Obama Is Finally Picking a New Small Business Administration Chief

Contreras-Sweet Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Eleven months after former Small Business Administration boss Karen Mills announced her resignation, President Barack Obama is set to nominate a replacement today: Maria Contreras-Sweet, a native of Mexico with a background in small business financing and government service.

In addition to her banking experience, the 58-year-old’s diversity is a quality being sought for Cabinet jobs. Her impending nomination, which is expected to come at a formal event in Washington, was first reported by the Washington Post.

Contreras-Sweet immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 5 and went on to achieve a number of firsts, including being the first Latin American woman to serve on the board of Blue Cross California, and first to hold a cabinet secretary position in California state government. (She was California’s secretary of Business, Transportation, and Housing from 1999 to 2003.)

She is chair of the board at ProAmerica Bank, a publicly traded Los Angeles community bank she founded in 2006. Before that, Contrereas-Sweet served as president of Fortius Holdings, a private-equity fund she co-founded specializing in California small businesses.

Those experiences should help her tackle the SBA’s core function of helping small businesses find capital. Under Mills, the SBA has backed about $30 billion in loans in each of the last three years, up from  $17.8 billion in 2009. The International Franchise Association and Main Street Alliance were among advocacy groups to issue statements touting Contreras-Sweet’s lending credentials.

Once nominated, Contreras-Sweet would have to be confirmed by the Senate, although that process would appear to be simpler under new Senate rules. Senator James Risch, the Idaho Republican who serves as ranking member for the Senate’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

Contreras-Sweet’s nomination would end a long wait for a permanent SBA chief, which has led to speculation that President Obama plans to eliminate the SBA as a standalone agency. If confirmed, Contreras-Sweet would take over from Jeanne Hulit, who has served as acting administrator since Mills left the SBA for Harvard University in August.

Contreras-Sweet’s experience as an entrepreneur will serve her well in the new role, says former SBA chief Hector Barreto, who once traveled to Israel with Contreras-Sweet on a mission for Hispanic business leaders.

Barreto, who now chairs the nonprofit Latino Coalition, says Contreras-Sweet was responding to a need when she decided to open ProAmerica. “With all of the growth of the Hispanic business community in Los Angeles, she felt it was unacceptable that there weren’t Hispanic-owned banks,” he says. “So she founded one of the first Hispanic-owned banks in L.A. That’s the kind of vision and leadership that you need at the SBA.”

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