Contreras-Sweet served as secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and is the founder of ProAmerica Bank, "the first Latino-owned business bank in California in over 30 years," Obama said while introducing her to the press at the White House.
"Maria was the driving force behind major job creation and major public investments in infrastructure and in housing," Obama said, describing his nominee as a woman who "knows firsthand the challenges that working families and recent immigrants are facing."
Contreras-Sweet, one of six children, was raised by her mother, a Mexican immigrant who worked in a chicken-packing plant, the Washington Post reported.
Leaders of several business groups applauded Obama's selection of Contreras-Sweet.
"She is articulate and passionate about helping small businesses," said Gary Tobin, president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
Contreras-Sweet "is highly regarded in Los Angeles and throughout the state of California," Tobin said.
"We are very pleased to welcome a new administrator, especially a community banker, to lead the critical work of the SBA, which has been a lifeline for America's small businesses in these economically challenging times," said Beth Solomon, president of the National Association of Development Companies, a small business advocacy agency that works with the SBA.
Contreras-Sweet has "focused extensively on access to capital for a segment of the small business community that has more trouble getting capital than most, so she understands the pressing need for credit and capital of many small business owners," said John Arensmeyer, head of the Small Business Majority, a lobbying group.
Obama raised the SBA to a Cabinet-level agency in 2012. If confirmed by the Senate, Contreras-Sweet would replace interim head Jeanne Hulit, who replaced Karen Mills, who left in the fall to take a position at Harvard University.