Meet President Obama’s small business guru

December 14, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC
Ceremonial swearing-in of Maria Contreras-Sweet at the White House in Washington
Maria Contreras-Sweet listens to remarks during her ceremonial swearing-in as Administrator of the Small Business Administration at the White House in Washington April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) - RTR3KBTT
Photograph by Kevin Lamarque — Reuters

Maria Contreras-Sweet may only have started her gig leading the U.S. Small Business Administration in April, but in many ways it’s a position she’s been working toward her whole life.

In her role, she’s in charge of programs that give the nation’s 23 million small businesses access to capital, teach entrepreneurship skills, and help with government contracting.

Born in Mexico, Contreras-Sweet immigrated with her family to Los Angeles at age five and worked in both the private and public sectors. In 2006, she started the first commercial bank for California Latinos in 35 years, called ProAmerica Bank. She also started a venture capital firm that made investments in small businesses.

Additionally, Contreras-Sweet was a director of public affairs for Westinghouse’s 7-UP brand before becoming a vice-president and an equity partner. She established the Contreras-Sweet Company, which focused on marketing and research for Latino markets, with clients ranging from Coca-Cola and Walt Disney.

In the public sector, she’s served as California Gov. Gray Davis’ Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing (which ceased to exist in 2013) during the late 90s and early 2000s. She was in the job for a five-year term and made history as the first Latina to hold a state cabinet post in California.

Decades before that, she was a district manager for the U.S. Census Bureau in 1979.

President Obama nominated Contreras-Sweet for her current position in January and she was confirmed two months later.

“As Secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, Maria was the driving force behind major job creation and major public investments in infrastructure and in housing,” President Obama said in a statement for her nomination. “As a consultant, she helped companies expand into the Latino market. She’s a champion of women-owned and family-owned businesses.”

During a recent visit to New York City, Contreras-Sweet sat down with Fortune to discuss the inspiration behind becoming a small business maven, some of the current initiatives she’s working on and what it was like to receive a call from the President to serve in his cabinet. Below is an edited transcript of the highlights.

On shopping at small businesses:

It’s really a lot of fun to go in and to shop at the big department stores and benefit from the sales. But then it’s a really special gift to go to Main Street and visit the local businesses and the local entrepreneurs who have special unique items that really make that community special. I think these two are complementary.

What we’ve learned is that once someone is exposed to the concept of shopping small, they’re apt to support it. Once they shop small, we find that they normally do come back and do come back throughout the year.

On new online companies lending to small businesses:

I’m very encouraged by the technological developments I’m seeing because it’s democratizing the access to capital. Not everybody’s got something that they can collateralize so they can get their loan. We have to be creative about the ways we can provide that opportunity. I think it’s important for us to examine the role, the proper role, we can play in helping small businesses navigate through that alternative finance channel. Some are less precarious than others. To the extent that we stay current with technological advances, we’re in a better position to consult small businesses.

On her inspiration:

It started with my grandmother. She came as a migrant worker [with my grandfather]. They worked to serve here and then to serve in their home country. Half of their children were born here and half were born on the Mexico side. When my mother decided to come back, my grandmother would say, No. 1, she believed in entrepreneurship. She had little businesses: she’d sell dairy products, she’d sell whatever she could get her hands on.

So I started my own business, and the reason that I did is that I saw my mother work for a small business. It’s in my heritage, I guess you could say. I was initially hired by a corporation and I enjoyed it.

I thought now I can plan something I can own and something I can leave for my children. That’s why I decided that I would go into entrepreneurship. And that one, as you know, is a community bank [ProAmerica Bank]. To build something that is responsive to the needs that entrepreneurs have today. I became a businesswoman whose small business helps small businesses every day.

In that regard, it was responsive to the work that I saw as California’s Secretary of Transportation. I saw that small businesses needed counseling to be able to navigate the labyrinth of contracting with the government. And then I’d see them be challenged once they got the work, and need access to capital. I worked with them and tried to introduce them to banks.

On getting the call from President Obama:

I thought about once I left office [as a California cabinet secretary] , what’s the most important thing I can do? And I thought that to form a family-oriented small business community bank would be probably the way I could continue to serve my community. And then the President called and asked me to serve at the federal level. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I explained that I was doing accounts and contracting and providing access to capital. He said, ‘What if you could do this for the entire country?’

And it’s an enormous sacrifice on one level. You leave your family, you leave your home, you leave your belongings, and move to a little town, Alexandria. But I owe it to my country considering that this country supports social mobility and I’m an example of that.

On immigrating to the U.S. and achievements:

It’s really beautiful to see people who have made it in America and made it in America. It sounds a little folksy, but I really believe in the beauty of America’s social mobility. That somebody could come in as I did and end up serving on the president’s cabinet, having started a bank, having served at different businesses – that I can now provide for my family and that I have these freedoms and advantages in life, starting with no economic advantage.