Obama nominates California businesswoman to lead SBA (updated)

Obama Small Business

Charles Dharapak/AP

Maria Contreras-Sweet, chairwoman of ProAmerica Bank, arrives to speak at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) in Washington on Sept. 13, 2010. President Barack Obama intends to nominate Contreras-Sweet, a former California cabinet secretary, to be head of the Small Business Administration, according to a White House official.

Rounding out his Cabinet, President Barack Obama nominated Maria Contreras-Sweet, the founder of a Latino-owned community bank in Los Angeles and a former California cabinet secretary, to be head of the Small Business Administration.

The President announced the nomination at the White House on Wednesday. 

“Maria knows how hard it is to get started on a business. The grueling hours, the stress, the occasional self-doubt, although I’ve not yet seen self-doubt out of Maria,” President Obama said to laughter in the audience.

He then praised her for founding ProAmerica Bank, which opened seven years ago in Los Angeles. 

“Its focus is small and medium-sized businesses in Latino neighborhoods, so not only did she start small businesses, but those have also been her customers,” President Obama said. “And she understands all too often that the lack of access to capital means a lack of opportunity.”  

Contreras-Sweet was born in Guadalajara, Mexico.  She founded ProAmerica Bank in 2007 to create better representation of the Latino community in banking, according to Bruce Mills, the bank’s current President and CEO.

“There hadn’t been a bank formed in Los Angeles or LA County in 40 years that was Latino-owned and Latino- focused and that was the opportunity and the need that she saw,” Mills told KPCC.       

"If you look at her remarkable career you can see that she is an excellent candidate for this position," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One, as Obama traveled to North Carolina to promote a new manufacturing innovation hub, AP reported.            

Contreras-Sweet fills the last vacant Obama Cabinet slot, the SBA administrator's position formerly occupied by Karen Mills who left in August.    

Contreras-Sweet is the second Hispanic in Obama's second term Cabinet. The other is Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. She is also the eighth woman in Obama's current Cabinet. Obama's selection had been the subject of intense interest among Hispanic leaders who wanted to ensure they had a high-profile presence in the administration.        

Contreras-Sweet also served as California's secretary of the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency from 1999 to 2003, overseeing 40,000 state employees and a $12 billion budget. She was the first Latina to serve as a Cabinet secretary in California. 

“Maria is uniquely qualified to be the administrator of the SBA because her bank has made hundreds of loans to small businesses," said the LA Chamber's President and CEO Gary Toebben. "And she has been and her bank has been deeply involved in helping those small Businesses prosper.” 

Her pick comes as some small business advocates have questioned the Obama administration's commitment to that broad segment of the private sector.               

"Hopefully, upon confirmation, she will reach out to small business organizations and the entrepreneurs themselves to listen to their ideas and concerns," said Karen Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, AP reported. "For the past year or more, the SBA has gone dark in terms of outreach."               

Rep. Sam Graves, the Republican chairman of the House Small Business Committee, said the time it took Obama to nominate a successor to Mills "showed us that small businesses really aren't valued much by this administration," according to AP.            

Associated Press writer Joyce Rosenberg in New York contributed to this article. 

Note: Maria Contreras-Sweet is a Southern California Public Radio trustee.

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