Maria Contreras-Sweet, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was five years old without speaking a word of English, became the newest member of President Obama’s Cabinet. The California-based banker and former California Cabinet Secretary will head the Small Business Administration.
“My journey from Guadalajara to this house today (White House) can only happen in America,” said Contreras-Sweet after she was sworn in by Vice President Biden. “We didn’t have much, but we had an abundance of hope,” she added.
Contreras-Sweet founded and has served as chairwoman of ProAmérica Bank, a community bank that primarily serves small- to medium-size Latino businesses in Los Angeles. In 1999, she became California’s first Latina Cabinet secretary, heading the Department of Business, Transportation and Housing under former Gray Davis. She was also the co-founder of a private equity fund and a company executive.
“I nominated Maria because she knows firsthand the challenge small businesses go through and has a proven track record of making them succeed,” said President Obama at the ceremony.
Vice President Biden said Contreras-Sweet “never forgot to look back” as she succeeded in the private and public sector. He added that Hispanics start businesses at three times the rate of any other group and that the 3.2 million Latino-owned businesses have contributed almost half a trillion dollars to the economy in recent years.
Two out every three new jobs in the U.S. come from small business, said Contreras-Sweet, saying she is “determined” to get more loans on the hands of entrepreneurs including women, African Americans, Asians and Hispanics. She also said “immigrants are twice as likely to file patents and start new enterprises.
Contreras-Sweet said the SBA would increase entrepreneurial education and counseling and make the agency more “nimble and agile” to anticipate the changes in how Americans access money and do banking.
Contreras-Sweet is the second Hispanic in the President’s current Cabinet. She joins Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
Both Vice President Biden and Contreras-Sweet mentioned an anecdote about her Mexican grandmother, who told the new Cabinet secretary when she was a child that if she studied hard she could someday work in an office as a secretary.
“I don’t think this is what she had in mind,” said Vice President Biden.
April 7, 2014
By Sandra Lilley