The Washington Post

Obama picks Maria Contreras-Sweet to head SBA

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. This version has been corrected.

President Obama on Wednesday plans to nominate Maria Contreras-Sweet, the founder and board chairman of a Latino-owned community bank in Los Angeles, as the head of the Small Business Administration , according to a White House official.

The president will announce the nomination formally at a public event in Washington, said the official, who asked not to be identified because the event had not taken place.

The selection of
Contreras-Sweet, 58, fills the final slot in the president’s second-term Cabinet. The post of SBA administrator has been vacant since August, when Karen Mills accepted joint posts at Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The nomination also serves to address diversity concerns raised by some Democratic supporters of the president. If
Contreras-Sweet is confirmed, eight women and two Latinos will have Cabinet or Cabinet-
level posts this term, which is the same number as in Obama’s first term in office.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Contreras-Sweet immigrated to the United States at age 5. Her mother worked at a chicken packaging plant in El Monte, Calif., to support Contreras-Sweet and her three brothers and two sisters.

Maria Contreras-Sweet founded the Pro­América Bank, a Latino-owned community bank in Los Angeles, in 2006. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said Contreras-Sweet “is highly regarded in Los Angeles and throughout the state of California.”

“She is articulate and passionate about helping small businesses,” Toebben said in an interview, saying that she mentors other Latinas so they can enter the business world.

Several candidates hit obstacles during the vetting process to fill the top post at the SBA, which plays a key role in providing loans for smaller firms and helping ensure that the federal government meets its contracting goals.

Contreras-Sweet’s career represents a mix of corporate and government experience. She served as secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency between 1999 and 2003, overseeing 40,000 employees working on issues ranging from real estate and financial institutions to public transit and highway patrol. Having served on the board of California Blue Cross before joining state government, Contreras-Sweet created the Department of Managed Care during her tenure as secretary. She and founded the Pro­América Bank, a Latino-owned community bank in Los Angeles, in 2006. The bank, which offers bilingual services, aims to provide capital and services to small and mid-size businesses that often lack access to larger, traditional financial institutions.

Before founding ProAmérica Bank, Contreras-Sweet was the president and co-founder of Fortius Holdings, a private-equity and venture fund specializing in providing California’s small businesses with access to capital.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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