Administrator of the Small Business Administration: Who Is Maria Contreras-Sweet?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Maria Contreras-Sweet was confirmed as administrator of the Small Business Administration on March 27, 2014, after being nominated by President Barack Obama on January 15, 2014. As administrator, Contreras-Sweet’s organization will be charged with assisting small business by providing financial assistance, including loans; training and counseling; assistance in obtaining government contracts; and help in times of disasters.

 

Contreras-Sweet’s story could have come out of Hollywood. She was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1955, coming to the United States with her mother, Guadalupe Contreras and five siblings when she was 5 years old after her parents had divorced. Her family eventually settled in Baldwin Park, California, near Los Angeles. Although her family had owned pharmacies in Mexico, in California Contreras-Sweet’s mother worked cleaning houses and in a poultry-processing plant. Contreras-Sweet graduated from Baldwin Park High School, becoming homecoming queen along the way. While in high school, she met the office manager for then-California State Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy. Contreras-Sweet worked for McCarthy as a secretary and a coordinator for graduate-student interns. In 1976, she also volunteered for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.

 

After high school, Contreras-Sweet attended Mt. San Antonio Junior College and later Cal State Los Angeles, where she earned a degree in political science. She worked as a field deputy for State Senator Joe Montoya and briefly for the U.S. Census, overseeing, at age 24, the Southeast Los Angeles region.

 

 In 1980 she was offered a job in marketing and government relations for 7UP-RC Bottling Co., which was then owned by Westinghouse. She remained there for 15 years, rising to vice president of public affairs in 1986 and becoming an equity partner when the bottling company was bought out from Westinghouse in 1990. While at 7UP-RC, Contreras-Sweet was one of the corporate negotiators of the Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act of 1986, which mandated that beverage containers sold in California carry a redemption value.

 

During this period, she also served on the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, which studied bias that prevented otherwise qualified individuals from advancing in business. After leaving the bottling company, she founded Contreras-Sweet Company, a consulting firm that had Disney and Coca-Cola among its clients.

 

In 1999, California Governor Gray Davis (D) appointed Contreras-Sweet secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing. In that role, she managed 44,000 employees and the $14 billion budget of a department that included the California Highway Patrol, the Department of Housing and Community Development and the California Film Commission. Much of her department’s responsibility focused on overseeing the health insurance industry in the state and the California Department of Transportation’s efforts to improve traffic safety and flow.

 

When Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger took over the governor’s office in 2003 after the recall of Davis, Contreras-Sweet left public service and founded Fortius Holdings, a private equity and venture fund aimed at the Latino community. Out of that venture in 2006 came the founding of ProAmerica Bank, with Contreras-Sweet as its founding chairwoman. It was the first Latino bank to be founded in Los Angeles in 30 years and is aimed at serving small- and medium-sized businesses, primarily in the Latino community.

 

In addition to her government service and business interests, Contreras-Sweet has devoted much of her time to community service. In 1989, she was founding president of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE). She was a founding director of the California Endowment philanthropic organization, and was a board member of Rebuild LA, which provided economic development assistance in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

 

Contreras-Sweet and her husband, Ray Sweet, have three children, Rafael, Francesca and Antonio.

-Steve Straehley

 

To Learn More:

Opening Statement of Maria Contreras‐Sweet to the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship (pdf)

It’s a Sweet Ride to the Top (Latin Business Today)

Front and Center: She Cracked the Glass Ceiling at 30. Now, Maria Contreras-Sweet is Using her Clout to Help Others Break the Same Barrier (by Judith Michaelson, Los Angeles Times)

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