Business, professional & real estate | From two words of English to bank manager, 16 years and count

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Sofiya Ilyashenko loves her job, loves her customers and loves the company where she has worked since 1999 — Sterling Bank & Trust.

“It’s good,” says Ilyashenko as she surveys her tidy, light-filled office.

Ilyashenko is Sterling’s branch manager at 5498 Geary Blvd. in the Richmond District. “This company is run by Jewish people, and that makes me very proud,” she says. “I am Jewish, and here in the U.S. I feel I don’t need to hide that anymore. This is excellent.”

Ilyashenko, 56, came to the United States in December 1992 from Kursk, Russia, where she taught geography and biology to students in grades five through 10. “I came here as a refugee with my mom and my son, who was 7 ½ at the time,” Ilyashenko says. Her husband had been killed in the war in Afghanistan seven years earlier.

Sofiya Ilyashenko photo/patricia corrigan

“I still remember the first lady we met” at S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, she says, which at the time had a satellite office on Presidio at California Street. JFCS provided an array of services to émigrés and others, and worked in partnership with various community agencies.

JFCS “gave my son his first Hanukkah gift,” Ilyashenko remembers. “We also tasted our first Jewish food, got our first furniture and got a bicycle for my son. The first social worker we met also made a good impression.”

The social worker referred Ilyashenko to Jewish Vocational Service to help her find a job. At the time, Ilyashenko spoke just two words of English: “yes” and “no.” She laughs at the memory. “That wouldn’t cover it,” she says.

Early in 1993, she applied for a few retail jobs but was not hired. She soon started attending English language classes.

“The woman at Jewish Vocational Service told me not to worry, that she would help me find a job,” Ilyashenko says. “Soon I was hired at [the thrift shop] 17 Reasons in the Mission. I started in the fitting room but after two days the boss put me to work on the register.”

While working at the store, Ilyashenko improved her English and completed training as a medical assistant. In 1996, she got two part-time jobs, one at an optometrist’s office and the other at Wells Fargo Bank. Two years later, Ilyashenko accepted a full-time position as a personal banker with the former Pacific Bank in the Financial District. She stayed at the bank for about 18 months.

“Because then I was knowledgeable about banking, I did some research and learned that Sterling Bank was owned by a Jewish family,” Ilyashenko recalls. “I decided to appIy.”

Sterling was founded in Detroit by Irving Seligman, a businessman and real estate investor.  His son Scott, of San Francisco, is president of Sterling Bank & Trust. The Seligman Family Foundation supports a number of organizations — many of them Jewish (including JFCS and JVS).

“I started here in 1999 as an account specialist and after two months, I was named branch manager,” Ilyashenko says. “It’s very nice here, very pleasant.”

Two customers, an elderly woman with her grown son, come in the door at Sterling Bank. “Good morning,” Ilyashenko calls out. “How are you?” She steps away from the interview to help determine what they need and get help for them from her assistants. She is patient and kind — like a teacher helping her students.

 “I still miss teaching sometimes,” Ilyashenko says when she returns to her desk. “Whenever I see small kids here, I love it, but I also like helping elderly people who come into the bank.”

Ilyashenko lives in South San Francisco with her son, Vasily, now 30. He works for the government as part of an airport security team. “I am so glad for my son, so proud. He finished his MBA degree, something he never would have had a chance to do in Russia.”

Her mother, Dora Geller Likunov, died in July. She was an active member of Congregation Chevra Thilim in the Richmond neighborhood, where Ilyashenko attends holiday services.

Ilyashenko has chosen not to travel back to Russia. “I have no family there, no reason to go. My relatives have moved to the U.S. or to Israel,” she says. Plans are in the works, she adds, to visit cousins next year in Israel, her first trip there.

Looking back, Ilyashenko says learning English has been her greatest challenge. “I was told it was not easy here,” she says, “but at Jewish Vocational Service, I learned how to prepare a resume, how to get a job interview, how to dress and how to have the right attitude. I got good support.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.