Call centres: An unconventional route to peace in Bethlehem
A British Christian entrepreneur is hoping to bring peace to a fractured region through the business he co-founded in Bethlehem last year.
After feeling called by God to work in Palestine, Jerry Marshall set up 'Transcend', an 88-person call centre that exports customer support services and telesales from the West Bank across the Israeli security wall and provides much needed jobs and professional skills in Bethlehem.
They opened for business in May of last year and the core value of the business is to support peace through economic development; offering jobs, skill development and business links that surpass political and social divides.
The call centre makes use of high levels of education and language skills in Bethlehem to build stability and bring peace to those on both sides of the wall.
"We need to be internationally competitive and financially self-sustaining," says Jerry, "but our underlying purpose is to serve the local community by creating real jobs, and this in turn brings self-esteem, hope and business connections across the divide.
"Our aim from the beginning was to create robust jobs but also to model a different sort of company that operated by integrity, with gender equality and concern for our staff which is relatively unusual in the Middle East."
It was his Christian faith that inspired Jerry to support the Palestinian community in a practical way. His vision is to see Transcend help to break the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and bring hope for a brighter and safer future for those in the region.
The journey towards the foundation of Transcend has not been easy, however. Documented in Jerry's book 'Travels with an inflatable elephant', the local politics and difficulties in the region made getting contracts and building a sustainable business incredibly tough.
The call centre is competing with low-cost businesses run from places such as the Philippines and Bangladesh, and a combination of these factors led to Transcend almost going bankrupt last Christmas.
But amazingly, they have had a breakthrough in the last 12 months and are now looking at expanding the business with new centres now a real possibility. The hope is to employ up to 200 people in Bethlehem alone.
Against all the odds, major contracts have been signed and a venture capital company has bought 40% of the shares, which guarantees Transcend's long term sustainability.
Jerry attributes this recent turnaround of fortunes to the grace of God, saying, "I always felt God had his hand on it."
The team behind Transcend have received consistent answers to prayer throughout their journey, always finding "a sense of connection with God, and his care for us, even in the really quite minor things, as well as the really big things", Jerry asserts. Huge amounts of funding have come in, as well as small victories like getting to meetings on time despite terrible roads.
Perhaps Jerry's biggest achievement, however, is the positive effect the call centre is having on the communities and families in Bethlehem. One of the first employees, Yaman Qaraqe, said: "It transcends political barriers and limitations. I really love that. I am the eldest daughter in the family and I am my family's hope ... I love it because it makes me feel renewed every day."
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Although the principles that the business is run on are rooted in his steadfast Christian faith, Jerry notes: "The majority of our staff reflect the community that's there [in Bethlehem]; the majority are Muslim, we don't have any bias."
He names the positive impact that the business is having on the community as multifold. "Firstly, obviously we are employing people directly and I think they like us, I think we're good employers!" he laughs.
"And secondly we're starting a new industry in Palestine, call centres are actually a big sector in Israel, and there are only two centres in Palestine so we're creating not just employment but a new sector that could employ potentially many thousands of people, even if we're only a part of that.
"We're modelling a different sort of company, which makes a difference. It's quite high profile – people know it's a Christian-led operation, people are well aware of that, and it's made us a few enemies, we're being watched," he says, but even those wary of Jerry's Christian beliefs can't deny that many are benefitting from Transcend
"Within a couple of years, employees are expected to either become supervisors or to move onto other companies where they are able to bring skills that they have learned at Transcend. It has real win-wins," he notes.
Now that he has proved that setting up a business in Palestine is possible, Jerry is inviting other Christians with entrepreneurial gifts to join him.
"I'd be delighted to have other entrepreneurs involved in Palestine, I'm happy to have more competitors! That might sound crazy, but we're there because we want to create robust jobs.
"An entrepreneur is someone who sees a need or an opportunity, recognises the resources available and then matches the two up and makes something happen.
"Christians with entrepreneurial skills should recognise them as God given, and think about how they can use them. That may mean setting up businesses in Africa to alleviate poverty, or if God is calling you to an area like Palestine where there are divisions, how can you use business to bridge that divide?" he asks.
"We are very adverse to risk taking as a Church, and yet the early Church was risk taking! Stephen took the Gospel to the Sanhedrin, and Paul went off on crazy missionary journeys. There's a broader point to be made there, I think."
Jerry is certainly an inspiration to those who would like to see God move in new places, and who are looking to challenge themselves to live out the call of the Gospel in tough regions. In spite of the immense difficulties, his is a story of triumph and a reminder that God uses us to further his Kingdom, even in unlikely places.
"It's been an interesting and very challenging journey, but God is good," he finishes.
Jerry's book, 'Travels with an inflatable elephant: Attempts to make things happen and not happen' is available now.