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I kept asking, 'Why not?'

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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.

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