America’s Future is in Hands of Today’s Entrepreneurs

By:Maria Contreras-Sweet

Issue:Winter 2015 : Features

In appointing me Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, President Obama tasked me with three objectives: run an effective SBA, be a strong voice for America’s small businesses, and take the agency to the next level. I embraced this exciting and worthy mission, knowing small businesses are the backbone of our economy.

Small firms make up 99.7 percent of American employers. They generate two out of three net, new private sector jobs and account for half of all private sector employment. The future of our country is truly in the hands of the American entrepreneur.
SBA programs are infusing dollars into local markets toimprove the domestic economy. Entrepreneurs inject capital into the economy more quickly as they cover payroll, buy equipment, and acquire real estate. Not only is SBA-backed capital more likely to be spent at home than abroad, but it’s also circulated faster in local communities, spurring more economic activity. With this in mind, I am eager for this opportunity to be leading the SBA.

You see I immigrated to this country from Guadalajara at the age of five, not speaking a word of English. My mother worked at a poultry processing plant so her six children could have opportunities she never had. My life’s journey has been one of seizing opportunities to help my family and build my community.

From grade-school hall monitor, to corporate executive, to California Cabinet Secretary, to bank founder, to now, a member of the President’s Cabinet, I was taught it’s not the titles we have that matters, it’s what we do with the titles we have. I’m living my American Dream. Now, I want every entrepreneur to live theirs.

Living the Dream

Today, all of the jobs lost in the Great Recession have been recovered, yet our nation still faces a profound challenge: capital is not reaching small business owners equitably. The face of entrepreneurship is changing in America. More of those faces today belong to women, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, veterans, seniors, and business owners who are socially and economically disadvantaged. Too many in these groups cannot


“Small business is big business in West Virginia,” says Kristina Oliver. “Ninetyseven percent of our businesses in the state – companies which have 500 or fewer employees – are small businesses.”

Oliver is state director of the West Virginia Small Business Development Center (SBDC), a division of the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

If you’re a would-be entrepreneur thinking of starting a business, the SBDC is the goto place for the kind of advice that will help you avoid some of the possible pitfalls – and potholes – on the road to making your venture a success.

The center has 12 offices around the state, each staffed by a business coach. In addition, the center offers an extensive schedule of workshops conducted year-round in different West Virginia communities. And it has a tollfree “Business Ask Me” telephone line (888.982.7232).

In the last three years, the SBDC has assisted clients in raising $53 million in capital, in creating and retaining more than 3,500 jobs and in starting 635 new businesses.

“Our business coaches have served more than 3,100 clients,” Oliver reports.

The Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing “is proud to partner with the SBDC,” says RCBI Director & CEO Charlotte Weber. In Huntington, the local SBDC office is housed at the RCBI Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center, and RCBI frequently cosponsors and/or hosts SBDC workshops.

For the location of the SBDC office nearest you or more information, go to


access the requisite expansion capital. Your gender, your race, your age, or your neighborhood should never impact whether you can get a small business loan. Only your creditworthiness should.

At the SBA, we will assure a continuum of support, especially for our underserved businesses. We’ll expand access to our core programs that we refer to as the “three Cs” – capital, consultation and contracting. And it goes without saying we’ll remain focused on our disaster assistance programs, so homeowners and business owners can access our help when they need us the most.

To advance our work on behalf of America’s entrepreneurs, I’m focusing my initial efforts in three areas: First, we will modernize and implement smart systems, so the SBA keeps pace with technological advances that are changing how we do banking and conduct business. To encourage our lending partners to provide more capital to Main Street, we will automate our credit analysis using predictive systems.

Second, we will create a more inclusive organization by tailoring programs that embrace our nation’s dynamic demographics.

Third, we will serve as a “market maker” for small companies by opening new business channels within the federal government, corporate supply chains, and international commerce. We will be modern. We will be inclusive. And we will make new markets. This is how we’ll move the dial for entrepreneurs from all walks of American life.

Responding to Diversity

On an encouraging note, our lending to African Americans is up 29 percent over the last year. That’s important, because the Urban Institute found that women and minorities are three to five times more likely to be approved for an SBA-backed loan than a traditional loan. Four out of five loan applications we receive from Hispic-American and African-American business owners are for $150,000 or less. These smaller loans, then, are a vital part of our promise of equal opportunity in America. If a bank can’t quite say “yes” to a borrower, we’re asking them to partner with a microlender or a Community Advantage lender that can.

We also have a special obligation to serve those who served us so well: our veterans. They fought for our freedoms, and now many are ready to fight for their dream of starting a business. Our armed forces have a track record of producing outstanding leaders. Veterans own two and a half million businesses that generate more than $1 trillion in sales a year. This year, the SBA will counsel and train 15,000 transitioning service members through our Boots to Business Program. We’re helping them apply their military discipline and training to their dream of starting a business. America spends an average of $31,000 per service member to get them battle-ready while this program costs an average of $411 per veteran to get them business-ready. While our veterans represent an important group for the SBA, the fact is, we offer counseling for all entrepreneurs at every stage of the small business life cycle. We help small businesses start up and scale up, and we provide access to new markets so they can really take off.
Last year, about one-quarter of the companies capitalized by our Small Business Investment Companies were owned by minorities, women, or veterans – or those who conduct their business in rural or distressed urban areas. We’re focused on increasing these numbers through sustained outreach and through our Impact Investing Initiative.

But promoting inclusion is not just about gender, race, and socio-economics. One of the biggest demographic shifts affecting small businesses has to do with the fact that we’re living longer. The global population of those 65 and over is expected to triple by mid-century. More and more of our retiring Baby Boomers are starting a second act and finding fulfillment in entrepreneurship. Americans age 55 to 64 are creating nearly a quarter of our new businesses. With their life’s experiences in their tool box, they are actually building businesses in larger numbers than their youthful counterparts. While there is evidence that our Encore counseling program for the 50+ group continues to be well received, consideringthe magnitude of its potential impact, a thoughtful examinationis warranted about the program’s expansion potential, so that we might enrich their golden years.

Areas of Opportunity

Finally, the SBA will be a market maker by opening up new areas of business opportunity for small companies. We will be adaptive to signals in the domestic and global markets, and we will create the conditions for entrepreneurs to secure government contacts, enter corporate supply chains, and export their products globally.

These initiatives are not the end of our conversation but are a good start. We must adapt to smart technologies. We must be responsive to changing cultures, new lifestyles and evolving demographics and psychographics. Finally, we must continue to anticipate and seize what portends for tomorrow’s markets. To repeat, the SBA will be modern, inclusive, and be a market maker for small businesses.

My arrival in this country has brought me untold opportunities. My gratitude is matched only by my motivation to open more opportunities to every American who shares the entrepreneurial spirit. I never imagined that I would be here today. But now that I am the head of the Small Business Administration, I am dedicating myself to making small businesses big businesses. The hallmark of my work will be to foster entrepreneurial equality, preserving our nation’s preeminent role as the world’s leading economy. Let’s make small business a big deal. The SBA’s work has never been more vital. For me, SBA stands for Smart, Bold and Accessible, in every corner of the nation.

This article is adapted from a speech SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet delivered June 10, 2014, at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.