Maria Contreras-Sweet’s best sounding board throughout her career has been her “kitchen cabinet.” During weeknight dinners or Sunday brunches after church, she would tell her husband and three children about her workday, whether it involved meeting with a consulting client or working to start a community bank.
“I wanted my family to feel that the entrepreneurial road I was [going] down was something the family was doing, so we did it together,” she says.
In early 2014, Contreras-Sweet convened her kitchen cabinet after President Barack Obama chose her to join his own Cabinet as head of the U.S. Small Business Administration. The family discussed the effects of her moving to Washington from Los Angeles, where they lived and worked at the time.
“We thought that the impact she could have as administrator of the SBA was worth making that sacrifice,” says her son Rafael Contreras-Sweet, a lawyer in Los Angeles.
Almost a year into the position, Contreras-Sweet is working to transform the SBA from a bureaucratic agency criticized for confusing loan programs into a modern, nimble resource for American entrepreneurs. To her, SBA stands for “smart, bold, accessible,” and she’s creating initiatives to help the agency live up to that catchphrase, with technology at the forefront.
The administrator brings many perspectives to her job: immigrant, three-time entrepreneur, government official, corporate vice president, nonprofit founder, wife and mother.
She came to the U.S. from Guadalajara, Mexico, at age 5. She rose through the corporate ranks at the 7UP/RC Bottling Co. in Southern California to become a vice president. She helped found Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, a non-profit promoting political and economic opportunities for Latinas. She became the first Latina in a California state cabinet position as secretary of business, transportation and housing in 1999. She was a founder of Contreras Sweet Enterprises, a consulting company, Fortius Holdings LLC, a venture capital firm, and ProAmerica Bank.
Solving entrepreneurial challenges
Since taking office at the SBA in April 2014, Contreras-Sweet has focused on improving small-business owners’ access to capital — one of the primary challenges entrepreneurs face.
She extended a pre-existing policy that eliminates fees for SBA-guaranteed loans of $150,000 or less. She introduced LINC, an online matchmaking tool that pledges to connect businesses with SBA lenders within 48 hours, as well as SBA One, an automated lending platform that will roll out later in 2015. LINC and SBA One aim to increase the total number of SBA-guaranteed loans by making lenders easier to access and loan processing more efficient.
Contreras-Sweet says it isn’t enough just to get money flowing. She emphasizes the importance of business counseling to teach entrepreneurs how to spend their money efficiently. She loves hearing about companies that have benefited from SBA resources. Those success stories include Under Armour, the Baltimore-based athletic clothing brand, and The Yankee Candle Company, a popular scented candle retailer in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. But many other businesses fail because they don’t get counseling, she says.
“I find that many businesses have a terrific idea, but they’re challenged by saying, ‘Does anyone else have this idea? How do I get it started?’ ” she says. “Even if you don’t get formal counseling, it’s important to find a mentor you trust.”
Entrepreneurs can get business counseling through two SBA-sponsored organizations: the Small Business Development Center and the SCORE Association. Both have hundreds of locations nationwide and provide free and low-cost counseling and workshops to teach entrepreneurs about business development, management and finance.
Learning from her own struggles
Contreras-Sweet may be a business development expert now, but much of her knowledge was built through trial and error as she started her own businesses. She recalls trying to get business cards made for her first company, Contreras Sweet Enterprises, only to realize that she didn’t have an office phone number or address to put on them.
“I was the blind leading myself through this process,” she says. “I wish that I understood that I had counselors available to me.”
Her businesses eventually found success, which she attributes to hard work. Contreras Sweet Enterprises’ clients included The Coca-Cola Co., The Walt Disney Co. and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Fortius Holdings provided private investments for small businesses, and ProAmerica Bank funds small and medium-sized businesses in predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
“I worked harder for my own business than I think I ever did in my corporate situation,” she says. She advises new entrepreneurs to be prepared to work long hours, just as she did.
“I always say, ‘Are you up for this? You’re going to need to have a lot of energy and passion for what you’re doing,’ ” she says.
Balancing work and family
Like many women, Contreras-Sweet has had to balance her work with raising her children. She was not the mother who vacuumed regularly or cleaned her kids’ rooms. She traveled a lot, especially from Los Angeles to Sacramento during her five years in the California state cabinet. In a pinch, she often called her sisters to help with carpooling. But she also made time to get to know her kids’ teachers and to be there for their soccer, tennis and basketball games, even if it meant showing up in a suit.
“She managed to be pretty hands-on,” son Rafael says. “She was there for the important things.”
Contreras-Sweet’s approach to work-life balance was to include her kids in her professional life whenever possible. When she worked at 7UP/RC Bottling in the 1980s and ’90s, she’d bring them to networking events at fancy banquet halls. Rafael, who started his own law firm in Los Angeles in 2013, encounters people now who remember seeing him at events when he was 8 years old.
“It was actually a pretty good training ground on meeting people and networking, even though I didn’t realize it at the time,” he says.
When Contreras Sweet Enterprises was getting started in the mid-’90s, the family’s dining room table became a hub for assembling pamphlets for her consulting presentations, with the kids enlisted to help hole-punch and fasten the pages. Other times, Contreras-Sweet brought her youngest child, son Antonio, to her office in downtown Los Angeles, where he scribbled in coloring books while she worked. He also got excited about going to the presentations with her.
“He would say, ‘You know, Mom, I want you to look very executive. I’ll carry your books in,’ ” Contreras-Sweet says.
All three kids are grown now. The oldest, Rafael, runs his firm. Daughter Francesca, the middle child, works for Apple-owned headphone maker Beats Electronics LLC. Antonio has a job at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington.
When the family gets together, Contreras-Sweet still convenes the kitchen cabinet. They talk about her job as administrator, but they also discuss the kids’ careers too.
“It keeps us sharing each others’ challenges,” Contreras-Sweet said.
Photo of Maria Contreras-Sweet via SBA.gov