Attending the National Annual Conference of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) can bring unexpected opportunities. Among them, Carlos Medina, President of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey (SHCCNJ), had the perfect opening for inviting the head of the Small Business Administration (SBA) Maria Contreras-Sweet as the Keynote speaker for the 24th SHCCNJ Annual Convention and Awards Luncheon. The event is taking place this coming October 23rd at The Brownstone, 351 West Broadway in Paterson, New Jersey.
“We bring the most relevant figures as keynote speakers to our events, and this year, inviting Maria Contreras-Sweet was just the perfect fit for us. This public figure represents the fastest growing business community in the nation: Latinas,” Medina said.
Although her participation has not been yet confirmed, Medina expects that Contreras-Sweet will clear her schedule to attend this major event for Hispanic businesses in New Jersey and the Northeast region. The New Jersey chamber estimates there are 83,000 Hispanic businesses with an economic power of over $10 billion annually. “Most Latino population concentrates in six counties in New Jersey, and so do many of their businesses,” said Medina.
He refers to the so called “big six” counties, which hold 81 percent of the total number of Latino-owned firms in the state. Those are the Northern counties of Hudson, Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Union and Middlesex with an estimated total of approximately 67,000 firms.
Contreras-Sweet, perfect for the job
Contreras-Sweet most relevant experience for her SBA appointment is her helm at ProAmérica Bank, a business financial institution with over 30 years in the making.
In a 2012 interview, the business woman recalled that the founding of ProAmérica Bank evolved through the years, with the input of several important business leaders from the Los Angeles area. During her time in public office, she was approached with the idea of starting a bank oriented to the particular needs of Latinos. However, the project did not crystallize until years later, when her son, who worked at a financial institution, noticed the obstacles Hispanic business owners had to overcome in understanding financial products including language barriers and the lack of institutions that would make the banking process accessible to them.
Through friends and business acquaintances, Contreras-Sweet was able to gather the necessary resources to finally launch the institution in 2006. Founding board members included Ed Roski, real estate investor and Contreras-Sweet’s partner at a private venture capital firm; George Keiffer, former Chair of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and attorney at law; Henry Cisneros, who had served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Univision COO; and Sol Trujillo, former CEO at US West.
Latinos encounter cultural barriers in using traditional banks, either because they grew up with different values about building wealth, did not use banks, or are unaware of the resources available to them, she believed. She set the foundation to create a bicultural service providing financial education and empowerment, access to technical skills and networking opportunities, and additional business resources.
Even when the economic power of Latinos in business has grown at a staggering rate –the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce estimates that the number of Hispanic-owned businesses grew from 2.26 million with revenues of $350 billion in 2007 to an estimated 3.16 million and $500 billion in revenues last year– access to investment capital and other financial products continue to be a major hurdle for many of them.
“Maria Contreras-Sweet ‘s appointment to the head of the Small Business Administration is a historic opportunity to bring someone to this position who understands the need of ethnic business owners in the banking arena,” said Luis de la Hoz, The Intersect Fund‘s vice president and board member of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey. “Her background as an entrepreneur and chair of a financial institution addressing the needs of small and medium business owners, together with her experience in the public sector, makes her an ideal candidate to understand that access to capital continues to be the number one obstacle for Hispanic business owners.”