With an insider’s understanding of the challenges facing Israel’s Arab population, Imad Telhami has co-founded a service company that aspires to excellence and utilizes the skills of Israel’s minorities.
Babcom already employs 220 workers and plans to scale up rapidly.
When the secretaries are on their lunch break, it’s the founder and chairman of Babcom who answers the phone. That’s how ISRAEL21c first came into contact with Imad Telhami, co-founder of the 18-month-old outsourcing call center and service company staffed mainly by minorities and based in the Galilee region in northern Israel.
After working for the Delta Galil textile company for more than 20 years in top management positions and supervising thousands of people, Telhami left in 2007 when the Israeli company was forced to make major layoffs. Most of those who lost their sewing jobs to plants in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and China were from Israel’s Arab population, and Telhami saw a rapidly growing number of unemployed in a sector where jobs are badly needed.
“Since the textile plants were closed, nothing has replaced them,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “Eighty percent of the Arab ladies are unemployed and not because they want to be unemployed. They just don’t have anywhere to work.”
Despite often being highly skilled, women and men from the Israeli Arab community, especially those from villages and more traditional communities, have a tougher time finding gainful employment than their Jewish counterparts do.
A skilled and proficient workforce
Telhami, himself from the Israeli Arab community, knows what his people have to offer: Many are skilled in computers and highly proficient in at least three languages – Arabic, Hebrew and English. Together with his long-time friend, colleague and one-time boss at Delta, Dov Lautman, Telhami started Babcom to create new jobs for minorities.
“I am a big believer in these kinds of projects,” says Telhami, who is a chairperson and member of about 12 different co-existence projects and funds in Israel. He says his friend, the high-tech guru Yossi Vardi “pushed” him into the service industry and that’s how Babcom, which employs 220 people and is still growing, was formed.
Although a little more costly than those in China or India, Babcom provides call centers for the service industry to both international and local Israeli companies. It’s registered as a private company (in which Telhami is a primary shareholder) and so far Babcom has one major contract with Israeli cell phone
Solutions found nowhere else on the planet
Telhami relates that the US company is looking to enter the Gulf region, and with service providers proficient in Arabic, English, Hebrew and even Russian, Babcom can offer a host of solutions found nowhere else on the planet.
Based in the Tefen Industrial Park in the Galilee, Babcom is starting with call centers, but will soon be rolling out a variety of other outsourcing services. “‘Services’ means many things,” explains Telhami. “It can be call center services, software services, computer engineers, market research, sales or translation services. Babcom is a company that gives different services for different companies, both Israeli and foreign companies.”
So far, the business model with co-existence at its heart is working. Babcom has hired a group comprised of 35 percent Druze, 35% Muslim, 13% Christian and 17% Jewish people. Telhami also proudly proclaims that 62% of his workforce is made up of women.
In addition to striving to find employment for qualified people who are at a disadvantage, the company also works with high-tech computer companies such as CISCO in Israel, to recruit and teach trainees who have potential but may be lacking basic skills. This training is provided free of charge.
Telhami believes that one of the reasons for Babcom’s success is that he has intimate knowledge of the culture he’s working with. Israeli Arab women living in villages and small towns are not permitted to hitchhike, carpool with men, or travel on their own on public transport. Acutely aware of such issues, Telhami doesn’t challenge the cultural norms, but organizes special transit services to deliver the women to and from work every day.
Business, equality and peace
Founded in late 2008, but operating for just over a year, Babcom also recently found employment for 30 people at a large high-tech company in Israel. The company was hoping to supply workers to AIG (now Chartis) last year before the financial meltdown, as the US company had a vision then to supply insurance services to Arab countries via Israel, Telhami recounts. But the financial crisis put paid to that scenario.
Meanwhile, Jon Allen, Canadian ambassador to Israel, says that Babcom is the “best thing he’s ever seen,” according to Telhami, and pledged to help identify Canadian companies that might outsource some of their services to the Israeli firm, which has good business practices, equality and peace on its agenda.
Coming from the world of big business, Telhami says that Babcom is different from the smaller outsourcing companies in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. After managing 15,000 people worldwide, and another 20,000 outsourced employees, he knows how to scale up to the level of services that Fortune 500 companies need.
“I am committed to giving the best service in Israel and worldwide. This is written in our mission and vision. We took the best consultants and advisors and we built a unique culture – it’s about the way we train our people and build our processes internally.
“Also as part of our mission statement, we seek to inspire minorities everywhere and take powerful steps to contribute to the narrowing of these social gaps and expanding co-existence,” Telhami concludes.