By Gloria Romano-Barrera
The remarkable career of Maria Contreras-Sweet is replete with highlights. The Mexico native isrecognized for her creative leadership, forward thinking and positive determination. Currently serving as the 24th Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, the successful corporate leader,entrepreneur, and now federal executive is an agent of change and a champion of diversity, accessto capital, and equal opportunity for all Americans.
Contreras-Sweet’s extensive career spans from the private sector, to corporate America, to the banking world, and to government. Contreras-Sweet founded the first Latino-formed commercial bank in California ProAmerica Bank – a bank focused on serving small and mid-sized businesses. In the private sector, she served as the director of public affairs for Westinghouse’s 7-Up / RC Bottling Company where she rose to vice president and later became an equity partner in the company. In government, she was the first Latina to hold a state cabinet post in California. Contreras-Sweet has served as California’s Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing where she managed a $14 billion budget and a workforce of more than 42,000 employees. She was appointed by the United States Senate to serve on the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, created to help break down barriers between women and the executive suite. In 1989, Contreras-Sweet founded Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to encouraging Latinas to engage more fully in the democratic process. She was also a founding director of The California Endowment, a multi-billion dollar philanthropic health foundation.
“Her plan as the SBA Administrator reflects her deep knowledge and expertise, and her vision to bring about change to help take small business success to the next level; Maria’s accomplishments and preparation, includes her appreciation and knowledge for cultural values and cultural differences,” states Isabel Valdes, principal and founder of Isabel Valdés Consulting (IVC) and a member of PepsiCo/Frito-Lay’s Latino Advisory Board, and the Advisory Board of Cricket Communication. “As a Latina SBA Administrator she can help shape and prepare this government agency for the Next America – where demographic transformations are just one of the core issues that need to be addressed to be effective in the near – and distant future. Global competition, the pervasive changes brought by the new electronic industrial revolution together with demographic shifts are huge and dramatic forces that will continue to change the way we live and do businesses in the U.S.”
Contreras-Sweet’s priority is making sure underserved communities use the SBA as their small business resource. She is working to make changes that will impressively impact not only Latinas but women and men alike. Most recently, she is retooling the SBA as Smart, Bold and Accessible. This new tagline for the SBA promotes economic growth and ensures access to opportunities. With Latinos starting businesses at three times the national average, SBA micro-lending under President Obama increased for Latinos, growing to 43 percent above the number of SBA-backed microloans last year, up from 14 percent in 2009.
To start off, she believes there is a need to have a modern, current SBA that fits people’s lifestyle, and this means being ‘smart’. Smart in terms of technology, processes, and in terms of the training in order to meet the public’s needs. “Financial transactions are changing and they are evolving and it’s not easy to turn around a government agency, but we have to make some gains in that area, we need to become more modern, so I use modern for smart,” she states.
The second precedent is referred to as “Bold.” The bolder a business, the more opportunities available. “We want small businesses to be bolder and think about how to get more work from corporations, how to get more work from the government, and how to get more work from the international markets, and other areas we haven’t thought about. Again, you have to be bolder in the way you market yourselves. So we want to be market makers.”
In terms of ‘Accessibility’, the SBA emphasizes its strategy to reach out to underserved individuals that do not know about the SBA. Keen on pushing America’s economy forward, Contreras-Sweet is using every tool available to help create more economic activity in the country. “We want to create a system that supports the small dollar loans and that is why we are partnering with more micro lenders and focusing on our loan projects,” she shares. “We are doing more to brand the SBA to make sure that more and more of the population are aware of their benefits. We want to work to make sure that they are aware that the government also contacts the small businesses through the SBA as advocates, so at every turn, whatever we can do to promote job creation, economic activity, preserve the value of America, which means social mobility – that’s what I’m determined to do.”
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, coming to the United States at the age of 5 with her mother and five siblings was not an easy transition. However, it was through challenges faced as an immigrant that shaped her into becoming the leader she is today. “So many times I hear people say, ‘my grandmother was an immigrant and she taught us this,’… well that is me, I came as an immigrant. I could not speak one word of English when I got here,” states Contreras-Sweet.
She recalls the time she got in trouble for not understanding what her teacher was saying. “I remember when I first arrived she thought I was some kind of an unruly kid that was not paying attention because I couldn’t understand what she was saying. She would pull the ear and she’d go ‘Maria (she didn’t know I couldn’t speak) get up and go get in line’ and I sort of looked around and thought, what’s going on? So that was the first year, acculturation process, learning the language. I didn’t know [the language] I thought, am I dumb? Why am I always getting [placed] in the corner?”
As soon as she learned English, she skipped a grade and surpassed everyone’s expectations. “Once you learn the language you’ll knock the socks off of everybody,” shares Contreras-Sweet. She advises everyone who enters the corporate world, business world, the nonprofit world or the government world to learn the language that is being spoken. “Once you master the language then you can communicate your thoughts and you will just win. I really believe in building confidence through speaking the language, learn a whole piece of what is going on around you because that provides you more choices and more chances for mobility in the organization.”
The Values of a Leader
“Few people may know that Maria is a dedicated family person, a terrific friend, and an immensely generous, compassionate and honest person,” shares Valdés about Contreras-Sweet. “Her values and faith are core pillars! Maria is living proof to all Latinas that anything is possible “Si se puede”; Yes we can!”
Becoming the head of the U.S. SBA is an achievement she believes would not have been possible without the support of her family, and the power of the Hispanic community. A mother of three, a wife and a grandmother, Contreras-Sweet’s inspiration to be an agent of change comes from her grandmother Emilia, a woman who planted in her the value of giving back. “Cada dia doy las bendiciones,” she says. “She was such a ‘yes’ person in the positive sense of the world. She always believed in empowering others, championing others. My grandmother Emilia was always an inspiration to me; to speak up for those that don’t have a voice, and not to be caught up with the titles that I have, but what I do with the titles that I have.”
For Contreras-Sweet it is vital to engage her family at every step of any process. “It’s always a family commitment because we do not achieve these things in isolation from our family. It’s only fair that once you’ve achieved something that I remind everybody that it was only because of my family. We all make sacrifices together and it’s all about give-and-take, it’s about compromise, meeting in the middle and making sure we all share that sign of affirmation.”
The Road Ahead for Latinas
Impressed at how Latinas are soaring in this country, she is focused on the unfettered opportunities Latinas have. “I am very much encouraged by the success that we are having and I think we can do anything, but we just need to have the presence of mind and the will in the preparation,” states Contreras-Sweet. “More and more Latinas are really breaking through and are thought leaders in their respective field. We are entrepreneurial in nature and Latinas are over-indexing in starting their own businesses. Latinas are breaking glass ceilings in corporate America and there is always more to do, and we need to continue to push the economy of the Americas forward.”
An advocate for change, the business-savvy Latina knows what is needed at the foundation. “She’s always very passionate about ensuring small businesses grow; she’s always been about how to help individuals or small businesses to thrive and grow. She knows from starting her own bank, starting a business, she knows the ins and outs and the barriers and challenges,” states Helen Iris Torres, executive director and CEO of HOPE. “She comes from a strong background in government, she knows how to work within bureaucracy, so to have her as the as administrator of the SBA, now, is not only great for Latinas but for the whole community.”
Contreras-Sweet’s thought process is driven by her diverse experience – qualities that have helped her succeed in the nonprofit, government, corporate and banking world. “All of those were processes that I learned in a large setting, and they empowered my ability to be effective,” she states. “I have been fortunate to have been able to create several nonprofits and I think they have a far reaching effect. I am really pleased that I was able to have impact in the corporate sector, the nonprofit and then government. I think those are gifts that we don’t always get. And I think I’ve been really blessed.”
Her advice to any Latina starting their company is to know whether it’s an emerging industry or a dinosaur. To make sure that it’s a growing industry and not something that is dying off. To have a distinguished and developed niche, and to value networks. “No matter how good your product is and how great your plan is, if you don’t have a real powerful network to be able to sell it and get the word out there, then you’d don’t have customer base,” shares the entrepreneur. “We also have to be realistic about what your skill set is,
and hire the proper people around you.”
Fostering a Better America
Appreciative and grateful, the strong-minded executive always looks for commonalities with others as opposed to their differences, thus, articulating the significance of building bridges. “I think that woman can be disciples of change and I think that because we do enforce our children we are really in a key place to be able to create a new generation that does not dwell on the differences and voices our commonality,” she adds. “I think that America embraces diversity and inclusion and I bring that with me every single day. I always mention that I am a Hispanic woman that immigrated to America and is benefiting from the beautiful values that America holds true. I am very proud that we are able to achieve all of these things and as an immigrant, I hope that we, to some extent, show people that we are here to give back to society. We are all here to benefit America and this is the face of an immigrant.”
Valdés can attest to the challenges our community faces and commends Contreras-Sweet for successfully overcoming many of them. “She had to overcome many barriers,” she states. “Maria has shown that we can succeed and become productive and integral members of our new country. We can bring our unique expertise to improve areas where, our background, our history, our cultural expertise can make a huge difference shaping the future of this great nation.”
For Contreras-Sweet, working in collaboration with both parties, Democrats and Republicans, is essential for American Success. “My dream may not be exactly the same as somebody else’s dream,” she shares as she quotes John F. Kennedy, ‘Not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or equal motivation, but they should have the equal right to develop their talent and their ability and their motivation, to make something of themselves,’ You want to achieve for your family and yourself. Our goal is to not have everybody have the same dream but to help people achieve their own personal dream.”
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