President Barack Obama's recent nomination of Maria Contreras-Sweet to head the Small Business Administration was welcomed by Latinos who had long advocated for more Hispanics in Obama's second-term Cabinet. Until her nomination, it had been only Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.
As Cabinet positions go, this is not as high profile as a Treasury or Education post. Yet if Contreras-Sweet is confirmed, her role could have a very direct impact for many Hispanics, argues Stella Rouse, assistant professor of politics and government at the University of Maryland and author of "Latinos in the Legislative Process: Interests and Influence."
"While it's important to have people who are very visible, oftentimes those are not the people who can get things done,” says Rouse. “One of the problems for so many Latinos is overcoming obstacles to upward mobility and getting out of the bottom of the economic ladder. She brings tremendous experience from what she's done in the past."
Contreras-Sweet founded and is the current chairwoman of ProAmérica Bank, whose bilingual slogan is "Building Wealth/Construyendo Patrimonios." The community bank primarily serves small- to medium-size Latino businesses in Los Angeles. Like so many other institutions and businesses around the country, the bank saw losses after the Great Recession, but has turned around in the last couple of years.
Having a Cabinet member from the West Coast with her practical experience is a plus, says Peter Villegas, a U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) board member and a regional chair. California — and its many Latinos — were hit hard during the economic downturn.
"She brings tremendous experience from what she's done in the past."
“California is a majority-minority state. Many of the challenges that folks face across the country happen in California first — and so do the solutions,” Villegas said.
In 2007, following ProAmerica's opening, Contreras-Sweet was chosen to be honored at the 6th Annual Latino Spirit Awards. In a statement of thanks, she said "California is a pace-setting state. One in three is of Hispanic descent. One in every two new businesses is Hispanic owned. In order to energize our economy, we have to lift the entire population. Access to capital is essential for our future prosperity and economic well-being."
Fred Flores, president and co-founder of DSS Staffing, headquartered in Brea, Calif., says Contreras-Sweet's hands-on experience could help her build a "template" at the SBA for future small business owners.
"Just because you like to cook doesn't mean you can open a restaurant," said Flores. Entrepreneurs need a firm knowledge of insurance, bonds and payroll, as well as resources to minimize risk, he explained. While he had years of experience working for a retail company before he went out on his own, he said this is not the case for many would-be business owners, especially immigrants less comfortable with broad community outreach.
There are over 3 million Latino-owned businesses, up from approximately 1.6 million in 2002, according to a September 2013 USHCC report. Moreover, Latinos are opening businesses at three times the rate of non-Latino whites. More than a quarter of Hispanic entrepreneurs are Latino immigrant adults.
For business owners like Flores, the nominee could help solidify more Latino advocacy and sponsorship in the business sector — something he said still is lacking. "I would love to see a Hispanic-owned group be able to certify and be a clearing house to certify Hispanic-owned businesses."
Even Latinos with a more fiscal “hands off” approach recognize the value of SBA initiatives. “I'm more inclined to be an advocate for limited government, but these programs definitely help to grow businesses,” says Reuben Franco, CEO of the Orange County California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
For many Hispanics, the importance of Contreras-Sweet's nomination goes beyond her professional experience. In a September 2013 ceremony awarding grants to non-profits, she said "my journey is probably very much like those you are helping her today." If one were to write an immigrant success story, the 58-year-old wife and mother of three would fit the bill: she emigrated from Mexico as a child, her mother worked long hours at a chicken packaging plant, she worked her way through school, achieved success in both the public and private sector, and has given back to her community.
Twenty five years ago, Contreras-Sweet started HOPE — Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, to train California’s Latinas in leadership and advocacy. Through conferences and events the organization has trained over 15,000 Hispanic women.
Helen Iris Torres, HOPE’s current Executive Director and CEO, says Contreras “has a knack for asking tough questions and solving them, and is one of those charismatic leaders who can truly open doors.” Latinas have become the nation's fastest-growing segment of business owners, making the nominee's future position significant for many Hispanic women, says Torres.
"What’s really important is she stay focused on a few specific things and gets those done.”
Among Latinos interviewed, Contreras-Sweet has support from both sides of the political aisle. This was also the case when she was in state government. In 1999, she became California's first Latina Cabinet secretary, after Gov. Gray Davis picked her to head the California Department of Business, Transportation and Housing, managing a budget that was well over 10 times larger than she will have under the SBA.
Hector Barreto, former SBA Administrator under George W. Bush, has known Contreras-Sweet for 25 years. While he said her experiences in government and the private sector will help her navigate the political waters, he conceded it is still not an easy task; SBA programs are subject to the push and pull of different political agendas, even within one party.
“We want the same things but different ways of going about it,” he said. “I think she will be able to cross those bridges, but I think what’s really important is she stay focused on a few specific things and gets those done.”