Obama cabinet member, Cal State LA alumna receives honorary doctorate

June 10, 2016

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet lauds students for their business initiatives

Maria Contreras-Sweet, a Cal State LA alumna who serves in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet as the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during a Commencement ceremony held Friday.

Contreras-Sweet also delivered the keynote address, telling thousands of people who packed the College of Business and Economics ceremony that small businesses are essential to economic growth and vibrant democracies.

She acknowledged the entrepreneurial spirit of several Cal State LA students, including Navy veteran Thomas Lawson, who created a financial consulting firm that assists veterans and members of underserved communities.

“Thank you for what you are doing for your country,” Contreras-Sweet told Lawson.

Lawson, who received his Bachelor of Science in business administration at the ceremony, stood and waved to the crowd.

Contreras-Sweet told students that their social and economic backgrounds are assets to the region, the state and the nation. “Your diversity is the power you have,” she said.

Contreras-Sweet has served more than three decades in the public and private sectors and has promoted entrepreneurial initiatives to help people in underserved communities improve their socioeconomic status.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Contreras-Sweet came to the United States as a 5-year-old. She learned the value of hard work from her single mother, who worked at a poultry processing plant east of Los Angeles to help her family make ends meet.

Raised in Baldwin Park, she majored in political science and public administration at Cal State LA.

Contreras-Sweet previously served as secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. In overseeing that influential state agency, she became the first Latina to hold a cabinet position in California state government. She later founded ProAmérica Bank, a Latino-owned community financial institution in Los Angeles that provides capital to small and mid-size businesses. 

Contreras-Sweet has served on the Harvard Women’s Leadership Board, which advises the university. She was also a founding director of The California Endowment, a multi-billion dollar philanthropic foundation that helps organizations address healthcare inequality in California.

Photo: Maria Contreras-Sweet addresses students at Commencement. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

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Cal State LA is a university dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 27,000 students and 240,000 distinguished alumni, who are as diverse as the city we serve. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, Cal State LA has long been recognized as an engine of economic and social mobility. Led by an award-winning faculty, the University offers nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education and the humanities.

Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex, TV, Film and Media Center and the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good. For more information, visit www.CalStateLA.edu.