Channeling Silicon Valley, Maria Contreras-Sweet kicked off National Small Business Week on Monday with some familiar lingo: "If you're not failing, you're not pushing the envelope," said the Small Business Administration chief. "You can't disrupt and you can't innovate if you don't have an ecosystem that supports failure."

Those remarks, which Contreras-Sweet made during a keynote address at the eMerge Americas conference in Miami, mark something of a turning point for the agency, which is not known for its embrace of failure and risk tolerance.

This transition--which started under her predecessor Karen Mills, who is now a senior fellow at Harvard Business School--has included, among other things, the launch of an online lending platform for connecting banks with SBA-backed loan candidates. The new online marketplace which is now available to business owners in all 50 states is dubbed Leveraging Information and Networks to Access Capital, or LINC.

"Small-business lending is the newest frontier for matchmaking service technology," Contreras-Sweet told Inc. when the program launched in February. In her latest speech she encouraged other growth-oriented entrepreneurs to explore the platform and join legions of businesses that have also benefited from SBA-backed loans. Among the most successful companies to have received SBA-backed loans she highlighted Apple, Costco, FedEx, Intel and Nike.

"The SBA helped finance these companies when they were just starting out," said Contreras-Sweet, indicating that the SBA could help other small companies grow. "In Miami today, we see the future."

Contreras-Sweet also noted another interesting trend she spied amid the crowd in Miami--namely, the changing demographic mix of today's entrepreneurs. "More businesses today are owned by women, veterans, immigrants and our LGBT entrepreneurs." She added that Hispanics are now the fastest growing group of small businesses, numbering more than 3.5 million and contributing nearly $500 billion to the nation's economy every year.

While much of her speech focused on celebrating entrepreneurs in the U.S., she also stressed that the environment for small businesses is in a state of constant reinvention--particularly in cities like Miami where minority-owned businesses are in the majority. 

Contreras-Sweet urged small business owners to expand their target markets and challenge tradition. "Today's commerce is global," she said. "Small businesses have to understand how to navigate through this international marketplace."

From the White House on Monday, President Barack Obama echoed Contreras-Sweet's remarks: "Our small businesses represent what is best about our Nation--the idea that with determination and responsibility, anyone can build a better life for themselves and their loved ones," he said. "This week, we recognize the role small businesses play as pillars of our communities and engines of our growing economy, and we rededicate ourselves to fostering the entrepreneurial spirit that has forged the strongest economy the world has ever known."

Published on: May 4, 2015