Maria Contreras-Sweet was introduced by President Obama on Wednesday as his choice to lead the SBA. If confirmed by the Senate, she 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, the president of Los Angeles-based Berkhemer-Clayton, an executive search firm. 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, holding the post until 2003.
After her public service ended, she co-founded Fortius Holdings, a private equity and venture fund that invested in small businesses. 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 how to use their political power.
She is also a tireless advocate for women’s issues, says Edward Roybal Jr., the 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 was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 5. Her mother supported the family by working in a chicken factory.
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 but never loses sight that it’s about people,” said Xavier Gutierrez, the president of the Meruelo Group, a private equity firm.