On January 15, 2014, she was nominated by President Barack Obama to join his Cabinet as head of the Small Business Administration. She was confirmed as the Administrator of the Small Business Administration by voice vote on March 27, 2014. She assumed that role on April 7, 2014.
Contreras-Sweet entered the private sector as the Director of Public Affairs for Westinghouse’s 7-Up / RC Bottling Company and rose to Vice-President of Public Affairs. During her tenure with the company, they grew their portfolio to include other beverage companies such as Evian, Perrier, Sunkist, Lipton, and several others. Contreras-Sweet became one of the leading corporate negotiators for the creation of the Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act of 1986 which introduced the California Redemption Value for bottles and the mass expansion of the recycling system in the state. Contreras-Sweet was a part of the management leveraged buy-out of the Bottling Company, becoming an equity partner.
Maria Contreras-Sweet started the Contreras-Sweet Company, a marketing and research consulting firm with a specialization in the Latino market. Her clients included The Coca-Cola Company, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Hoechst AG, The Walt Disney Company, and Sempra Energy.
After leaving public office, Contreras-Sweet joined with Edward P. Roski to form Fortius Holdings, LLC, a private venture capital firm that sought to invest in small business with an emphasis in Latino-owned and women-owned businesses.
In 2006, Contreras-Sweet became the Founding Chairwoman of the first Latino-formed commercial bank in California in over 35 years, ProAmérica Bank. ProAmérica Bank targets the small business community is Southern California. Maria Contreras-Sweet recruited such notable co-organizers as Henry Cisneros, Edward P. Roski, Alex Chaves, and Solomon Trujillo. ProAmérica Bank’s client base includes some of California’s most important corporations, foundations, non-profits, and small businesses.
Contreras-Sweet first experienced public service as a secretary for Leo T. McCarthy when he was the Speaker of the California State Assembly. She used her time with him to gain exposure and understanding of the state legislative process. Recognized for her growing know-how and ambition, California Senator Joe Montoya appointed Contreras-Sweet as field deputy where she engaged in constituency affairs, legislative analysis, and public policy proposals.
After working for the state legislature, Contreras- Sweet joined the Department of Commerce as a District Manager for the United States Census Bureau’s Decennial Count in 1979. There, she was responsible for over 800 employees and the accurate count of the South East portion of Los Angeles County.
Contreras-Sweet was appointed by Governor Gray Davis to be Cabinet Secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency (BTH), becoming the first Latina to be named Cabinet Secretary in United States history. During her 5-year term, Contreras-Sweet was the longest serving BTHA secretary, overseeing 44,000 employees, a $14 billion budget, and 14 state departments. Her projects included:Creating of the Department of Managed Health Care and its accompanying Office of Patient Advocate
Serving as Chairwomen for the Commission on Building for the 21st Century and published the Invest for California Infrastructure Report
Securing funding; building consensus among local, state, and federal governments; and commencing the construction of the eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge (at the time, the project was considered one of the largest infrastructure projects in the United States)
Driving the passage of California Proppsition 46, a $2.1 billion housing bond
Creating the first international architectural competition ever undertaken for a state building, which led to the construction of the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters.
Serving as Chairwoman of the 2000 United States Census for California.
Contreras-Sweet is the Founding President of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE). This organization’s mission is to provide political education of Hispanic women so that they can improve the communities in which they live for the betterment of all. HOPE’s key programs include the HOPE Leadership Institute, Latina Action Day in Sacramento and Washington D.C., and the Youth Leadership through Literacy Program (YLTLP). HOPE celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2009 with a special banquet and video presentation that featured Contreras-Sweet sharing the progress the organization has made through the years.
Contreras-Sweet was appointed by the United States Senate to the original Federal Glass Ceiling Commission which published the "Good For Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital" report and the "A Solid Investment: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital" report. These two investigations examined the effects of the Glass ceiling on women and minorities in the workplace.
Contreras-Sweet is a Founding Director of The California Endowment, a multibillion-dollar philanthropic foundation.
Contreras-Sweet was an elected member of the Board of Directors for Blue Cross of California during the critical years of its turn-around period and transition to the publicly traded stock, WellPoint. She was selected to serve on the Harvard Women’s Leadership Board, which advises Harvard University on women’s issues and supports research opportunities for female professors. During her period of service, the University consulted the Board in their selection of Drew Faust, Harvard’s first female president. She serves on PepsiCo’s Ethnic Advisory Board, which executives turn to for consulting on marketing, employment, health, environment, and procurement opportunities. Contreras-Sweet serves on the Milken Institute’s California Advisory Board which studies key policy and economic topics that affect California’s well-being.
Contreras-Sweet is an executive member of the Board of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. She is a member of the board of Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Contreras-Sweet served for 10 years as a Board Member and 2 years as the Chairwoman of the Board of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF). She was appointed to the Board of the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension Commission (LAFPP). She was a member of the Independent System Operator (ISO) executive board for California. She was a member of the Rebuild Los Angeles board, which was formed to provide economic development in the southern portion of Los Angeles after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Contreras-Sweet spearheaded the committee that produced the “Latinas: The Spirit of California” Exhibition featured at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.2003 Recipient of Government Technology Conference & Center of Digital Government's "Innovation & Vision in Government" Award
Guest on the Tavis Smiley Show on PBS
Keynote Speaker of Japan’s Global Enhancement of Women’s Executive Leadership Forum in 2008
Recipient of Women’s Leadership Award for Business from the Women’s Leadership Exchange
Featured on and interviewed for the I Am CNBC Campaign
Listed as #9 on My Latino Voice’s Top 10 Marias in Latino History
Honorary doctorate from the University of La Verne, 2017