Founder and Chairwoman, Promerica Bank; Former Secretary of Business, Transportation & Housing for the State of California
At the age of five, when Maria Contreras-Sweet's family emigrated from Mexico, her mother told her that with hard work, someday she could be a secretary. With tremendous drive, ambition and a deep appreciation for the opportunities afforded to her in America, Contreras-Sweet realized her dream not as a note taker, but as a legislator, when she became the first Latina in California state government to hold a cabinet position as Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing. At the podium, the incredible tale of her rise from poverty to public policy to the private sector as Founder and President of the Latino bank Promerica inspires audiences to say, "Si, se puede!" - YES, it is possible.
Contreras-Sweet watched her mother work under horrendous conditions in a chicken packaging plant in order to give her children opportunity. It was a gift that Contreras-Sweet never took for granted, working her way through high school at a jewelry store where she met the office manager for the speaker of the California Assembly. That fortuitous turn led to a job working for the speaker and a chance to get to know every committee in state government, while at the same time completing a degree in political science. Work after college took her from handling government affairs at Westinghouse to opening the Contreras-Sweet Company, an international management-consulting firm, with clients including Disney, Coca Cola, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
From there, in 1999 Contreras-Sweet became the first Latina to hold a cabinet-level position in California under Governor Gray Davis. As Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing, she managed 42,000 employees and a $14-billion budget. Known as a strong housing advocate, Contreras-Sweet helped increase housing as well as stimulated jobs in California's economy. She also oversaw departments including the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Corporations, as well as created the first Department of Managed Healthcare. It was during her tenure that she realized there was a large gap in the banking system - there hadn't been a new bank dedicated to serving the Latino community in California for 35 tears. Thus Promerica Bank was born in 2006 with Contreras-Sweet as its founder and chairwoman and a mission to build family wealth by employing a business consultancy model.
Today, Contreras-Sweet is fulfilling her lifelong goal of building bridges to understanding and equality. As her grandmother always told her, "it's not the position you hold, it's what you do with the position you hold." With that advice, in addition to her business endeavors, Contreras-Sweet has founded numerous organizations and initiatives to create opportunity for others. She is the president and co-founder of FORTIUS Holdings, LLC. a private equity and venture fund specializing in providing California's small businesses with quicker access to capital. Additionally, she was a founding director of The California Endowment and was the founding president of Hispanics Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), an organization that trains young people to wield political power and broaden their civic influence. Contreras-Sweet serves as a member of the board of the Los Angeles Children's Hospital and on the Women's Leadership Board at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Maria Contreras-Sweet lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.