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. She was 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, she would say, ‘Let’s make it.’ Even though she didn’t have much, she was always very generous with what she had.” Emilia provided insights that have proved valuable in business and public service. “She believed there was 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 when we got here, just to make our way,” Contreras-Sweet said. “I was 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 it was 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’s 1976 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. “This was 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 in 1986 and becoming an equity partner when Westinghouse sold the company in 1990. In 1995, she headed out on her own but found it’s not easy starting a business. “I remember just trying to work off the credit cards and how hard it was to manage my own business, to get business,” she said about Contreras-Sweet Co., a consulting firm specializing 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: In 1999, 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 for 13 departments with 42,000 employees. “I brought in help so that we could determine, agencywide, how we could help small businesses,” Contreras Sweet said. “I met with banks to find out what kind of accommodations there were for women-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: She was co-founder and president of the private equity firm Fortius Holdings, which funded small California companies. In 2006, she was the founding chairwoman of ProAmerica Bank, which was developed to serve small- and medium-size businesses, mostly in the Latino community. “ProAmerica stood for ‘the promise of America.’ People didn’t have collateral and needed a new way to find institutions to invest in them,” she said.
SBA goals: When trying to start her first business, Contreras-Sweet said she was 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 know about 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 those rare free times, she likes hiking on the weekends with her husband. Inspiration for her work is easy to find, she said, living in the Colonial-style tourist city of Alexandria, just south and west of Washington, D.C., “which provides me the opportunity to visit small businesses whenever I am out and about in the community.”