Commencement 2017: Biographies – Maria Contreras-Sweet

Maria Contreras-Sweet, former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration under President Barack Obama is awarded an honorary Doctor of Public Service during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 161st Commencement on Sunday, May 21, 2017.
Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts Photography


Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, you immigrated to Los Angeles at the age of five with your mother and five siblings. You did not speak English when you arrived, but teachers immediately recognized your desire to excel. As a leader in business, the not-for-profit sector, and state and national government, your passion has been to improve the lives of others and help them realize their dreams. To advance healthcare, as Secretary of California’s Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency, you created the state’s Department of Managed Health Care and its Office of the Patient Advocate. To finance entrepreneurial ventures, you started the Latino-owned ProAmérica Bank to serve small and mid-sized businesses. You served on the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission to give women access to executive positions, and founded Hispanas Organized for Political Equality to promote political and economic parity for Latinas. And, in another milestone, you became a member of the Cabinet as the first Latina to lead the U.S. Small Business Administration—supporting job creation and economic innovation. We salute your vision and achievements by awarding you the degree of Doctor of Public Service honoris causa.


After moving to the United States from her native Mexico when she was five, MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET watched her single mother struggle to find a job to support her six children. She imagined a brighter future for her kids. Contreras-Sweet recalls soon after that boasting to her grandmother that she had just become the third-grade milk monitor. Her grandmother Emilia said then, “It’s not the titles you have, it’s what you do with the titles you have that really matters. ” This notion seeded her early dedication to public service.

Contreras-Sweet’s trailblazing career has spanned the private sector and government service, from corporate officer to U.S. Cabinet member, serving in President Barack Obama’s administration as the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). At the SBA, she oversaw the world’s largest business counseling network, the federal small-business contracting program, and a $120 billion loan program. During her nomination, President Obama said that when Contreras-Sweet founded her bank, “she helped small businesses get their good ideas off the ground, to expand, to hire, to sell their products and ideas, not only in our domestic markets, but also overseas. ”

When she immigrated to California, Contreras-Sweet spoke no English, but as she learned her new language, she excelled. “Once you learn any language–whether it’s English or the language of business, medicine, or law, you can get in the game and succeed,” Contreras-Sweet said.

Earlier in her career, she served as vice president of public affairs for the 7-Up/RC Bottling Company, where she was a leading corporate negotiator for the creation of the Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act, which led to the largest expansion of California’s recycling system.

As California’s Cabinet Secretary of the Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency from 1999 to 2003, Contreras-Sweet managed 44,000 employees, a $14 billion budget, and fourteen departments. She led the creation of the state’s Department of Managed Health Care and its Office of the Patient Advocate. During California’s energy crisis in the early 2000s, she chaired the finance committee of the state’s electric power grid, helping to stabilize the energy market.

In 2006, Contreras-Sweet took on a new challenge, founding ProAmérica Bank, which finances small- and mid-sized businesses, especially those run by Latino entrepreneurs. She left the bank to serve on President Obama’s Cabinet.

Her generous volunteerism includes co-founding The California Endowment, a $3 billion health-related philanthropy; serving as a U.S. Senate appointee to the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, advocating for the advancement of women and minorities in the public and private sector; and founding Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, which seeks political and economic parity for Hispanic women.

In recognition of her international leadership, the Global Entrepreneurship Congress established the Maria Contreras-Sweet Award for Global Impact.

Maria’s grandmother would encourage her to work hard so that someday she could work in an office and be a secretary. “Little did she know that I would hold office and become California’s Cabinet Secretary of Business, Transportation, and Housing. ”

Tufts will award Contreras-Sweet an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree.