A year and a day after the search began, the Senate has taken the next step toward filling the longstanding opening at the top of the Small Business Administration by holding its nomination hearing for Maria Contreras-Sweet.
During more than an hour of back-and-forth Wednesday with members of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, Contreras-Sweet, whom the president nominated as his next SBA administrator last month, leaned heavily on her mix of private and public sector experience and promised to use her Cabinet-level post to help entrepreneurs get access to more capital, cut through red tape and secure more government contracts.
“I’m a small-business owner whose small business helps small businesses every day,” Contreras-Sweet, who started a community bank in Los Angeles, said during her first public comments since the nomination. She later pledged to work with Congress and the White House to “make sure that the Small Business Administration is an even more significant force in expanding opportunities for all Americans, ensuring the economic strength of our country and the global economy.”
Contreras-Sweet has spent more than a quarter-century working with entrepreneurs and small businesses in need of capital. She served at California’s secretary of the state’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency before founding ProAmérica Bank, a certified SBA lender specializing in commercial loans to small and mid-sized companies. She previously co-founded a venture capital firm called Fortius Holdings.
Originally from Guadalajara, Contreras-Sweet immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old. She has made a point of working closely with Hispanic businesses and other minority groups that have historically been underserved by private investors and traditional bank loans.
“Maria knows firsthand what it takes to run a small business,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said during the hearing.
Contreras-Sweet and several lawmakers on the committee lauded the work her predecessors at the SBA have done in recent years to streamline the application process for the agency’s government-backed loan products and boost its financial support for private investment groups that help small businesses. Still, it was clear that some representatives feel the agency can and should do a better job in some areas.
During her final hearing as committee chairman, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who on Thursday will take the helm of the Senate Energy Committee, urged Contreras-Sweet to find ways to encourage more small, community banks to offer SBA-backed loans. She noted that community banks have historically been a primary source of capital for small firms yet represent only a small segment of the agency’s lending partnership network.
Meanwhile, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), the panel’s ranking member, asked Contreras-Sweet to work closely with leaders from other federal agencies to strip away some of the red tape he said has held back the growth of many firms. And Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) later implored her to take action to ensure that those other departments start meeting their oft-missed small-business contracting goals.
There are some departments that are great with small business; there are others that are not,” Cardin said. “I hope you will be very visible with those agencies that are not meeting the goal and not complying with the spirit that we want prime contracts for small businesses, not just subcontracts.”
Contreras-Sweet agreed that there is still much work to be done and repeatedly pledged to create a “level playing field” for small businesses in each of those areas.
If she is confirmed (and there is expected to be little opposition), Contreras-Sweet will fill the last remaining seat on Obama’s second-term Cabinet. In addition, it would be the first time in more than a year that the SBA has had a leader who wasn’t eyeing the door.
Obama’s first-term administrator, Karen Mills, announced her resignation almost exactly one year ago, after the president’s reelection. She initially planned to stay in place until a successor was nominated and confirmed; however, she eventually gave up the wait and left for Harvard in September.
Jeanne Hulit, the agency’s head of capital access programs, then stepped into the administrator role on an interim basis while the search for a permanent successor continued. Immediately after Obama’s nomination of Contreras-Sweet, Hulit announced she was leaving later this month to join a community bank in Maine.