Maria Contreras-Sweet isn't wasting any time.
As the newly-appointed head of the Small Business Administration, which hasn't had a permanent leader in almost a year, she had plenty of issues to tackle. But in line with both her ambitious, go-get-’em attitude and her professed creed to help those in need, her first area of attention was the much maligned Disaster Loan Program.
Part of the SBA’s chartered task is to provide low interest loans to small businesses and individuals when they are affected by storms, floods or other natural disasters. Historically, the disaster loan program has been dubbed so slow and bureaucratic as to be ineffective. To step into the Disaster Loan Program first off shows a fair amount of chutzpah on the part of Contreras-Sweet.
When Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) called Contreras-Sweet to congratulate her on her new role, which she assumed in April, the newly minted administrator said she would fly out to Washington State to see the SBA's Disaster Loan program in action. Washington had just suffered very damaging mudslides.
Within 24 hours of being officially declared the head of the SBA by President Obama, Contreras-Sweet was on the ground in Washington and she was approving hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans within days.
“The role that the small business disaster program plays is fundamental. That is when Americans are the most vulnerable. They didn’t seek this disaster. Natural disaster came to them," she told Entrepreneur.com while at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during National Small Business Week last month. "It’s fundamental, it’s vital.”
The SBA's disaster relief program has had a long and rocky history. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the SBA came under intense political fire for its lackadaisical dispersal of disaster loans. The SBA itself said it needed to do better. “Many disaster loans were not fully disbursed until long after they were initially approved,” reads a 2008 report from the SBA Office of the Inspector General on the status of the program’s efforts in the Southeast.
In the case of the more recent Hurricane Sandy, the SBA was more diligent about getting money dispersed quickly. In the first 90 days after the Hurricane struck New York City, the SBA had approved more than $1 billion worth of loans. Despite the improvement in dollars distributed, reports indicate that the approval rates after Hurricane Sandy were still below where they were following other natural disasters. Also, processing wait times for businesses and individuals following Hurricane Sandy were triple those of earlier parallel incidence of natural disaster, according to the testimony from the House Committee on Small Business. “Although SBA’s response was better than that for Hurricane Katrina, application processing times and disbursement rates were significantly worse than those of Hurricanes Ike and Irene,” the House’s report said of the SBA’s response to Hurricane Sandy.
Contreras-Sweet’s quick jump to the front line where small-business owners were suffering is demonstrative of her broader personal mission: to help those in need. Contreras-Sweet came from humble beginnings and climbed the corporate ladder, but she never outgrew her mission to help those less fortunate than her.
Prior to joining the SBA, Contreras-Sweet had been an entrepreneur, an executive and a state-level government official. She launched ProAmerica Bank, the first Hispanic community bank to open in California in more than three decades; served as Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing Agency for California where she oversaw 42,000 employees over five years; and was the director of public affairs for Westinghouse’s 7-Up RC Bottling Company, eventually earning equity in the company.
Contreras-Sweet was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and immigrated to the U.S. at age 5 along with her mother and five siblings.
Despite her successes, Contreras-Sweet has always held tight the lesson she learned from her grandmother: true power comes from giving back. “I was inspired to think about public service from very early on. My grandmother was just a very faithful, beautiful woman, and she was tough, but very giving and generous,” she says. “She said, ‘Remember to always bring others along,’ and so she said it is not in the titles that you have, but what you do with the titles you have that will matter me. So every time I would write her and say, ‘I became the officer at this company, she would say, ‘what are you doing with that title?’”