Maria Contreras-Sweet, who came to the United States from Mexico as a child, is the administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA), a post she assumed after a career as an entrepreneur, business executive and state Cabinet official in California.
In this interview, Contreras-Sweet discusses her approach to leading the SBA and explains how her immigrant background shaped her outlook on public service. The conversation is with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox is also the head of the organization’s Center for Government Leadership.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. You were born in Guadalajara, Mexico and came to the United States at age 5 with your mother and five siblings. You watched your mother work long and dangerous hours in a chicken packaging plant. How did this upbringing shape you?
A. One of the things about immigrants is that we don’t take things for granted. When you come from another country that doesn’t offer you that same level of opportunity, you really appreciate these gifts and you want to engage and be a part of it. I want to eke everything out of every single day.
When you think how somebody can come into this country with no economic advantage and learn to navigate through the system and end up in the United States Cabinet — those opportunities aren’t replicated readily in other countries. I feel this obligation to give back because this is so special for me.
Q. What drew you to public service?
A. It’s really the absence of role models that inspired me. As I was growing up and watching television or going to the movies, I didn’t see anybody who looked like me. It struck me that we’re living in a democracy, which is supposed to be a representative government, but I didn’t think that anybody understood me or my views or my sentiments. It wasn’t truly a representative government.
I began understanding that the ideal of America that I was learning about in school wasn’t taking place in my community. I wondered how I could be a disciple of change in that regard. So it wasn’t somebody [who drew me to public service]. It was the absence of somebody.
Q. What do you see as one of your leadership traits?
A. Oftentimes I find that people dwell on differences, but my instinct is to focus on the things we have in common and find the common purpose so that we can work together. That has been something that has worked for me. My colleagues and friends often poke fun at me because I’m always ready to work on the next task or the next campaign. They’ll say, “Socializing with Maria means that we’re going to be put on another project.” That’s because I’m always trying to roll the ball forward.
Q. Do you have a basic leadership principle?
A. Leadership is about making sure that others are resourced and able to accomplish what they need to accomplish.
Q. What are some of your goals at the SBA?
A. When people think of their federal government, they just think that there is this complicated labyrinth that they can’t get through. We want the SBA to be smart, bold and accessible. Right now, it takes an average of three months to get an SBA loan. We are taking steps to reduce the turnaround time, because time is money when you’re an entrepreneur.
Also, I want to make sure that I am providing access to our SBA programs and to entrepreneurship for anybody who wants it, whether they are a veteran or someone who has just finished a career in corporate America. We also want to make sure that our small businesses are taking part in the global economy. We want them to understand that as soon as they light up their Web sites, they are already engaging in international commerce. So we want to take the fear out of that and help them navigate it. We’re asking our development centers to help small businesses take bolder actions in terms of their market-making.
Q. What are you doing to motivate the SBA workforce?
A. Employees come to work looking for fulfillment. While people want to be compensated well and have nice benefits, it’s important to remind them of the importance and the value and significance of their work, and we are doing that.
Interested in reading more on this topic? Check out the Post's On Small Business section.