No Ethiopians on This All-star Team

If Amir Sabhat had been a woman, Arab or older accountant, he probably would have made the pool of candidates to become a director of government-owned companies. But he is a young (36) Ethiopian man.

Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover
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Ethiopian Jews celebrate Sigd holiday in Jerusalem.
Ethiopian Jews celebrate Sigd holiday in Jerusalem.Credit: AFP
Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover

I met Amir Sabhat three years ago, as part of TheMarker’s annual project “40 Promising Young People.” At age 33 he already had an impressive resume: officer in an elite commando unit, B.A. in accounting and Master’s degree in business administration from Tel Aviv University, outstanding CPA at the Ernst & Young accounting firm. The people who recommended him described Sabhat as “having the characteristics of a leader and a talented and promising professional, who does not give up on his great commitment to act on the behalf of the Ethiopian community.”

In recent years, Sabhat was one of the leaders of a group of activists seeking to correct the government’s decisions on the integration of immigrants from Ethiopia. He is also behind a mentoring project for combat soldiers of Ethiopian origin of the “Olim Beyahad – Rising Up Together” nonprofit organization. Sabhat is a modest person, but also very determined. That is how, at five years old, you march for two months through the desert and spend another nine months in a Sudanese transit camp on your way to Israel.

Over the past two years, Sabhat has been trying to be accepted to the “directors pool.” The pool is the “all-star team” of 500 people selected by the Government Companies Authority to serve as directors for about 100 government-owned corporations.

Last year some 14,000 people competed for a place in the pool. This year “only” 7,000 people applied. Sabhat, today 36 years old, is a successful CPA with social sensitivity – and fits one of the profiles for directors to be included in the pool like a glove: Financial expert. In order to be accepted into the pool the candidates need to prove they have accumulated seven years of professional experience and served as company directors in the past.

Sabhat has nine years of experience, but this year, too, he received a polite letter informing him he was not accepted to the interview stage of the selection process (only 900 candidates reached this stage) because he “does not meet the minimal conditions for the group of men.”

If Sabhat had been a woman, a member of Arab society or an older accountant, it is very likely he would have passed on to the interview stage. It is also very reasonable to think that his skills and winning personality would have provided him a place in the pool of directors. But he is a young Ethiopian man. The government Companies Authority is insistent on keeping to the strict conditions of the legislation on proper representation, and so this year, too, 50 percent of the directors chosen will be women and 10% will be Arabs. But the law does not mention those of Ethiopian origin, or the disabled.

Since the minimal criteria for being selected for the pool of directors puts an emphasis on professional experience and having served previously as a director, Sabhat is battling thousands of men who are older than him, and who led hikes in the Scouts when he was walking the deserts of Sudan.

The chance of finding a 60-year-old Ethiopian financial expert, one who has already served as a director for a number of companies, is infinitesimal. But there are young Ethiopians such as Sabhat. Naturally they have collected fewer years of experience, but they do have the relevant education, proven talent and a refreshing worldview. What more does a director of a government-owned company need?

Sabhat has “only” nine years experience as an accountant and has never served as a director, since no government company has a director of Ethiopian origin. At this pace, there will not be any for the next 20 years, either.

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