SBA’s new administrator starts working even before the swearing-in ceremony

Maria Contreras-Sweet hit the ground running on her first day as head of the Small Business Administration, meeting with the agency's disaster assistance team and veterans organizations hours before she was even sworn in for her new post.

"She really didn't wait for the ceremony," President Barack Obama noted at Contreras-Sweet's formal swearing-in at the White House.

Vice President Joe Biden delivered the oath of office to Contreras-Sweet, who succeeds the long-gone Karen Mills as SBA administrator after nearly eight months of acting administrators.

"I just wanted to stop by and congratulate Maria," Obama said.

The president said he's fortunate to have such a "hard charger" as head of the SBA, citing her successes in both the private sector -- founding a community bank in Los Angeles, for example -- and in the public sector -- serving as California's secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing.

Contreras-Sweet, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico as a child, is the American dream personified.

"My mother worked so hard her entire life to give her six children opportunities she would never have," she said. "And my dear grandmother who told me I could be a secretary someday, but a Cabinet secretary? Never in her wildest dreams.

"I came to this country at the age of 5 with my mom and five siblings. We didn’t have much, but what we did have was an abundance of hope. We didn’t speak the language yet -- neither the business language, nor the English language. But my grandmother taught us to believe in the promise of America.

"I've lived that dream," she said. "And as the SBA administrator, I'm determined to help others realize theirs as well."

The rhetoric was right, but her first-hand knowledge about what small businesses need to succeed resonated even more with the well-wishers on hand -- SBA lenders, small business advocates, Hispanic members of Congress, and leaders of organizations representing women- and minority-owned businesses.

"I've seen the pivotal role that SBA plays in our entrepreneurial ecosystem," Contreras-Sweet said. "I was both a community banker and an SBA lender. I was a small business owner whose small business helped small businesses every day. As the bank chairwoman, I examined business plans, their viability and management’s ability to execute. The only thing that I understood was that they strengthened my knowledge of the challenges that small businesses face. It also strengthened my resolve to help them overcome those hurdles and succeed."

At the SBA, her mission is to make the agency "as innovative as the small businesses that we serve."

"We must draw on technology to streamline the process of working with the SBA to make it easier for borrowers to access capital and easier for lenders to lend," she said. "The SBA must be nimble, agile to keep pace with our digital age."

Contreras-Sweet also noted the changing face of entrepreneurship in America -- not just the rapidly growing number of women- and minority-owned businesses, but also retirees who 'are looking to start a second career, be their own boss."

"As administrator, I plan to embrace them all with a broad, inclusive vision," she said.

She wants to make more loans to small businesses by "making it easier for community banks and micro lenders to become our partners." She also pledged to strengthen the agency's entrepreneurial counseling programs and increase the number of federal contracts to small businesses.

Beth Solomon, president of the National Association of Development Companies, liked what she heard from Contreras-Sweet.

"You really got the flavor of a community banker," said Solomon, whose association represents nonprofit organizations that make SBA-backed 504 loans, which primarily are used for commercial real estate.

The SBA really is a large bank, Solomon noted, so she thinks the agency will benefit from having a banker at the helm, especially one so intent on improving the "nuts and bolts" of the agency's services.

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