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Seven things you should know about Maria Contreras-Sweet

Maria Contreras-Sweet.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Maria Contreras-Sweet.

Since becoming head of the federal Small Business Administration last month, Maria Contreras-Sweet has traveled the country meeting with business groups and trying to elevate the agency’s profile and programs. Contreras-Sweet, the first Latina SBA administrator, was in Boston recently to celebrate Small Business Week and highlight the work of the region’s technology sector. Globe reporter Deirdre Fernandes spoke with Contreras-Sweet about her new job and her experiences as an immigrant and founder of a small business. Here’s what she found out:

1Contreras-Sweet, her mother, and five siblings immigrated to Los Angeles from Guadalajara, Mexico, when she was 5 years old. She didn’t speak English and remembers the wonder of seeing her first Thanksgiving turkey. She assumed it was a chicken, but like so much else in America was better fed.

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“It’s tough to acculturate and learn the language,”she said.

2Her experience learning English taught her about the importance of language in understanding people.

“That’s what I say to the SBA now. We need to learn the language. If it’s manufacturing, we need to know the language of manufacturing. If we’re going into a finance consulting firm, we need to understand that language. That’s what we’re here to do for small businesses, help them learn the language so they can be successful at what they need to do to provide for their families.”

3Before she was tapped by the Obama administration, Contreras-Sweet was the president of a private equity firm, founded a bank, and served as California’s secretary of business, transportation, and housing under former Governor Gray Davis. Her grandmother, a migrant worker, told the family about the opportunities available in America before they left Mexico, but even her dreams had their limits.

“She said, ‘If you focus, if you work hard, maybe you’ll be able not to be a migrant worker, but a worker in an office and maybe one day you’ll be a secretary.’ And that’s the beauty of the country.”

4Small businesses create two of every three new jobs and helping them succeed is the key mission of the SBA. The agency encourages banks to lend to small companies, guarantees loans to new ventures, and provides counseling on how to start a company — and deal with challenges along the way.

“The fundamental underpinning of success is access to capital. If you’re a restaurant cook or chef, you get a little access to capital, you become the next restaurant owner. The leverage that a financial institution has, the multiplier affect, is remarkable.”

5While most businesses are familiar with SBA’s traditional lending activities, the agency also has programs to help veterans, senior citizens and women start businesses.

“People just think about the core programs, but there’s so much more to it. Every milestone that you are at, SBA has a response, a strategy to help you get to the next level.”

6Women are still under-represented in top- level positions and on boards of the top companies, Contreras-Sweet said. She served on the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission in the mid-1990s, and said some of the lessons from that work still apply.

“Back then, when we issued the report, 95 percent of the governance, the board of directors, of the Fortune 1000 companies, were largely males. We needed to address that. I think we’ve made some gains, but not enough. We need to make sure that women in the corporate sector continue to fill the finance, the operations [positions] so they can move to the top.”

7In 2006, Contreras-Sweet helped found ProAmerica Bank, a Los Angeles lender that targeted Latino-owned small and medium-sized businesses. Two years later, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the financial crisis hit and lending froze. The bank, with assets of $153 million, survived, but she said she understands how scary it can be to start a business, deal with regulators, and face the unknown.

“It’s one step at a time. When we think about the entire ride it becomes too daunting to get on board.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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