Imad Telhami Sept. 6, 2010 Tomer Neuberg
Imad Telhami Photo by Tomer Neuberg
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There are at least 100 reasons why Israeli Arabs don't realize their economic potential. Political problems, cultural problems, historical problems, racism - the list is long. But Imad Telhami, however, founder and CEO of Babcom, doesn't waste his time complaining about them.

That's because Telhami, who also spent years as a senior executive at textiles firm Delta Galil Industries, is an optimistic person. Daily frustrations aren't part of his discourse.

Babcom, a startup established two years ago in the Galilee Tefen Industrial Park, is a small company with less than 300 employees. It supplies call center and software development services to Israeli companies.

Babcom, which employs mainly Israeli Arabs, is a small startup with big hopes. It's also an inspiration for anyone who believes Israeli Arabs are a major growth driver for the Israeli economy.

Well before Babcom, Telhami's life story was inspiring. He is a Christian Arab who started with a low-level job at Dov Lautman's textile firm, Delta Galil. He climbed the ladder to become Lautman's right-hand man. Telhami managed thousands of workers at Delta plants in Egypt, England, Scotland and New York.

At age 50, when Isaac Dabah acquired Delta Galil from Lautman, Telhami moved on. It's hard enough for an executive to find a new job at age 50; it's much harder when one is an Israeli Arab. Telhami, however, reinvented himself and launched a startup. If it succeeds, it will be quite a statement about the economic potential within Israel's Arab population.

The ethos that Telhami has brought to Babcom is inspiring and impressive. This is not a place where people dwell on the objective difficulties they face. On the contrary, the vision that Telhami and his fellow founders created is reminiscent of the spirit at a top-rate American company: They have a goal, and it's is to be the best at everything.

One has to wonder about the feasibility of Telhami's lofty ambitions, including the goal of employing 5,000 workers within five years at a company that is still, really, very young. But he is confident.

The name Babcom is a combination of the Arabic word for "gate" and the word "Com," short for "communications" in Engish. The name also means "your gate" in Arabic.

"This is a gate leading to coexistence, employment, a career, opportunity and success," says Telhami.

The company logo features a smiling face beneath the letters "Bab," to reflect the company's philosophy: smiling workers, smiling clients. "Our role is to make the smile bigger," Telhami says. He wants the smiles to be infectious.

Smiling workers at call centers

Lovely. It's rare however to find smiling workers at call centers. Yet talking with Babcom workers I discerned something all too rare: workers who identify with the company's vision, and faithfully recite it.

Biyan, 25, from Tamra in the Galilee, was born in Acre. His mother is a homemaker, his father is a handyman, and his brothers work in garages. He worked for several employers, and completed a BA in economics and management. Babcom, he says, is unique.

"Imad is here with us all the time," he says. "I don't feel there are barriers here. Anything is possible. I have been here since the day the company was founded, and I feel connected to it emotionally. We've grown from 25 workers to 250, and the atmosphere at the company hasn't changed."

Telhami thinks that one important difference separating young Jewish and Arab workers is that the Arabs are thinking in terms of a job, whereas the Jews are oriented toward a career. "At Babcom I changed my thinking, and became oriented toward my career, toward the question of how I can move forward, rather than simply going to work and then going home," Biyan told me. "Time goes by here without me noticing it. I've learned to look at the good side of all things, and I've learned how to work on a team."

Naram Abu Kharma, 26, from Tarshiha, has a law degree from Tel Aviv University, and worked in a law office and for a few retail chains outside of the Galilee. She wanted to return to Tarshiha, but was worried about finding work. "Before I came back, I worked at a good job for a good salary, but it was just a job. Here, at Babcom, I am doing something for myself, and I feel that I am moving ahead."

Asked where she sees herself in five years, she replies: "I'll start a family, I'll grow professionally, and I'll move forward."

Babcom wants to be something different. The challenge is huge. Past examples in the Arab sector aren't entirely encouraging, but the potential is nonetheless inspiring.

Telhami started with a call center but thinks the real potential lies in software development. "Israeli companies have been exporting thousands of jobs to India, Eastern Europe and other spots around the globe. I want to bring the jobs to here. There are terrific engineers in the Arab sector, and the potential is huge."

Here are some company pledges and mottos, attesting to Babcom's ethos and vision: Babcom will create a five-star work environment, and promises to help its workers build careers. Babcom will adapt itself to its workers' needs: Workers will receive transportation to work, and help with child-care. Babcom wants to influence the community in which its workers live.

Together with Shmuel Merhav, his colleague in strategic planning dating from their days at Delta, Telhami has developed Babcom's approach to its work force. The company is committed to identifying and maximizing each worker's special talents.

Imad does not discuss politics, but he is convinced that honing business skills can contribute to political success.

Asked whether he has any regrets about where he landed, working as head of a small startup rather than being CEO at Delta, a huge, $700 million company, Telhami responds: "You must be joking, I've never been so happy in my life."

What could be more inspiring than such a sentence, uttered by an entrepreneur who is thoroughly committed to developing career opportunities for Arab workers in Israel.