Where the Small Business Administration is headed under Maria Contreras-Sweet


Maria-Contreras Sweet met with reporters for the first time as head of the Small Business Administration on Thursday to discuss her first month in office and her plans for the agency. (J.D. Harrison / The Washington Post)

Maria Contreras-Sweet has been in office only a month, but she’s already tracking how many days she has remaining — and how much work there is to be done.

“We have about 1,000 days left,” she said on Thursday during her first meeting with reporters as head of the Small Business Administration. “There’s only so much time, so it’s now about getting down to business and focusing on the things that really matter.”

Contreras-Sweet is taking over at an important time for the agency, which had been without a permanent leader for more than a year. The economy is starting to find its footing after a slow start to the recovery, and small business owners, many of whom have been parked in wait-and-see mode the past few years, are starting to borrow again and, in some cases, hire again.

Under former administrator Karen Mills, the agency responded by backing large volumes of commercial loans the past three years. Meanwhile, officials have taken steps to ease and expand access to some of the agency’s most popular loan programs, hoping to get even more capital into the hands of entrepreneurs.

But at the same time, the department is facing sharp criticism from lawmakers for launching an array of new, unapproved programs, with some concerned that the agency is pulling resources away from mom-and-pop businesses to support larger, fast-growing ventures. Others have criticized the department for responding too slowly to disaster loan requests in the wake of recent storms.

“I’m not here to tell you everything is perfect,” Contreras-Sweet, a former banking executive from California, told reporters sitting around a table in her office. However, she later added that her predecessors have built a strong foundation of programs and resources for her team to now “take to the next level.”

So, what will that entail, and what are those “things that really matter” to the new administrator? We walked away with some insight into what to expect from the agency under Contreras-Sweet. Here are the key takeaways.

1. New ideas welcome

During a recent hearing held by the House Small Business Committee, representatives from both sides of the aisle slammed SBA officials for financing new programs that had not been mandated by Congress.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) went so far as to remind the agency’s associate administrators that “it’s our job, not yours, to come up with the programs that should be going forward.” He and several other lawmakers urged the SBA to stop dreaming up new initiatives and stick to the tried-and-true programs it has always offered.

Contreras-Sweet has other ideas.

“We can’t be a stagnant department and say ‘this is the way we’ve always done it, so we must always do it that way,’ ” she said. In fact, she called one of the new programs that Congress has taken the most issue with — an entrepreneurship education course for owners of mid-sized companies — one of the agency’s “crown jewels.”

She intends to encourage her team to continue being creative and innovative as the agency look for ways to keep its loan programs and business counseling programs relevant in an increasingly fast-paced, technology-driven world.

“We have to be as current as the evolution that’s taking place,” she added. She says that the reluctance toward trial-and-error is among her greatest qualms about the nature of the government.

“My lament is that, when you come into government and you try to innovate and advance, you are critiqued if it’s not perfect in the first instance,” she said, later adding that the agency must be “responsible with the assets we are assigned, but that needs to be tempered with this idea of advancing and innovation.”

2. Core concerns come first

Still, any new programs or reallocated resources will not, she pledged, come at the expense of the agency’s primary mission — that is, delivering loans through its signature 7(a) and 504 loan programs, which have long helped entrepreneurs obtain relatively small loans that banks have traditionally passed over.

In another statement that may appease some of the agency’s critics, she said she plans to take a hard look at what programs other departments offer, particularly in areas like export assistance, to make sure that the SBA isn’t duplicating resources already available.

And if Congress has any concerns or ideas, she says she’s all ears.

“I’m showing up right now, and they’ve been working at this for quite some time,” Contreras-Sweet said.

Responding to the recent criticism from the House committee, she said she “welcomes the conversation,” arguing that, “to the extent that they have a sense of ownership over the programs, I think that will serve us well, because that means they are truly engaged and sincere about creating jobs.”

3. Continued emphasis on underserved groups

Under Mills, the agency doubled down on support for groups that historically produce a relatively low number of entrepreneurs, including women, minorities, and senior citizens.

And while seniors — or, as Mills called them, potential “encore entrepreneurs” — didn’t come up in conversation Thursday, the new administrator made clear that she plans to continue trying to lift up traditionally underserved populations.

“We’ve seen that African Americans haven’t been getting access to capital like they should, and I know that Hispanic Americans haven’t always been able to access capital,” Contreras-Sweet said, later noting that women and military veterans often struggle to secure adequate financing and business support, too.

“We have to make sure that we have an open mind to how we serve all of our folks who want to create a job for themselves and for others,” she added.

4. Accelerating disaster relief

The SBA provides low-interest disaster loans to individuals — including business owners, homeowners and renters — who sustain property or equipment damage in the wake of a disaster. However, a number of reports have surfaced in the past couple years suggesting that the agency is too slow to approve disaster loan applications, and then too slow to issue funds to those approved.

Contreras-Sweet is looking to address that.

On her first day in office, the administrator met James Rivera, the agency’s head of disaster assistance, to get a better understanding of his team’s operations and how the agency has responded in the past. More recently, she traveled to Washington state to see how the agency was helping victims of the deadly mudslide back in March.

“I want to make sure that, when Americans are most vulnerable, we’re available, ready and prepared to come in and help them,” she said.

5. A secret no longer

During her four years in office, Mills frequently referred to the SBA as “the federal government’s best kept secret.” Contreras-Sweet wants to let the cat out of the bag.

One of the most frustrating discoveries from her first month, she said, was that the agency’s “target market isn’t fully aware of the vast array of products, services and opportunities that SBA presents.”

“They would say, ‘Oh, you’re the ones that do those small 7(a) loans,’ but when we talked about our counseling centers, they didn’t know about them,” she said. She wishes she had known about some of the agency’s initiatives when running her own bank in Los Angeles.

Marketing will be a top priority going forward, she says, as the agency looks to its network of lenders, counseling centers and partner groups to spread the word about its services.

“We should be exploring ways to use our communication system to make certain that people who need us can find us,” she said.

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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