A First Look at the SBA's New Boss
Update: Maria Contreras-Sweet has yet to be confirmed, as there weren’t enough senators present to establish a quorum. (10 p.m. Februrary 12)
One year after Karen Mills announced her retirement from her post as Small Business Administration chief, the agency tasked with bolstering the health of the nation's small businesses may get a new boss as early as today.
President Barack Obama's pick to head the SBA, Maria Contreras-Sweet, is expected to go before a Senate nomination hearing today. With significant financial chops, the Mexican-born Contreras-Sweet is expected to win swift approval.
But she will face tough questions. Biggest of all: How would she plan to keep capital flowing to the nation’s still struggling small businesses?
In each of the last three years under Mills, the SBA backed about $30 billion in loans, up from $17.8 billion in 2009. And while Mills was lauded for increasing aid to small businesses during and after the recession, she faced some pushback, as programs didn’t create as many jobs as critics would have liked.
Like Mills, who came to the top SBA job from the private equity world, Contreras-Sweet also has major financial credentials. Before co-founding the Los Angeles-based ProAmerica Bank, where she worked with small businesses, she co-founded Fortius Holdings, a private-equity fund, where she served as president.
And she’s worked in the public sector, as head of California's Business, Transportation and Housing Administration.
Contreras-Sweet would seem well-equipped for the job of heading the SBA, which has been without an official leader since August when Mills stepped down. But that doesn't mean she won't have an up-hill battle waiting for her in Washington.
There have also been repeated efforts in Congress to eliminate the agency. In 2012, President Obama called for folding the SBA into the Department of Commerce--even after he elevated the SBA administrator to a cabinet level position.
Finally, the nomination is seen as a capstone for fellow small-business advocate Senator Mary Landrieu (D., La.). As chair the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Landrieu along with other committee members are responsible for vetting the would-be SBA chief. The effort would be among Landrieu's final orders of business as chair of the small business committee. She is expected to soon relinquish her title to head up the Senate Energy Committee.
DIANA RANSOM | Features Editor
Diana Ransom is features editor at Inc. 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 magazine and Entrepreneur. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.