SBA chief is striv­ing to lift en­trepreneurs

Los Angeles Times - - WORK LIFE - By Ron­ald D. White ron­ald.white@la­times.com Twit­ter:@RonWLATimes

The gig: Since April 2014, Maria Con­tr­eras-Sweet, 59, has been run­ning the U.S. Small Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion as a mem­ber of Pres­i­dent Obama’s Cabi­net. She­was born in Guadala­jara, Mex­ico, and came to Amer­ica with her mother, Guadalupe Con­tr­eras, and five sib­lings when she was 5. Abuela’s ex­am­ple: Grand­mother Emilia was “very re­source­ful,” Con­tr­eras-Sweet said. “If one of us needed a dress, she­would say, ‘Let’s make it.’ Even though she didn’t have much, she­was al­ways very gen­er­ous with what she had.” Emilia pro­vided in­sights that have proved valu­able in busi­ness and public ser­vice. “She be­lieved there­was more power in win­ning peo­ple over, by say­ing yes, by fo­cus­ing on what we have in com­mon.” Every­body works: The fam­ily set­tled in Baldwin Park, and Guadalupe Con­tr­eras, who spoke no English, found work at a small poul­try pro­cess­ing plant in El Monte. “We all cleaned houses whenwe got here, just tomake our­way,” Con­tr­eras-Sweet said. “Iwas the fur­ni­ture duster. One of my sis­ters ran the vac­uum cleaner.” Stay­ing pos­i­tive: Con­tr­eras-Sweet re­mem­bers the pos­i­tive at­ti­tude her mother taught her by ap­pre­ci­at­ing even the small things in an oth­er­wise chal­leng­ing work en­vi­ron­ment. Her mother would bring sev­eral lay­ers of cloth­ing with her for her job on the swing shift at the poul­try plant, where she had to spend time in a cold re­frig­er­a­tor unit. “She never com­plained about any­thing. She al­ways rec­og­nized the pos­i­tive things, some­times itwas just ‘Gosh, we are so lucky. They let me bring home some chicken to­day.’ ”

See­ing public life: Dur­ing her col­lege years, she vol­un­teered in Jimmy Carter’s1976 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Af­ter earn­ing a de­gree in po­lit­i­cal science and public ad­min­is­tra­tion at Cal State Los An­ge­les, Con­tr­eras-Sweet worked for As­sem­bly­man Joe Mon­toya and then the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau. “Thiswas the kind of thing I loved,” she said. Go­ing pri­vate: Con­tr­eras-Sweet landed a mar­ket­ing and gov­ern­ment re­la­tions job with 7Up-RC Bot­tling Co., ris­ing to public af­fairs vice pres­i­dent in1986 and be­com­ing an eq­uity part­ner when West­ing­house sold the com­pany in1990. In1995, she headed out on her own but found it’s not easy start­ing a busi­ness. “I re­mem­ber just try­ing towork off the credit cards and howhard itwas to man­age my own busi­ness, to get busi­ness,” she said about Con­tr­eras-Sweet Co., a con­sult­ing firm that spe­cial­ized in Latino mar­ket­ing. “You spend all day long get­ting the busi­ness and then all night long get­ting the busi­ness done,” she re­called. “So I learned about the strug­gles an en­tre­pre­neur faces.”

Public again: In1999, Con­tr­eras-Sweet be­came the state’s first Latina Cabi­net of­fi­cial, serv­ing Gov. Gray Davis as sec­re­tary of the Busi­ness, Trans­porta­tion and Hous­ing Agency. Dur­ing her five years there, she man­aged a $14-bil­lion bud­get for13 de­part­ments with 42,000 em­ploy­ees. “I brought in help so thatwe could de­ter­mine, agen­cy­wide, howwe could help small busi­nesses,” Con­tr­eras-Sweet said. “I met with banks to find out what kind of ac­com­mo­da­tions therewere forwomen-owned and mi­nor­ity-owned busi­nesses and found that there weren’t that many.... We tried to break bar­ri­ers, for ex­am­ple, on the num­ber of con­tracts awarded to peo­ple like dis­abled vet­er­ans.” Back in busi­ness: She­was co-founder and pres­i­dent of the pri­vate eq­uity firm For­tius Hold­ings, which funded small Cal­i­for­nia com­pa­nies. In 2006, she­was the found­ing chair­woman of Pro-Amer­ica Bank, which­was de­vel­oped to serve small- and medi­um­size busi­nesses, mostly in the Latino com­mu­nity. “Pro-Amer­ica stood for ‘the prom­ise of Amer­ica.’ Peo­ple didn’t have col­lat­eral and needed a newway to find in­sti­tu­tions to in­vest in them,” she said. SBA goals: When try­ing to start her first busi­ness, Con­tr­eras-Sweet said she­was un­aware of all the SBA could have done to help through grants, loan guar­an­tees, coun­sel­ing, con­tract­ing as­sis­tance and other pro­grams. “We have to be branded, be­cause peo­ple just don’t knowabout us. Then we need to lift en­trepreneurs and have them feel more em­bold­ened.... They are look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion, what sort of path should they take?” Per­sonal: Con­tr­eras-Sweet and her hus­band, Ray Sweet, have three chil­dren and one grand­child. Dur­ing rare free time, she likes hik­ing on the week­ends with her hus­band. In­spi­ra­tion for her­work is easy to find, she said, living in the Colo­nial-style tourist city of Alexan­dria, just south andwest of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., “which pro­vides me the op­por­tu­nity to visit small busi­nesses when­ever I am out and about in the com­mu­nity.”

‘I learned about the strug­gles an en­tre­pre­neur faces.’ — MARIA CON­TR­ERAS-SWEET dis­cussing a con­sult­ing firm she started in 1995 that spe­cial­ized in Latino mar­ket­ing

Bren­dan Smi­alowski AFP/Getty Images

PRES­I­DENT OBAMA nom­i­nated Maria Con­tr­eras-Sweet, the found­ing chair­woman of ProAmer­ica Bank, to head the Small Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion in Jan­uary 2014. The Se­nate con­firmed her in April 2014.

Charles Dhara­pak As­so­ci­ated Press

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