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I Am American Business

Maria Contreras-Sweet

Producer Notes

Promerica Bank is located on the ground floor of a gleaming new skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. It looks like any polished, corporate bank. And that is exactly the point. Maria Contreras Sweet has positioned her bank to help Hispanic businesses grow to be a seamless part of corporate America. After a career that included a term as Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing of the state of California and founding a private equity fund, she knows what makes the business world run: capital. She is now making that crucial element as accessible as she can to the Hispanic community. One of the businesses that's grown with the help of a Promerica loan, El Alteno foods, a food distributor, invited us to shoot in their large, immaculate warehouse. Then they offered us a tasting of their products: pork rinds, Mexican queso and Mexican Coca-Cola. They all tasted incredibly good. It was great to see the flip side to all the controversy over immigration, Hispanic companies bringing new growth and delicious products from across the border.

Video Interview

The "I Am" Q&A

What kind of car do you drive?
A Lexus.

What's your favorite place to go?
Play tennis with my son.

What website do you like to visit?
Promerica Bank's

What was your worst moment in business?
I hope it never comes.

What is your favorite drink?
My favorite drink would be an apple martini, sour apple martini.

What's your favorite food?
Grandma's enchiladas.

What is your idea of fun?
Fun would be to be with my family snorkeling.

And what's fun at work?
It's all fun, I think that's why we all enjoy it here. I think what's fun is sitting down and just hearing that we just landed a great account and we ring the bell and there's a lot of excitement around that.

What personal weaknesses do you forgive in someone?
I'm a person of great faith, I'm very, I practice my faith and I forgive those who don't.

Who's a business hero of yours?
As I watched Amelia, my grandmother, try to sell eggs or whatever she could make, she was my hero. She was the one I learned so much from.

What personal qualities do you admire in someone?
I admire those with thick skin, those that can just keep moving and plunging ahead, I admire that in people.

Are you doing anything for the environment?
Overall, I'm very committed to green. I drive a Prius, I built one of the first innovative buildings in the state of California here in downtown Los Angeles that speaks to green. It received a Pritzker Award for its innovation.

What is your dream?
My dream now is to see Promerica Bank really make a difference. I believe that success is paced by access to capital. And my dream would be to have Promerica Bank be the gateway to the Latino community for those who want to reach it and sell its products, and to be the gateway for the Latino community to connect with the larger population.

Do you have a motto?
My personal motto is that we ought to look at the things that we have in common with others. So many times people talk about the differences, you know I'm this, she's that, he's this. Why don't we focus on the things we have in common? Because together we can fly.

What is your present state of mind?
These days, I'm one happy person. I can't imagine life better than where I am today.

Transcript


CNBC:
About how many Hispanics live in the LA area?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
Well, in California today, one in three Californians is Hispanic. Is that amazing? One in two in a kindergarten class is Hispanic. It's remarkable; I mean it's really very exciting to see what's taking place. But I think the challenge for us all is the way we embrace this, the way we prepare people, and the way we integrate them, acculturate them to make sure that they continue to be very generous people and a key part of our economy for the future.

CNBC:
And what about the growth of Hispanic businesses?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
One in two new businesses in California is started by a person of Hispanic descent.

CNBC:
What is that about?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I think that there's different things taking place. One is that we're a very entrepreneurial community. We've learned to sell from the day we were born, we're selling everywhere we go and I think that's part of our culture. And another challenge is that because of language barriers, often we don't integrate well into corporate America. So as a result, Latinos find themselves starting business.

CNBC:
Do you have any statistics on buying power, Hispanic buying power?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
We do talk about that because it's about twenty billion dollars. But I think out of context, it's difficult to grasp, so I could say one in twelve dollars spent comes from the Hispanic community.

CNBC:
Do you think the Hispanic community is being served and recognized in this country?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I think everybody thinks that they are serving the Hispanic community and I do think that people have a connection, but we know that it can be more authentic, it can be more real. It's not just about a translation. It's about really understanding the culture.

CNBC:
So let's just talk a little bit about your background, especially your mother, who brought your family to America.

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
She's very energetic, she's just a bounty of generosity. She gives to everybody everything that she can, she believes in America, she believes in the American Dream and she knew that this would be a place where her daughter could do some special things. When we first arrived, I still remember the day that I went with her to the doctor and she couldn't speak English, she couldn't communicate in any way. And so she asked me to go with her to the doctor's office and I remember it so vividly, because the doctor couldn't speak Spanish, so she asked me to come in. And the humiliation, the embarrassment of having to undress, unrobe in front of a doctor to get her medical examination, those are the kinds of memories that drive me and urge me to make sure that companies today, do address cultural competencies.

CNBC:
It must have made a big impression on you as a young girl.

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I think it's ever-lasting, and so always I try to remember her values and her mother's values. My grandmother instilled in all of us this notion of the power of saying yes, that there is more power in saying yes than turning somebody away. And it's a feeling that drives me today.

CNBC:
What does that mean to you as the founder of a bank?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
My mother instilled in me the notion that there's more power in empowering them to do things, build things. She was a builder, my grandmother was a builder. So as the Secretary of Transportation, I built highways, I built on and off ramps. I built buildings. Today I'm building wealth with Promerica Bank.

CNBC:
Do you think there haven't been enough people saying yes to small Hispanic businesses?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I think the difference between success and not having success, the difference between the sous chef and the restaurant owner is the ability to access capital. I believe that access to capital is key. At Promerica Bank, which represents the promise of America, we're working to help entrepreneurs access capital everyday.

CNBC:
Could tell the story of how old you were when you came here?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I arrived from Guadalajara, Jalisco at the age of five years old. I didn't speak a word of English. We all just went out and started school like every other kid. And it was just a wonderful experience, because I was taking in so much. And I still remember the day that my teacher was pulling my ear because she thought that I was being some kind of unruly kid, because I didn't understand what she was saying. But in truth, we didn't speak the language and as we've learned it, we've learned to use it for our benefit, to speak up for others, to fight for others, to bring a level playing field for all people, because we've experienced so many indignities, so many times when people said no to us, that now my message is one of, how can we say yes to entrepreneurs? How can we build their wealth? How can we bring together all of these small businesses that represent the circle of hope in America and create a center of success? We've done it here with Promerica Bank.

CNBC:
I read a story about your mother's hopes for you…

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
When we got here it was really difficult for us. We didn't speak the language, we didn't have transportation systems, there was no connection. It was hard for my mother to find a job. She had six children. And I just remember one evening saying to her, I don't know why we left our old country. What is in store for us? And she just looked at me and she said, someday Maria, you're going to be able to work in an office, and maybe even be a secretary. Little did she know that I would hold office and that I would become California's Secretary of Business, Transportation, and Housing, the regulator of healthcare, the regulator of transportation. I think that was far beyond my mother's imagination.

CNBC:
What was it like for her when you took office?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
Oh my goodness. The proudest day in her life was when we actually went back home and I was invited by the governor of Jalisco, Mexico, to come back and to visit him. And when I arrived, they had this beautiful book about my story and I think it was that moment, coming back home with my mother and seeing all the family and enjoying them and going with the dignitary, being received by the governor, that was a moment that really rings true for my mother and for all of us.

CNBC:
It must have just meant to her that she did the right thing, that everything she went through was worth it.

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
Right.

CNBC:
Let's talk a little bit about founding the bank

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I had seen that access to capital was key in our community and I knew that our community had a bank, but they didn't necessarily have a banking relationship. And so, in talking to families, I learned the difference between having capital and not. And clearly we understood that it is capital that drives success and so we wanted there to be a place that said yes to authentic business ideas, while providing them access to capital in a very elegant and respectful manner. That is the idea behind Promerica Bank.

CNBC:
Why did you name it Promerica?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
We wanted to say that you are the promise of America, and this is your bank, Promerica Bank.

CNBC:
What is the target market for Promerica?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
At Promerica Bank, we target the small business family owner. We believe that it is families that make America strong and families need access to capital. We're building wealth for American families.

CNBC:
What is the importance of small and mid-sized businesses to the economy in general?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I believe we need to address innovation. Innovation is generated in the small business community, largely in small family businesses. Promerica Bank's key niche is the Latino family business owner. This environment provides beautiful art, a bicultural, bilingual setting. We have products around cash management, a full array of commercial products available to them to help them grow their business.

CNBC:
How old were you when you started working?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
Oh my goodness, for our family, we didn't have a choice. We all started working, my brothers and sisters, I us remember recycling bottles up and down the street. That is the nature of the Latino community; we've learned to be entrepreneurial from day one. And so for us we were out there, recycling bottles, babysitting, then I became a bow maker in a flower shop. And you know whatever it was that I could do to bring money into the family, that's just what we did.

CNBC:
And do you think that's typical of the immigrant experience?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
My experience is no different than anybody else's immigrant experience. We come here and we come to contribute, we come to be a center of what this country is offering and to make sure that we're giving back. I love that we now have an organization called HOPE, that stands for Hispanics Organized for Political Equality. I love that there is now a California Endowment that is addressing healthcare for the needy.

CNBC:
You know immigration has become such a political issue right now. What does it mean to be a Mexican immigrant today?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
You know, the politics come and go. For me, I think it's very exciting to be Latina today. Salsa's overtaken the sales of ketchup. Everywhere you go, nachos, it says it's an American food, it's very exciting to be Latino. Everybody is looking for this opportunity. We all recognize the power of this economy. We understand the opportunity that it represents.

CNBC:
Have you been affected by the subprime mortgage crisis?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
Fortunately, community banks may be the last affected by this because we're not engaged in subprime lending. We haven't done any predatory lending so fortunately this bank has not been affected. Now overall, every bank is going to be affected indirectly, but we're not at the heart of what's taking place in that space.

CNBC:
Another thing that I thought was interesting when you were starting the bank was you said that there were quite a few Asian banks, that Asians were well represented. Can you talk a little bit about that? About Hispanic banks versus Asian banks and the importance of having an ethnic bank?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
When I was in office, I was asked to approve the next charter as the regulator, California's regulator of banking. And what I saw was that at that time, there were forty-two Asian-oriented banks and they were all doing well and thriving. So the question in my mind became, how many Latino banks are there? I was dismayed to learn that there were only four in the state of California and I felt it was important to make sure that this growing population with so much opportunity, with so much energy so many ideas, that we could drive their innovation, that we could help them grow if we allowed them access to capital in an elegant, respectful, and authentic way, a place that would be bilingual and bicultural.

CNBC:
So you think all ethnic communities are well served to have an ethnic bank?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I believe that community banks service family businesses better. I think that there's a place for large institutions and I respect them and they have served our community well. But I think there's a special place for community banking and even a more special place, a place where people who speak Spanish, people who have great ideas can come in and speak their language in a bilingual, bicultural atmosphere that really speaks to them.

CNBC:
Can you explain your “Center of Success”, where you let clients come in and meet with people in the government?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
We think that a point of difference for Promerica Bank is our “Center of Success”. We find that entrepreneurs and professionals want to connect with each other. And what happens is that they learn from each other and that gets them motivated and pushes them forward. So we've established such a center and while they come in for our excellent banking services, we know that they enjoy the center of success, where they can connect with top opinion-makers, they can connect with top business leaders, and hear about the stories that have happened before them and how they can emulate those stories again.

CNBC:
How did your mother react when you told her you were going to start a bank?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I still remember the day that I told my mother, “I'm going to start a bank.” And she says, “You know Maria,” she says, “You know you became the Secretary of Transportation, you became the first officer at your corporation. You know you've never ceased to amaze me. But I didn't think you'd pull off the bank.” And I still recall the day that she stepped in here, particularly when she stepped into my office and how touched and how moved she was that her little daughter who was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, had come here to this country not speaking a word of English, and became one of the spokespeople for the state of California as the Secretary of Business, Transportation, and Housing, and now had started her own bank.

CNBC:
Well you've been the first Latina in many areas. What does that mean to you?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
I felt as a young person growing up that, as I looked to see who the attorneys were, they were usually people who didn't look like me. As I looked to see who the successful businesses were run by, they weren't people who looked like me. And so I felt that we did need role models so I did a couple of things. One is I conducted some research and published a book called The Women of Hope. And it features Latina icons all over the world, and I did it for my daughter and I did it for everybody else's daughter. That they could see that Latinas are here to contribute and that it's our legacy to contribute, and that we mustn't allow any limitations to be put before us, and so for my daughter, for my mother, and for my grandmother, I felt that it was important to do something that had to be done. A Latina had never started a bank. The idea seemed impossible, but yet I felt that knowing and understanding the power of access to capital, understanding the criticality of accessing capital to allow other businesses to grow and to thrive, would be the crux of what I really wanted to be doing next in my life and so I set out to start a bank.

CNBC:
Why is entrepreneurship so important?

MARIA CONTRERAS-SWEET:
You may recall that I served quite a few years on the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, and that is also a source of information for me, to have traveled across the country to learn stories from women, from people of color, and their stories are anecdotal reasons why they could not get to the top levels of corporate America. Today still, ninety-seven percent of the CEOs are still white males. And so I do think that sometimes we have to recognize that there is going to be a limitation and so entrepreneurship is the answer. We believe that building family wealth is a solution for those families that have hit the glass ceiling, and are now looking for other ways to build family wealth. So we built this bank with that in mind, building family wealth.

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