By Joyce M. Rosenberg
The woman nominated to be the next head of the Small Business Administration has spent decades working with small companies and did a stint in state government.
Maria Contreras-Sweet was introduced by President Barack Obama as his choice to lead the SBA. If confirmed by the Senate, Contreras-Sweet will succeed Karen Mills, who left the SBA at the end of August.
Contreras-Sweet has a wide range of experience having been a business owner, founder of a Latino-owned community bank and a former California cabinet secretary. She’s also been an advocate for Hispanics.
“She knows business and she knows the economics and the business of raising capital, and the importance of building a solid small-business community,” said Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, president of Berkhemer-Clayton, an executive search firm in Los Angeles. She has known Contreras-Sweet for about 25 years and worked with her at nonprofit groups including the March of Dimes.
Contreras-Sweet, 58, first became a business owner in 1980, as a partner in the 7UP/RC Bottling Co. of Southern California. She also served on the board of directors of the health insurer Blue Cross of California.
In 1999, she became secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and was the first Hispanic woman in the state Cabinet. She held that post until 2003.
After Contreras-Sweet’s public service ended, she co-founded Fortius Holdings, a private equity and venture fund that invested in small businesses. And in 2006, she co-founded ProAmerica Bank, whose business is solely about lending to small companies and nonprofit groups.
Her experience with the bank has prepared her for the SBA, ProAmerica CEO Bruce Mills says. The SBA typically backs $30 billion in small-business loans each year.
Contreras-Sweet has long been active in groups that help the Hispanic community, including one that she helped found, Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, which trains young people on using political power. She is also a tireless advocate for women’s issues, says Edward Roybal Jr., executive director of the Lucille and Edward R. Roybal Foundation, where Contreras-Sweet is on the board of directors.
The organization provides internships and scholarships to students working toward careers in health care and financial assistance to organizations offering health care or health education.
Contreras-Sweet and former SBA head Karen Mills have similarities in their backgrounds. Both led private equity firms. But Contreras-Sweet has a small-business banking background and experience running a government agency.
The two have similar styles, says Juan Sepulveda, who worked with Contreras-Sweet on projects when he was executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Sepulveda says both can be tough when it comes to carrying out their missions, but his impression is that their employees like them as leaders.
Contreras-Sweet was born in Mexico, and immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 5 years old. Her mother supported the family by working in a chicken factory. She earned her bachelor’s degree at UCLA.
Friends and business associates describe Contreras-Sweet as gracious and ready to help anyone in need.
“She’s someone who understands the public sector very well,” says Xavier Gutierrez, president of the Meruelo Group, a private equity firm, “but never loses sight that it’s about people.”