JAFFA: He rolls with some of Israel’s most illustrious millionaires, businesspeople and entrepreneurs, making Imad Telhami — the CEO of Babcom IT outsourcing and call centers in Israel’s Galilee — not your average Israeli Arab businessman.
Telhami’s raison d’etre, in fact, is working to give Israel’s Arab minorities and other disadvantaged groups equal opportunities in a country that they feel discriminates against them. Part of this is through his work to build up Babcom; Telhami has agreements in place to give jobs to Israeli Arabs through major American companies including Texas Instruments and the chip producer DSPG.
Moreover, four Fortune 500 companies from the United States are about to sign on to the Babcom outsourcing and service package. This will give more than 100 jobs to Arab Israeli engineers who lack the same opportunities as their Jewish counterparts. Despite getting the same education at top Israeli schools, Arab engineers are not adept in finding work in the Israeli high-tech culture. Some say it’s because they were never part of the Israeli army, where relationships for future jobs are built.
Outsourcing is not a new idea to Israel; major companies like IBM have set up R&D centers in the country. But Babcom, working with Israeli Arabs, is different says Telhami, and it’s mainly because of their hiring and training approach and their impressive goals. He founded Babcom after the company Delta, which traditionally gave thousands of jobs to Israeli Arabs in the Galilee, moved factories to Egypt and the East where labor is cheaper, leaving many Arabs unemployed.
Telhami lives with his wife Reem and four kids in the Druze village of Isfiya on Mount Carmel, near Haifa. He is on the board of more than 13 non-governmental organizations including the University of Haifa and other prominent social ventures.
He says his success as one of Israel’s most influential social entrepreneurs is to a large part thanks to the village where he was born and lives today. “This Druze village is my power. I live [in] a minority, within a minority,” he tells Common Ground News Service. As a Christian Maronite with roots from Lebanon, Telhami’s family moved to Isfiya from Bethlehem two hundred years ago. Today the family enjoys a unique status among the Druze community, itself a minority in the Arab Israeli population. This helps him understand how to work with all kinds of people from Israeli society, especially with the sensitivities of traditional Muslim and Druze women.
And in fact Babcom currently employs almost 300 people, most of whom are minorities including traditional Israeli Arab Muslim women. They also hire Jewish people from the peripheries who are socio-economically disadvantaged. Telhami knows how to work with the diverse cultural and religious rifts that sometimes exist: “We are trying to create the right environment for them [so] as to not make conflicts between their ability to work and their culture. Babcom is a modern place but, considering culture and traditions, we try and match both worlds,” he says. The company provides special language training seminars, takes measures to pick-up women employees from their homes every day, and integrates Arab managers into the mixed staff.
Telhami knows how to deal with the sensitivities in the Arab world, an approach that could be copied in other Arab countries where traditional values clash with women’s need to find gainful employment. He knows, for example, how to separate sexes so that there is no conflict between their work and their religious values.
Telhami sees great potential in the role his company can fulfill in the region: “We can see Babcom centers to be the door to connect businesses between Israel and the Arab world.” While it might be impossible for Hebrew speaking Israelis to initiate business with Saudi Arabia for example, Telhami’s company, he believes, can offer a good and competitive service in the Arab language for the Arab world, which would be second to none: Israeli Arabs, like their Jewish counterparts, are skilled in and pride themselves in being multi-lingual.
An economically stable situation in the north of Israel is what Telhami is most concerned about but he knows that gainfully employed communities can create a knock-on effect throughout the region, reducing radicalism and creating a positive attitude towards coexistence. For him what is most important is to see that peace first starts at home, in Israel.
Karin Kloosterman is a journalist and blogger based in Jaffa, Israel and founder of www.greenprophet.com, a Middle East environment news website. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).