In Her New Role, Maria Contreras-Sweet Solves Small Business Administration Mysteries

By Mark Davis
The Kansas City Star.

Maria Contreras-Sweet founded a venture capital firm, began a small California bank and served as that state’s transportation secretary. Still, the U.S. Small Business Administration remained in part a mystery.

She vowed Tuesday in Kansas City to make sure that Americans who need the SBA know about its “vast network” of programs, resources and alliances.

“I wish that I had known about these tools as a state official. If I had known what I know now, I could have been much more effective,” she said after taking part in the city’s small-business week program at Burns & McDonnell’s headquarters.

Many economists look to small businesses, particularly new businesses, as a key in creating jobs. Contreras-Sweet, confirmed by Congress a month ago to head the agency, filled a vacancy that lasted for nearly a year.

She was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and came to the United States as a 5-year-old.

Her career has included stints with big business, as public affairs director and then an equity partner at Westinghouse’s 7-Up/RC Bottling Co.; nonprofit agencies, as a founding director of the California Endowment and founder of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality; and government, in California and as a member of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission.

Technology and innovation figure prominently in her plans. She’s pushing the agency to use social media more, to automate its loan programs and handle the work online, and make the agency “as nimble as the small businesses we serve.”

A more inclusive SBA under Contreras-Sweet will reach out more to underserved pools of potential entrepreneurs among women, minorities, seniors and members of the military.

On Tuesday, Contreras-Sweet particularly praised the SBA’s Operation Boots to Business program and pointed to CrossFit Thunderstorm, a Maryland fitness company started by a veteran with help from the agency’s program.

Boots to Business builds on the SBA’s Veterans Business Opportunity Centers, which some in Congress contend would get more funding and better access to veterans if it moved to the Department of Veteran Affairs.

That recommendation, one of many about the SBA’s programs, came from the House Small Business Committee, whose chairman is Republican Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri. A committee spokesman said the SBA creates its programs without hearings, comment periods or other steps to take advantage of input from outside the agency.

“In their pilots they’ve done none of that. It’s kind of created in a vacuum,” said D.J. Jordan, in Graves’ Washington office.

Contreras-Sweet said she has talked with Graves by phone, and a meeting between the two is set. She says they share the same goals.

“We all want to make sure we’re creating and spurring economic activity,” she said. “It’s better to engage, even if we don’t agree. … We’ll get to the right place together.”

With her background in private business, Contreras-Sweet said she can ensure the SBA is a good steward of the agency’s core programs and the resources Congress provides.

She’s ready to remove pilot programs that don’t work and expand those that do.

On Monday the SBA announced a $2.5 million competition for business accelerators. These programs help new businesses with funding, connections to mentors and an opportunity to pitch potential investors.

It’s a good first step, said John Fein, who is the managing director for Techstars, which operates the Sprint Mobile Health Accelerator in Kansas City.

Fein said the SBA has worked with the Global Accelerator Network, recently spun off from Techstars.

“Traditionally the SBA hasn’t been an organization that we’ve thought of when talking to our own startups about funding. We’re certainly hoping that’s going to change,” Fein said.

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