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SBA's New Chief Charts Path Toward Her Legacy

The newest SBA chief discusses her goals for the agency, and responds to recent criticism that its policies favor bigger businesses.
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As National Small Business Week kicks into full gear, all eyes are on Maria Contreras-Sweet.

As the newly confirmed head of the Small Business Administration, Contreras-Sweet has the power to alter programs the agency oversees--from its lending guarantees to federal contracting efforts. And as a member of President Obama's cabinet, she also has a direct line to the White House.

So even if you've never used one of the agency's programs, or even looked at its website, getting a read of the new SBA chief is a worthwhile endeavor.

To this end, we asked Contreras-Sweet a few pointed questions to learn how the agency might function under her charge and to see how she's dealing with recent criticism from Congress. Among other things, the agency has been criticized for running programs that haven't been authorized by the legislative branch and that benefit bigger businesses.

Here are her edited remarks:

You've been on the job for just over a month. What should Inc. readers know about you and what do you hope to accomplish as SBA administrator?
Contreras-Sweet: I’m an immigrant. I came in from Guadalajara, Mexico. I’m really grateful for the opportunities that this country has afforded me. I aspired someday to be able to work in an office and to be a secretary, and so when California's governor named me cabinet secretary and allowed me to hold office it was something that was unimaginable. And so as I think about that; how we can replicate these stories over and over and over? How do we build family legacies? Success isn’t that much of a secret: Great entrepreneurs in history had a network. They had good counseling and they had access to capital. Those are the secrets, and SBA holds those keys.

National Small Business Week is your first major event as administrator. What do you hope to achieve and how do you expect you’ll be received?
CS: I don't worry too much about how I'll be received. I’m just focused on how SBA is received; that’s the important part. I’m so happy to be here.

What can the SBA do that it's not already doing to drive small business growth?
CS: What we can do more of is to focus on those who are unemployed, so that we can get them onto the employment rolls. It's important to make sure that those who have been unemployed for a long period of time don’t feel that they’ve been left behind. I want to explore how we can create innovation and get people to begin to employ themselves.

Here during the Small Business Week kickoff, you saw that we were focused on the smaller lender. Just as we want to be a resource for companies that need $5 million loans, we also have to make certain that those who need the smaller loan amounts are able to access capital, and that they feel that the SBA is also home for them.

In practice, however, it sounds like the SBA is actually putting an emphasis on the fast-growth startups that want to turn into giant companies, which are not exactly small mom-and-pop shops. How do you hope to cater to these businesses?
CS: I think you also saw us talk about a young lady [Vivienne Harr, the founder of Make a Stand] who started her lemonade stand. What SBA did is facilitate the process of smaller businesses accessing capital. We set the application fee to zero for anyone seeking a loan under $150,000.

The SBA has consistently failed to meet its small business government contracting goals, as well as the set aside programs for women-owned and economically disadvantaged businesses. How do you plan to meet those goals going forward?
CS: We want make sure that everybody has an opportunity to do some business with Uncle Sam. What I did in my first full day is to meet with veterans to find out about how they’re doing. I also went to the Pentagon to see about improving and assuring contracting opportunities for small businesses.

President Obama has been committed to this. And he made the SBA a cabinet-level position to make certain that I, as the administrator of SBA, could sit with my cabinet colleagues and plan and discuss the ways in which we can improve contracting--to assure that the underserved communities like Hispanic Americans, African Americans, women, veterans, and people from disadvantaged communities can access their federal government. I’m really pleased with the progress that we're making and I think you're going to hear some very good news from us very soon.

You have a smaller pool of funds than your predecessor. Are you concerned about the challenge this presents?
CS: While it appears that our budget is lower, the truth of the matter is that because the economy is better we don’t need to tap as many subsidies to make sure that we’re still promoting the same level of funding. More and more, our programs operate on zero-based funding subsidies, and so we can still do the same amount of work with this budget. It's always important for me to emphasize that--our lending ability, our contracting ability--nothing is shrinking under this budget.

The SBA has taken considerable heat from lawmakers lately. They say the agency is devoting too many resources to unauthorized programs that benefit bigger businesses, rather than smaller ones. How is the SBA planning to alleviate these concerns?
CS:
 I think it’s important for SBA to review how we continue to do our work in an ever-evolving economy. I want to examine the SBA's programs and see if the ROI is there. If it is, then I would want to go in and visit with those members of Congress who have some doubt and help them work with us to institutionalize those programs so that we can make them enduring legacies of the SBA, and of the Congress quite frankly.

So you would possibly do away with some programs that don’t meet ROI expectations?
CS:
I think that’s right. We have to be good stewards of the public resources. If we found that some program was not effective, I would be the first in line to say that we have to reexamine that program’s existence.

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: May 13, 2014

DIANA RANSOM | Articles Editor

Diana Ransom is Inc.'s online articles editor. She has been covering the never-dull world of small business and entrepreneurship for years, at a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, SmartMoney.com, the New York Daily News, Fast Company, and Entrepreneur. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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