Chasing the Ethiopian-American Dream


Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

For centuries, this Ethiopian proverb has helped a generation of ambitious youth realize that entrepreneurship starts with an idea and ends with a destiny. No one knows this better than Henok Tesfaye, a young Ethiopian entrepreneur who immigrated to Los Angeles almost two decades ago. Saving a couple hundred dollars a month to pay for business classes, Tesfaye worked as a valet attendant with the hopes of one day owning his own company. Twelve years later, his U Street Parking, named after his first parking lot located in the lively U Street Corridor district of Washington, DC at 12th street NW, informally known as “Little Ethiopia,” is now considered among the biggest and most successful parking lot companies in the DC metropolitan region.

For anyone who lives or works in Washington, DC, the predominance of Ethiopian-Americans in the parking industry is undeniable. Tesfaye’s rise to success is particularly noteworthy because the industry is notoriously cutthroat, known for its long hours, low margins, and high volume.  Following the bloody coup in 1974 by the Mengistu regime, thousands of Ethiopians fled to Washington where they began settling in low-paying jobs as taxi-cab drivers, parking attendants, and restaurant cooks. Today, Tesfaye symbolizes the many Ethiopian-Americans who are beginning to stake larger claims on the American dream.

Tesfaye’s company employs close to 150 people, many of whom are Ethiopian immigrants like himself who one day aspire to become enterprising businessmen. From the string of coffee shops and restaurants in the Skyline section of Falls Church, VA, to Silver Spring, MD, more and more Ethiopian immigrants have their eyes set on realizing the American dream. But what’s keeping Ethiopians from achieving an equivalent dream in Ethiopia?

For decades, Ethiopia has suffered from a devastating cycle of bad governance and bad economic policies. In order to overcome the country’s daunting developmental challenges, reform efforts with provisions for market institutions that protect economic freedoms could unleash entrepreneurs who have yet to emigrate to greener pastures–and there are plenty in Ethiopia with enterprising ideas to spare.

Entrepreneurship starts with an idea but it’s more than just being willing to take a risk.  If an entrepreneur is to succeed in Ethiopia, he or she needs to have basic entrepreneurial skills, such as knowing how to manage finances and communicate well.  The need for effective entrepreneurial training is even more profound in countries where traditional educational systems rarely provide it even on the basic level.  In such environments, there is a need to foster an entrepreneurial culture, not only within the general population, but also among government officials whom entrepreneurs must hold accountable for enforcing the rule of law.  As countries move toward free-market economies, entrepreneurial culture and education play a more prominent role in development.

Good democratic governance and economic development in Ethiopia are intertwined and can only be realized in a competitive business environment. Building such an environment requires innovative and entrepreneurial individuals and firms that can engage the government in transparent policymaking and hold it accountable for those policies. When economic livelihoods are contingent on government support, citizens are unable to hold governments accountable. If state control over the economy can be scaled back, market-oriented reforms will empower ordinary citizens and Tesfaye’s success story will not be limited to Ethiopian immigrants in America.