Maria Contreras-Sweet is a little over a month into her new job as head of the Small Business Administration, the government agency that guaranteed some $US30 billion small business loans last year.
In addition to lending, the agency has 68 regional offices that offer counseling to small-business owners.
Contreras-Sweet comes to the gig after working in government and business. From 1999 to 2003, she was the Cabinet S
ecretary of California’s Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency, where she oversaw a $US14 billion budget. Before that, she founded ProAmérica Bank, which focuses on lending to Hispanic entrepreneurs.
During National Small Business Week, we talked with Contreras-Sweet about her new role, what the SBA can do for business owners, and how she gets her work done. This interview has been condensed and edited.
BUSINESS INSIDER: What trends do you see among this year’s winners of the Small Business Person of the Year awards?
MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET: What I really love about these awards is that we feature great diversity from all parts of the country, from innovators to our core manufacturing companies.
We want to make sure we’re creating incentives for innovators, but we also want to make sure we’re supporting the manufacturer, the restaurant owner, the esthetician. I want to make sure that everybody knows that in entrepreneurialism, they have a place with us.
BI: Are there shared qualities between these award winners?
MC: They’re risk takers, they’re pioneers, they have a passion unfulfilled. Some of them started out of necessity. They are passionate people that got into fields that were emerging.
BI: What do you want to accomplish in your new role as SBA administrator?
MC: We have to be first in innovation. The United States is strong because we’ve innovated. We’ve always been at the forefront of these things. Then we want to make sure we’re filing the patents and actually manufacturing the products, so that it is a value-add to the United States.
I’m pleased that the SBA has counseling centres to help entrepreneurs build out the business plan, the marketing plan, the human resources plan, the IT infrastructure plan, and to understand recruiting strategies. All the essential skills of entrepreneurship, you can find those at our resource centres.
BI: How is the SBA going to promote innovation?
I don’t think there’s one silver bullet. For some people to innovate, they need to understand what’s taking place in the economy and what the opportunities are. So it’s important to know what’s going on locally, regionally, and nationally.
At the SBA, we counsel, we make introductions, and we have micro-enterprise lending.
We have growth accelerators. We just launched a major competition putting out $US2.5 million to encourage more growth accelerators. The growth accelerators help people out of their homes, out of their schools, and out of their businesses and explore to see the viability of their ideas. And remember, it may not be that you get it right the first time, but you keep trying and something will come.
BI: If someone wanted to start a business tomorrow, what are the first steps?
MC: They could go to an SBA district office, to the SCORE program where seasoned executives are available. You could go to a veterans center or a small-business development center. If you go into one of those, you begin to develop your idea and ask them for guidance.
BI: What’s your approach to management?
MC: I don’t think that the head of the business needs to feel that they have every answer. I think it’s important for us to be resourceful and understand that the people interacting every day with our clientele probably know most about what we can do to refine our business.
So instead of leadership, I like to think about it as championship. How do we champion our employees so they are resourced, they are properly trained, they are capable of doing what we expect of them?
BI: What’s your best productivity tip?
MC: To be very specific in the way we communicate. For me, it’s so simple. Sometimes we don’t communicate clearly enough what it is we want employees to do, and we don’t put a deadline on it. “I’d really like for you to do this,” as opposed to saying, “Do you think you could get me this by 2 o’clock?”
People want to do exactly what you want them to do. But sometimes they just have a sense of “this is what I thought you asked me to do,” and they come back with something else.
I find that the more clarity and more specificity that I add to things, the more empowering it is to the individual.
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