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Celebrating 50 Years of Civil Rights Leadership at SBA

The SBA Administrator

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET

Celebrating 50 Years of Civil Rights Leadership at SBA

Speech Date: 
Thursday, July 10, 2014
Speech Location: 
U.S. Black Chambers Inc. School of Chamber & Business Management
As Prepared For: 
Maria Contreras Sweet, SBA Administrator

Thank you, Ron, for that generous introduction, your commitment to economic growth, and your forward-looking leadership here at the Chamber.

I also want to congratulate Congresswoman Maxine Waters from the great state of California for her award and her tireless advocacy of the African-American community and black entrepreneurs in particular. And I have to acknowledge the leadership of Congressman Butterfield, who is doing incredibly important work every day on Capitol Hill as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Finally, thanks to all of you for your commitment to be outstanding leaders who never stop learning from one another. I know it’s never ideal to be the person standing between you and your lunch break, so I’ll be brief.

When I was confirmed as SBA Administrator three months ago, I promised that inclusivity would be my North Star. As you know, next week marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  It was a watershed moment on our long road to a more perfect union. This week, I learned some fascinating things about SBA’s own role as a trailblazer within the federal government.

In 1963, the year before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, SBA created the Office of Minority Groups. It was an important and early acknowledgment that African-Americans were not aware of SBA credit products but ought to be.

So in 1963, SBA did two things: The agency issued a policy that stating that no small business would be denied SBA assistance because of race, and SBA launched a pilot program to provide loan assistance to very small businesses in America’s urban neighborhoods. This formed the basis of the Economic Opportunity Loan Program, which relaxed credit and collateral requirements for many black businesses.  This helped the SBA forge relationships with minority-serving groups that are vital to our success to this day – groups like the Black Chamber.

This piece of SBA history speaks to me, because while we’ve come a long way since the ’60s, the journey is far from over. Dr. King understood that the struggle for genuine equality is synonymous with economic equality. He once asked, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” Those words still ring true. That’s why it’s so vital that you are here today to better yourselves as managers and business leaders.

I took my oath to lead the SBA in March. One of my first conversations was with Valerie Jarrett to discuss a hard truth: It has become far too difficult for many black businesses to access capital in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Now, in Washington, the process of studying, developing and implementing new policies usually takes years, but patience has never been one of the virtues I possess.

So on June 6th, two months after I became SBA Administrator, I announced a major policy change in how we determine who is eligible for an SBA loan. During the Recession, many black business owners spent money out of their own pockets to make payroll, cover expenses, and weather the downturn. As a result, their personal credit score went down, and it became more difficult for them to secure capital to hire workers and grow.

Owners who make personal sacrifices for their employees in tough times shouldn’t be penalized for doing so.  We should honor this type of commitment. Eighty percent of loan requests from black-owned businesses are for $150,000 or less. But right now, not enough banks are making the small-dollar loans that black-owned companies need to achieve their potential.

So effective this month, the SBA is implementing new, fairer credit standards.  We’re giving banks of all sizes a world-class set of tools to help them make smaller loans in a profitable way. SBA’s African-American lending is up 29 percent over the last year, but we think our new system will get these lending numbers up even higher.

Here’s what else I believe: Those who still don’t qualify for an SBA loan shouldn’t be sent packing and told “better luck next time.” Microlenders can work 1 on 1 with entrepreneurs to improve your credit rating and your cash flow. They can start you with a smaller loan, and give you free advice on how to build your credit and refinance into a larger loan.

So I’ve charged my Capital Access team to create referral networks with microlenders across the country. If an SBA lender can’t get to “yes,” they’ll work with you to make a referral to a microlender that can.  That’s my commitment to you.

This morning, I was a guest on Joe Madison’s radio show. Joe always asks his signature question: “What are you going to do about it?” I believe the SBA must do more to increase access to capital for black businesses in America.  And this, my friends, is what I’m going to do about it. Thank you for this opportunity to be with you today. God bless you, and enjoy the rest of your conference.