Small business administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet makes first visit to Phoenix

On Friday afternoon, Maria Contreras-Sweet gave a speech as the keynote speaker at the 29th Annual HWC Scholarship Benefit Luncheon held at the Phoenix Convention Center South Ballroom. (Carolyn Corcoran/DD)

Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, visited midtown Phoenix’s Seed Spot, a nonprofit social entrepreneurial incubator, late Friday morning during her first official trip to Arizona.

After a meeting at the SBA’s district office, Contreras-Sweet toured Seed Spot’s facility with co-founder and CEO Courtney Klein. Seed Spot is located off Thomas Road and Central Avenue in the same building as the SBA district office.

“I love the feel,” Contreras-Sweet said during the tour. “It feels so organic.”

Seed Spot began in fall 2012 at the Levine Machine Building on Grant and Sixth streets. Since its inception, the incubator has graduated 43 ventures through its signature incubation program, according to its website. The current cohort includes nine socially-driven businesses.

“We’re really trying to accelerate ideas that make Arizona and the world a better place,” Klein said. “For Seed Spot to have a national official come in and see entrepreneurs is a really powerful thing for the future of Phoenix entrepreneurship.”

“Venture Friday” is a free community event held every Friday at 11 a.m. and gives each business the opportunity to practice its three-minute pitch for a live audience.

“There are initiatives for new start-ups,” Contreras-Sweet said to the group. “We have growth accelerators throughout the country if you want to partner up with somebody who is in another accelerator somewhere else. We have programs to take your businesses internationally.”

Contreras-Sweet was nominated by President Barack Obama in January to join his Cabinet. Since her appointment, she has traveled all over the country meeting with local business owners and industry leaders to speak on the behalf of SBA and its program offerings. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, she is one of three Latino members of the Cabinet.

“That is why I’ve re-launched the SBA in a new frame and I call it smart, bold and accessible,” Contreras-Sweet said. “When you come from another country, you see things more globally.”

Contreras-Sweet said that “smart” refers to the way in which business is conducted. At the SBA, the implementation of a predictive scoring method has shortened the amount of time it takes to process a loan, she said, in addition to increasing the overall number of people who are able to qualify for loans.

“I had to go back to Congress for the last two weeks to say that I needed an extra $1 billion to push the loan demand that we have,” Contreras-Sweet said.

Seed Spot is the No. 2 trustee for zero percent interest person-to-person loans via KIVA Zip in the country, according to their website. It is also located in Arizona’s seventh congressional district, which holds the largest district majority of Latinos and African-Americans in Arizona.

“We want to make sure that Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, Native Americans are all fully engaged and feeling like SBA is a place for them as well,” Contreras-Sweet said.

Upon leaving Seed Spot, Contreras-Sweet addressed the Hispanic Women’s Corporation as the keynote speaker at the 29th annual HWC Scholarship Benefit Luncheon held at the Phoenix Convention Center South Ballroom. Nicole Stanton, who gave opening remarks, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton were also in attendance.

“It was the Small Business Administration’s Disaster Assistance Program that stepped in to help families here in Phoenix whose homes were severely damaged by the floods,” Nicole Stanton said. “She was there for Phoenix when we needed her and I again extend my personal thank you to her.”

Contreras-Sweet said during her speech that a Wall Street Journal article, published while she was going through the confirmation process, stated that the SBA’s loans were not reaching minority business owners, including women and African-Americans.

“I took that as a challenge and with these kinds of initiatives that we are putting in — the smart, bold and accessible — I was so pleased to see that I could walk into Cabinet and hand the president a copy of a more recent Wall Street Journal article that said this administrator’s new initiatives are reaching women, minorities and especially African-Americans,” Contreras-Sweet said.