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Young parking lot czar is the face of Ethiopian success in the D.C. area

Henok Tesfaye, right, and his brother Yared at Reagan Airport's parking garages where they recently won a contract along with the Dulles parking spaces.
Henok Tesfaye, right, and his brother Yared at Reagan Airport's parking garages where they recently won a contract along with the Dulles parking spaces. (Dayna Smith)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010

Ask any of the thousands of Ethiopian immigrants working as parking attendants or cabbies around Washington whom they aspire to be like, and you'll probably hear about Henok Tesfaye.

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Tesfaye, 37, started as a parking valet in downtown Washington two decades ago, saving a few hundred dollars each month to pay for business classes and start his company. Today, his U Street Parking (named after his first parking lot, at 12th and U streets NW) ranks among the biggest parking companies in the region.

His success is part of a wave of accomplishment by Ethiopians, who began settling in Washington after fleeing violence in their native country in the 1970s. Tesfaye's 12-year ascent in Washington's notoriously cutthroat parking industry is especially notable because it was so unlikely.

Parking is not an easy business. It's marked by high volume, long hours and low margins. For Tesfaye, the years of 16-hour days and endless financial pressures culminated in a phone call in December. A year after partnering with a Los Angeles-based parking giant, Tesfaye won a lucrative contract to oversee 37,000 public parking spaces at Dulles International and Reagan National airports, including four garages, three surface lots and a valet service.

"When I got the call that we had got the contract, I cried," said Tesfaye, from his office in a rowhouse on Rhode Island Avenue NE. "We were a long shot. We've always been a long shot."

U Street's 25 percent share of the nearly $1.3 million in annual management and incentive fees from the airport contracts, which started this summer, could net the company millions over the next five years, along with increased visibility and other clients.

Tesfaye had become the Ethiopian version of the American Dream.

"He's the leading young entrepreneur in our community. . . . I know him from when he was a parking attendant, and it's great to see these types of businesses grow," said Dereje Desta, the publisher of Zethiopia, an Ethiopian newspaper in the District.

The Washington area's Ethiopian community is the largest in the nation. According to Census Bureau data, about 30,000 Ethiopian immigrants -- about one-fifth of those in the United States -- live in the region. But the local figure has a history of being underreported and probably tops 100,000, according to the Ethiopian American Constituency Foundation and the Ethiopian Community Development Council.

Ethiopians came in droves after a bloody military coup in 1974, and they worked in low-paying first jobs as cabbies and cooks and parking attendants. But they have begun to stake their claims. Tesfaye's company now employs 100 people, including many immigrants from Ethiopia and Mauritania.

Open for business

Ethiopian businesses have sprung up across the Washington area. A new crop has appeared in the Skyline section of Falls Church, and restaurants and coffee shops are opening across Shaw, especially along Ninth Street NW, known informally as "Little Ethiopia." (Five years ago, an attempt to get a formal designation from the city failed.)

"We've grown, and now we've really begun to make a name for ourselves, in the business sense," said Tamrat Medhin, a financial adviser at Access Capital, a Falls Church real estate investment firm that has poured millions into luxury properties in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.


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