nonprofit group aimed at increasing the role of Latinas in politics, and the attention paid to issues affecting Latinas.
She is also a current member of the Los Angeles Latino Chamber of Commerce Board of Director.
“Maria is an excellent choice to head the SBA,” said fellow chamber board member Jonathan Sanchez, associate publisher of Eastern Group Publications, publisher of this newspaper.
“Her vast and personal experience in business and finance, together with her understanding of the issues that impact small businesses, including those particular to Latino-owned small businesses, will be a tremendous asset to the agency and the Obama Administration in dealing with ongoing issues in the economy,” Sanchez said. “She is someone who can bring people together to resolve issues.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also hailed Contreras-Sweet’s nomination, describing her as a “dear friend” and “trailblazer.”
“Maria brings together a rare resume of excellence and experience in both the private and public sectors, and President Obama has made an excellent choice to help accelerate economic recovery in our country,” he said. “I can’t wait to work with Maria on helping small businesses start and grow here in Los Angeles.”
Contreras Sweet was nominated to succeed Karen Mills who left the position last August, If confirmed, she will join Labor Secretary Thomas Perez as the only other Hispanic in the president’s cabinet during his second term.