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Coming to America

Ethiopian man rises through ranks of the banking industry as he adjusts to life in America.

Throughout his life in Ethiopia, Derege Denu, like other Ethiopians, would save his money in his pocket or under his pillow. The government controlled the country's banking, and Denu, like many others, did not trust the government. Because of that distrust, transactions in cash, even in sums of hundreds of thousands, were common.

"There was a fear that money would be taken away," Denu said.

Despite his inexperience, Denu was to become a banker years later, after he and his family left Ethiopia and its political instability in 1997. Denu now works as the assistant vice president and branch manager of the Prosperity Medical Center office of Fairfax's Potomac Bank of Virginia.

"Derege has really embraced coming here and working hard," said Jim Nelson, vice president and relationship manager at Potomac Bank. "He's really a model for hard work."

LIKE MANY others who have emigrated to the United States, Denu wanted to leave his home country's instability and search for a better life. For 17 years, from 1974-91, Denu and his family lived under a Communist regime. Although that regime was overthrown in 1991 and replaced with a democratic government, Denu still didn't trust the government.

"The political situation didn't make sense to me," Denu said.

Prior to coming to America, Denu last worked in the U.S. Embassy from 1992-97, where he met his wife. Working with Americans would help him assimilate quickly once he was in the United States, although at the time, Denu was puzzled over some of the American customs, such as conducting fire drills, using school buses, and installing screened porches.

"I come here and I see all these, and I say, OK," Denu joked.

When he felt the political situation was worsening, Denu, his wife and their 18-month-old daughter departed Ethiopia, spending a week in Germany with his sister-in-law before arriving in the United States in May 1997. Denu was 37.

Once they arrived, Denu moved to Columbus, Ohio, and managed three convenience stores owned by his cousin. His wife stayed with another sister in Alexandria. Although they had considered settling in Columbus, they decided to live in Northern Virginia, since Denu's wife had relatives in the area.

DENU LEFT Columbus and found a job in the area as a parking attendant, despite being college-educated. He had a college degree in management and public administration from Addis Ababa University.

Working as a parking attendant frustrated Denu, so through a contact arranged by an acquaintance from home, Denu found himself hired as a bank teller at Sequoia Bank, even though he had no prior banking experience.

"I just wanted a job that could put some food into my family's mouths," Denu said.

At Sequoia, Denu steadily rose through the ranks, from teller to head teller, to new accounts representative and assistant branch manager. In May 2002, he joined Potomac Bank, where he now serves as an assistant vice president and bank manager.

"That's less than six years to rise that far. That's quite a success story," said Nelson, who was also Denu's manager at Sequoia. "He learned very, very quickly, and he's very people-oriented. And very computer literate. He really went far fast. It's really nice to see him be successful."

Now that his career has stabilized, Denu looks forward to raising his daughter and son in Fairfax, where he and his wife now live. He might consider moving back to Ethiopia one day, where his father and two siblings still live.

If he could visit Ethiopia, Denu would like to compare the banking systems of the two countries. He recalled that in Ethiopia, the system used multiple tellers to handle each step of a transaction, like a deposit or a withdrawal.

"I just want to really see how they do their banking there, if it's the same procedure. Just to compare. It might be interesting for me," Denu said.