Bruktawait Dawit Abdi married at age 16 and was whisked away to Washington, where her husband was serving in the Ethiopian Embassy. Her parents, upset, had refused to attend the wedding.
She went to secretarial school, brought up three children, and got a job as a receptionist at the World Bank. Soon, she had an MBA through night school at George Washington University and was making her way up in the world of investment banking.
But she always missed home.
So seven years ago, with her father sick and her marriage long since broken, she came back to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, as a dutiful daughter should do, she explains, to take care of the family. While there, Ms. Bruktawait became one of the most influential businesswomen in the country, helping to found and direct Weganen, one of the country's first private banks, and its largest.
Out of a population of more than 60 million, about 90 percent live in faraway farmlands and have no savings whatsoever. There is no culture of banking, no traditions of lending, and little knowledge of earning interest. "But why not a private bank, I ask you?" she demands. "It's never too early to set up the right institutions. Let's think forward."
She spent the early days running from one government office to the next. "I would not take no for an answer.... And I would eventually get answers," she remembers. "Sure, it was frustrating. The bureaucracy drove me nuts. But we just accepted that we were starting from scratch and took it from there." She hired 66 youngsters right out school and put them through training, giving Powerpoint classes on auto loans, zero balances, and super accounts.
"It was rough and tough setting it up," she admits. "Banking has been stagnant for so many years here, and Ethiopians are not acclimated to new ideas." There is a common saying in Amharic, she sighs: "'This does not work in Ethiopia.' And I kept asking, 'Why not?'"
Within five years, Weganen had opened 24 branches, the majority in rural areas outside Addis. Thirteen of the banks are totally computerized - the first in the country to accomplish this - allowing customers to withdraw and deposit at different branches.
"Opening those rural branches was my biggest pride," she says. "You want to open in the boonies like we did, [but] you have to transport everything - from housing for your workers to roads - and so the minute you open a branch somewhere, the whole community there changes."
She wears red nail polish, pink lipstick, big gold rings, and tight black leather pants, and ignores all the sexist cultural mores around her. Her Amharic, at least when she first returned, was rusty. She had no old school friends and her family thought she was weird. Her kids - a lawyer and a banker in the US - are proud, but often wonder out loud what she is up to. And yes, she is often lonely.
"This society is religious and staid," she says. "It's intimidated by new ideas and new people." She recently resigned from the bank, and is spending time building a farm for her elderly mother. She thought of returning to the US, but has decided to stay put. She is thinking of starting an international financial-consulting business in Addis.
"When I sit back and think, I realize it has been very gratifying to work here," she says. In a way, she admits, she did it for her father, who never got to see her success. "He always believed I could change the world. And here, in a little way, I can."