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Front and Center : Maria Contreras-Sweet cracked the glass ceiling at 30. Now she’s using her clout to help others do the same.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maria Contreras-Sweet steps deftly across wet green metal grids at 7-Up/RC Bottling Co. of Southern California. Wearing 2 1/2-inch heels, a white hair net and safety goggles, she helps conduct a tour through the boom-box-loud plant where soda bottles and cans whiz by like toy trains.

Amazingly, Contreras-Sweet does not once lose her footing and sink through the grid.

But then sidestepping obstacles is her particular talent. She came here at age 5 from Guadalajara with her mother and five siblings and today, at 39, is 7-Up’s vice president for public affairs and an emerging force on the political scene, particularly among sister Latinas.

She has garnered seats on the boards of RLA (formerly known as Rebuild L.A.) and Loyola Marymount University, among other institutions, and in 1991 became a member of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, a bipartisan task force charged with studying and making recommendations on the advancement of women and minorities in American business. She officially cracked the ceiling at 30 by landing her current position at 7-Up. Yet Contreras-Sweet dates her real breakthrough to four years later, when she joined the board of the multibillion-dollar Blue Cross of California.

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She is also the founding president of HOPE--Hispanas Organized for Political Equality--which promotes Latina issues through nonprofit, advocacy and educational wings, and with HOPE PAC, a political action committee.

“I’m a woman of different moods, just like many of us are,” Contreras-Sweet says, explaining the birth of HOPE six years ago. “One day I could be angry about something that’s in my grocery store and I want to do something about it; another day, the environment. But I just felt that the common denominator is political involvement.

“So I’m sitting here,” she recalls from her 7-Up office in Vernon, “saying, ‘I’m a Latina. I’ve been blessed in my life. I’m happily married. I have great kids. I have a company that really supports my work, and I work well. What can I do to put it all together? I wanted to see a Latina organization thrive because Latinas are really low in terms of income, attainment of education, glass ceiling. . . .”

In May, HOPE sponsored Latina Action Day, which brought 260 women to Sacramento to meet legislative leaders. And the group has so far given to city schools 200 copies of its self-published bilingual book for upper grade-schoolers, “Women of Hope” (1994), which depicts five influential women--from Queen Isabella of Spain to Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.

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“Maria has a lot of strength because she works in corporate America,” says Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), who in 1994 was the first Latina elected to the state Senate. “This is the new Latina leadership.”

A Democrat, Contreras-Sweet has support in both parties. “People like Maria,” notes Jeff Brown, her public-affairs counterpart at Pepsi. “They want to do her favors. . . . Three years ago, the soft drink people were in a battle. . . . Pepsi, Coke and Shasta were all represented by men, sitting in a room talking about how we were going to have to generate a grass-roots campaign to blitzkrieg [Gov. Pete Wilson’s] office. Maria Contreras-Sweet came back and said, ‘Oh, I just had tea with the governor’s staff, and they said there’d be no problem.’ ”

Ana Barbosa, former president of the Latin Business Assn., a Los Angeles human relations commissioner and head of her own marketing firm, says that when she has problems with work or one of her four daughters, she goes to her sister Maria. “Many a time, although I’m the oldest [sister], she plays the big sister role.”

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Contreras-Sweet has come to the Los Angeles Summit on Diversity to present the Glass Ceiling Commission’s first report, completed in March. Her backdrop at the county Museum of Natural History is a huge glassed exhibit of stuffed bison. Women and/or minorities in top corporate positions, it turns out, are as rare as the endangered species.

“The punch line is: ‘Things are bad, but we didn’t realize how bad they were,’ ” she says. “We learned that 97% of senior managers of Fortune 1,000 industrial and Fortune 500 companies are white; 95% to 97% are male. It’s such a devastating number. In Fortune 2,000 industrial and service companies, 5% of senior managers are women. And of that 5%, virtually all are white. . . .

“If you’re going to be competitive in this marketplace, you can’t ignore two-thirds of the population. That’s reason enough to be involved in breaking the glass ceiling.”

Yet never does Contreras-Sweet utter those two heat-seeking words: affirmative action. She has already explained privately that she considers affirmative action “a tool, a good tool” in an overall strategy to achieve diversity. But she doesn’t want to see the issue linked to the glass ceiling report.

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“The glass ceiling is about reflecting the marketplace in order to be more effective--as a business,” she says from her office wing chair. “How do we make America more competitive in the global marketplace? . . . If I’ve got to sell in Southern California, do I have the right tools, the right equipment--and do I have the right [people]?”

But after the commission’s June meeting, she says she is not convinced America can become diverse “without legislative [or] regulatory impetus or incentives.” Indeed, at that meeting she initiated her transfer from the commission’s business committee to its government committee.

“If we have learned from history, we see most of the gains were made from the country responding to [judicial] mandates, executive orders, legislation. It seems to me we still need that. What did our country look like before civil rights?”

Still, she recoils at the notion of racial preferences. “Affirmative action, I have no problem with,” Contreras-Sweet says. “What I’m offended by is when people use the term ‘preferential treatment.’ Because no one has asked for preferential treatment.”

She puts her own spin on what affirmative action really is: “You have a person, one of six kids, has struggled through school and he gets a B. But you know he has worked part time to get to school. And then you have an only child, a straight-A student. Who am I going to hire? Who do I think is just going to offer me more? I think the person with the B.”

She might have been talking about herself.

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“I grew up as Little Miss Average Baldwin Park Gal, and participated in my little cheerleading . . ,” Contreras-Sweet says, “with little or no direction in life. No counselor gave me [that].”

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In her first year in America, Maria and her brothers and sisters rotated among homes of aunts and uncles. There was not enough room in any one place to keep the family intact. Her parents, Guadalupe and Rafael Contreras, who owned some pharmacies, had divorced in Mexico. Here, her mother cleaned houses.

When Maria was 6, a guardian angel from Virginia, Hoyt Ramsey, entered their lives. Her mother had met him through a relative who worked for the same food supplier. They married, and the family moved to a small three-bedroom house--one bathroom for eight people--in Baldwin Park.

English came quickly, and Maria was soon a voracious reader--"Little Women,” “The Secret Garden,” the Bronte classics. She learned acculturation. “At Christmas,” she says with relish, “my dad [Ramsey] would bring out the ham, and my mom would bring out the tamales and the pan dulce, Mexican sweetbread.”

But all was not sweet. Her third-grade teacher questioned whether Maria was reading all the books she claimed and asked her to write a report. “I remember overhearing [a teacher say], ‘This family does so well. They have a stepfather who really helps them.’ ”

The remark stung, and sticks in her memory. “It was not fair to my mother, not fair to my [biological] father. . . .”

After Baldwin Park High School, where the mannequin-slim Contreras was homecoming queen and a class legislator who attended City Council meetings, she went to Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. She studied to be a secretary. And hated it.

She got an offer to work for then-Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy at his office Downtown. She stayed a year, as a secretary and a coordinator for graduate-student interns who prepared reports on various issues. She left to attend UC Santa Barbara, her dream campus, but found it lacking after a brief visit. “The women were really different from what I was, and I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m going to connect here. This is even more liberal than me . . . the [co-ed] dorming . . . their lifestyle.”

Instead, she worked for her own assemblyman, Joe Montoya, volunteered in Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, and for a while attended Cal State Los Angeles, majoring in political science. On the job, she attended City Council meetings, worked with the state Department of Transportation to get a sound wall erected on the Interstate 10 in Rosemead, made speeches. And she loved it.

In late 1977, she watched Gloria Molina, now a Los Angeles County supervisor, leave for a White House job. There was only one thing to keep Contreras from making the same kind of political move: her deepening interest in Ray Sweet.

She had met Sweet, now 50, when he visited her high school to inquire about teaching a marriage-counseling class for seniors at a nearby church. She bumped into him with a huge box of candied apples for a fund-raiser, and he bought the entire load. Later, he bumped into her again at Montoya’s office. “Ray saw so much in me,” she says. “But it was in me, and he brought it out.”

At 24, Contreras took a job with the U.S. Census, with a $1-million budget and 700 employees, overseeing the count for the Southeast Los Angeles region. By 1980, she was working at 7-Up as a marketing trainee.

She also married Sweet, by then a prosperous executive search consultant, and had her first two children--Rafael, now 13, and Francesca, 12, who attend Catholic schools. The youngest, Antonio, is 4.

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What made her succeed? She homes in on negotiation. “Just about everything you do in this life is a transaction. You’re buying something, you’re selling something, trying to convince them to join you. . . . I don’t feel I have to slam people, punch ‘em in the nose and say, ‘I’m going to win; you’re going to lose.’ A lot of things can be win-win. Let’s focus on the things we have in common. . . .”

She did it in 1986 when, as a key player in the California-Nevada Soft Drink Assn., she helped craft a formula that led to a landmark anti-litter law ending a 20-year fight over refundable deposits on beer and soft-drink containers. “She was pivotal,” says William Shireman, former executive director of Californians Against Waste. “It was really the first time in the nation that the proponents and opponents of bottle bills . . . found common ground.”

In 1992, as chair of the Blue Cross’ public-policy committee, she helped launch CaliforniaKids, a public/private partnership that serves about 4,000 children from low-income families who earn too much to qualify for Medi-Cal.

And this year, concerned that the Glass Ceiling Commission had “no white, non-minority males” except Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, she quietly organized round-table discussions on the issue. “We needed to have some ownership by the people who could actually make some of these changes,” she says.

“Maria is a almost a peacemaker on the commission,” says Beverly A. King, president and CEO of King & Wright Consulting in Culver City and one of 1992’s Black Women of Achievement named by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “I am very impressed with her ability to state issues in a way that the other members can coalesce around.”

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No superwoman trap for Contreras-Sweet. With her husband’s consulting and employee-leasing business not far from their large Rowland Heights home, he can spell her when she’s on the road, which is not infrequent, or at evening community events. She has nannies, a housekeeper, a cousin who lives around the corner, her sister and a mother--"like in a second,” she snaps her finger, “in a nanosecond, I need her for something, she’s there. She prioritizes family.”

Contreras-Sweet is at once a person who craves privacy and basks in the limelight. “She enjoys being front and center,” says Bart Brodkin, 7-Up’s president. “She likes to be with important people and make things happen. I say that in a positive way.”

Contreras-Sweet doesn’t quite say where the next rung up might be. She says she loves 7-Up, where she is a part equity owner, but wonders about her growth there. She fantasizes about becoming U.S. ambassador to Mexico some day, after her children are grown.

Still, she might have something more immediate in mind.

“If we haven’t seen positive Latinas on television,” she says at the Natural History Museum event, “then when you see Maria Contreras-Sweet, then you’re not going to visualize her as being the next CEO of your company and thus maybe not hiring her. . . .”

She gives her name its full Spanish lilt.


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