Maria Contreras-Sweet: From ProAmérica, to America’s Promise

By Javier Palomarez

For Maria Contreras-Sweet, helping America’s small businesses flourish is more than a job — it’s a calling.

Her personal journey defies cynics. She is a Mexican immigrant, who arrived to the United States with her parents and five siblings as a young child. Through hard work and an unshakeable resilience, Maria has achieved her own version of the American dream. But her true mission lies in empowering others to reach theirs. She is living proof that being a successful business person and advancing the common good are not mutually exclusive — in fact, for Maria, the two are inextricably bound.

On Wednesday, the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee held a hearing on Maria’s nomination to lead the Small Business Administration. Should Congress vote in her favor, Maria will be the first Latina appointed to the SBA since the post was elevated to a full cabinet-level agency.

Having functioned without an official administrator for over five months, the SBA desperately needs a qualified candidate to serve at its helm. A swift confirmation of Maria’s nomination would not only benefit small businesses, but it would also allow Congress to demonstrate a sincere commitment to advancing our country’s economic agenda — a move that might help Americans regain their confidence in Washington.

Let us not hail Maria’s nomination solely because she is a Latina. While we are proud of her personal story, what the business community is most impressed by is her proven acumen and commitment to America’s minority-owned firms. Maria’s unbreakable fighting spirit will help fuel the engine of our nation’s economy — its small business community.

Having attended Maria’s Senate confirmation hearing, I have no doubt that she is the absolute best and most qualified candidate to head the Small Business Administration. Maria’s energy and eagerness is contagious and refreshing to witness. At a time when Washington’s ‘insider’ culture seems exclusive — or borderline intimidating — it’s great to see the face of our nation’s small business community be a woman that is “in touch” with real-world needs, and possess the necessary attitude to solve the problems at hand.

As the founder and Executive Chairwoman of ProAmérica — a Los Angeles-based bank — Maria provides financial services to the immediate drivers of job creation: small and medium-sized local businesses. Today, ProAmérica has nearly $150 million in assets, and provides more than $108 million in loans — including SBA loans — to small businesses.

Following her numerous successful ventures in the private sector, Maria decided to apply her business experience to public service. In 1999, she was appointed Secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency for the State of California, overseeing 42,000 workers and a budget of $14 billion. One of her crowning achievements as Secretary was implementing Proposition 46, a $2.1 billion housing stimulus that helped boost California’s economy.

Maria’s story epitomizes what makes our nation exceptional — America promises, after all, to be the ‘Land of Opportunity.’ Maria’s career has been dedicated to protecting that promise, and allowing deserving entrepreneurs to become innovative job creators that contribute to America’s rebounding economy. The truth is, there are millions of Maria Contreras-Sweets out there – immigrant, Hispanic, women, and an array of diverse business owners – waiting to be discovered.

While small businesses have received numerous benefits under the current administration, including 18 tax cuts, $380 billion in federal contracts and $130 billion in loans, Maria can bring renewed vigor to unresolved problems. For nearly a decade, the federal government has failed to meet its self-imposed commitment to small, minority-owned businesses. We are counting on Maria to change that.

2014 must be a year of action, let’s start with a swift confirmation for SBA’s next leader. This isn’t a partisan debate on health care, immigration reform or the debt ceiling – any delay to Ms. Contreras-Sweet’s appointment would be nothing more than obstruction that hinders the growth and prosperity of our nation’s economy.

It would be unconscionable to delay such an unquestionably qualified person to lead the nation’s highest small business agency, especially at a time when business owners increasingly struggle to access the capital they need to keep growing and creating jobs. No matter what the political partisan flavor of the day is, championing American small businesses is a smart move that always yields bountiful returns. With Maria Contreras-Sweet, everybody wins.

Maria’s entire professional career has been a training ground for the formidable challenges and opportunities that await her at the SBA. With a simple vote, the Senate can make the founder of ProAmérica bank, the promise of America’s small business community.

Palomarez is the president and CEO of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

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