Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) was a teenager when she first became interested in business issues, particularly the challenges facing small businesses.
"My father was a sugarcane cutter [in Puerto Rico], and he saved money to open up a small factory to make cinder block. I saw him suffer because of the complexity of regulations and payroll, and access to capital. I saw how difficult it was for my father to be able to overcome those obstacles and succeed," she recalls.
That memory was fresh in her mind when she became the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1992. Shortly thereafter, she successfully lobbied for an appointment to the House Small Business Committee, convinced that her background uniquely suited her for the often-labyrinthine process of crafting sensible small-business legislation.
Just six years later, Ms. Velázquez was named the committee's Ranking Democrat, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve as chair or ranking member of a full committee in the history of the House. The committee has since passed 27 pieces of legislation, 20 of which became law.
Ms. Velázquez helped create the Small Business Administration (SBA) Women's Procurement Program, which assists women-owned businesses in obtaining federal contracts. She also beat back a Republican effort in the 1990s to eliminate the SBA's 8(a) program. And she was instrumental in reducing 7(a) program fees by 50 percent.
"I am so proud to represent small businesses in Congress. I will fight the good fight for them – whatever it takes – one program a time, one issue at a time, because I believe in the power of America's small enterprises," she says.
In recognition of her tireless and effective advocacy on behalf of the nation's small-business community, Ms. Velázquez has been named the inaugural recipient of Hispanic Business magazine's Woman of the Year award. She was selected from among this year's roster of 80 Elite Women.
As then-President Bill Clinton described Ms. Velázquez in a New York speech, "She has one emotional level – intense. She communicates one feeling only – passion. When she asks you for something, you get the feeling that you can tell her yes now, or tell her yes later."
Ms. Velázquez says she has consistently championed small businesses because such enterprises are the backbone of the U.S. economy.
"We all know that the engine driving the economy is small business, with 90 percent of new jobs created by small businesses. Small businesses helped pull the U.S. economy out of the recession in the '70s, and I believe they are the ones to help turn around the economy now," she says.
In recent years that belief has spurred her to seek increased funding for the SBA and its programs. It's a position that has put her at odds with the Bush administration.
"At a time like this, when we are facing an economic downturn, that's the time to invest more in small businesses. [SBA administrator] Hector Barreto is a nice and bright man and a former small-business person, but he's been put in a position where he has to come before us and defend a budget that he knows is inadequate," she says.
In fact, the New York legislator says one of her biggest frustrations has been dealing with a White House that seems only to feign interest in small-business issues. It's an ironic turn of events, considering President Bush's background, she says.
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