Latina Tapped For Small Business Administration Champions Economic Opportunity

Maria Contreras-Sweet long has championed the cause of empowerment for women, describing herself as the product of a strong mother and grandmother.

She has also tried to be an example of what she stands for – breaking barriers, founding organizations and business enterprises aimed at helping women and Latinos realize their dreams.

Now Contreras-Sweet has reached a new and important milestone.

President Barack Obama nominated her on Wednesday to head the Small Business Administration.

If the Senate confirms her for the post, Contreras-Sweet, who was born in Mexico and came to the United States at the age of five, would be the second Hispanic and the eighth woman in Obama’s second-term cabinet.

The nomination caps a lifelong dedication by Contreras-Sweet, who is 58, to helping others, especially Latinos, get the capital and other resources they need to build and grow their businesses.

In 2006, Contreras-Sweet helped found ProAmérica Bank, which was created with the intention of assisting Latino businesses.

She also founded Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, or HOPE, which focuses on helping Latinas achieve personal, financial and political goals.

She’s held various government posts, including California Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing. She was the first Latina to serve as a cabinet secretary in California, overseeing 40,000 state employees and a $12 billion budget.

Obama said at the press conference about the nomination that Contreras-Sweet understands what small businesses need and how they can lift up the nation's economy.

He also said that Contreras-Sweet knows how hard it is to start a business, and that she understands that a lack of access to capital often means a lack of opportunity for Americans.

"Maria knows how hard it is to get started on a business," Obama said. "The grueling hours, the stress, the occasional self-doubt, although I have not yet seen self-doubt out of Maria. She knows it herself."

The president is casting the SBA's role as part of his broader effort to fight income inequality.

In past media interviews, Contreras-Sweet has said that if Latinos had better access to capital and if institutions had a greater understanding of how to work with Hispanics, the community as a whole would be more financially successful.

“We're a very entrepreneurial community,” she said in an interview with MSNBC. “We've learned to sell from the day we were born. We're selling everywhere we go, and I think that's part of our culture.”

She has spoken about how much she learned about doggedness and salesmanship by watching her grandmother.

“As I watched Amelia, my grandmother, try to sell eggs or whatever she could make, she was my hero,” she told MSNBC. “She was the one I learned so much from.”

Contreras-Sweet also described witnessing and experiencing the humiliation that comes with not being understood – both literally and culturally.

At first, she was mistaken for unruly and disobedient by her teachers, when in fact she did not understand what they were saying to her, she said.

And she recalled how her mother – who did not speak English when she arrived here – felt humiliated when she had to undress in front of a doctor in the U.S. for the first time.

“Those are the kinds of memories that drive me and urge me to make sure that companies today… address cultural competencies,” she said.

If confirmed, Contreras-Sweet would fill the last vacant Obama Cabinet slot, filling the SBA administrator's position formerly occupied by Karen Mills.

The first Hispanic nominated for a cabinet post for Obama's second term was Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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