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White House taps former small-business lender to lead Small Business Administration

Published: Monday, Jan. 20 2014 11:30 a.m. MST

Maria Contreras-Sweet, founder and board chairman of a Latino-owned community bank in Los Angeles, thanks the crowd as President Barack Obama announces he will nominate her to head the Small Business Administration (SBA), Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

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Amid efforts to consolidate the Small Business Administration with the Departments of Commerce and Labor, President Obama nominated the founder of ProAmericaBank, a community bank in California, as the new head of the SBA on Jan. 15. Maria Contreras-Sweet founded the bank to serve small and medium sized businesses within the Latino community to encourage the smallest small businesses to start and grow. “When family businesses thrive, the community thrives and the economy thrives,” she says.

I hope she brings the same spirit to the SBA. I am a big fan of what Jeanne Hulit did last October as acting SBA administrator when she removed the fees on loans of $150,000 or less. Anything that makes the smaller loan amounts most small businesses are looking for more accessible to the Main Street business owners you and I trust to fix our cars, do our dry cleaning, or prepare a meal, is a good thing.

Contreras-Sweet also served as secretary of California’s Department of Business, Transportation and Housing from 1999 to 2003. So she’s likely familiar with the bureaucratic hurdles she’ll have to jump through to get things done in Washington.

Tuesday in Forbes, I asked if we are sending the wrong message to small-business owners with the efforts led by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., for consolidation. Appointing a permanent head of the SBA is a move in the right direction and sending the right message — at least in my opinion.

The Small Business Administration, which was founded in 1953, has its fair share of detractors. I wrote about one of them in September. I just don’t happen to be one. I’m not convinced the circumstances or the situation that encouraged the founding of the SBA have changed to the point we can abolish the SBA or run the risk of losing the SBA’s mission in the shuffle of a consolidation with Labor and Commerce.

I agree, it’s not a perfect organization, and the idea that small-business owners should stand up on their own two feet without the help of government might even be a worthwhile goal — I just don’t completely agree with it. Imperfect as it may be, the SBA offers some valuable services to the small-business community (including their loan guarantee program) that weren't available in 1953 and are still needed today.

As credit has eased for big businesses, mid-size businesses and even the largest small businesses over the last 12 months, that isn’t the case for the Main Street businesses you and I identify with. Credit is still hard to come by for them, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better anytime soon. At least that’s what the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland recently reported.

In his nominating speech for Contreras-Sweet, Obama said, “Lack of access to capital means a lack of opportunity.”

When two out of every three net new jobs is created in the very businesses that have the hardest time accessing capital to grow, the “opportunity” to create jobs is one of the opportunities we’re losing. Earlier this month, 1.3 million Americans fell off the jobless benefit rolls. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada put forward a $24 billion proposal that was subsequently voted down. If 70 percent of the private sector in our country is employed in small businesses, and two-thirds of net new jobs are created there, maybe some in Washington should do a little more than talk the talk. Maybe we should be investing more in small businesses.

I’ve spent more than 30 years working in small businesses. I’ve owned a business or two that were very small Main Street businesses, worked in a bustling tech startup or two, and have witnessed firsthand the difference between the smallest small businesses and the $30 million tech company. Both, by the way, are considered small businesses by the SBA — which is where I believe the organization’s challenges really lay. And both have very different needs.

As Contreras-Sweet assumes her new position at the SBA, I hope she harkens back to her roots helping the smallest small businesses, even family businesses, find the resources and capital they’ll need to grow, hire employees and strengthen local economies.

A Main Street business evangelist and marketing veteran with 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about small business finance issues for lendio.com and is author of the book, "Getting a Business Loan: Financing Your Main Street Business."

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