A Truly Festive Example Of Entrepreneurial Endeavour

Christmas is highly anticipated time in the city of Bethlehem. Indeed, the inhabitants of this part of the Palestinian territories regard the annual influx of Christmas tourists and Christian pilgrims – who flock to the site where they believe Jesus was born - as being a vital shot in the arm for the local economy. Certainly, the money visitors spend on accommodation, food, guides and souvenirs helps to make life that much easier for those who are faced with the realities of living in an area where nearly one in four people are unemployed.

However, there are signs that things could well be about to change in Bethlehem on the job front.

Just up the road from the fabled Church of the Nativity and a relatively short walk from the perennially impressive Christmas tree in Manger Square is a start-up company which aims to provide the local economy with 200 permanent jobs, all year-round.

So what is this new business? A small-scale manufacturing firm churning out locally made souvenirs perhaps? Or maybe an enterprising tourist outfit offering tailor-made tours? No; it's a brand new, state-of-the-art call centre.

Conceived by British social entrepreneur Jerry Marshall and galvanised by a Palestinian businessman and an American call-centre veteran, this unlikely business – called Transcend Support - came into being in 2012 after the entrepreneurs raised $100,000 (£61,000) between them and secured a bank loan for a similar amount.

A further $100,000 came from what many would consider an unusual source - the Dutch government. Mr Marshall explained: “...The Dutch government has a fund to support the Palestinian economy, and anyone in Europe can apply. This money was vital, as money was very tight to begin with.”

With an office secured in Bethlehem's industrial zone, Mr Marshall next needed to find staff who could speak both Arabic and English.

“This was very easy” said Mr Marshall, “Young people here are tremendously well educated, and speak excellent English. We started with 30 people, all university graduates in their 20s, and a 50-50 male and female mix.”

After a less than auspicious start, Transcend Support eventually secured a major contract from Kuwait-based Wataniya Telecom. Since then, work for other companies has steadily followed, as has extra investment (the Palestine Investment Fund has taken a 42 per cent stake).

The call centre is about to increase its staff levels to 50 full-time employees with the hope that it will one day grow to require 200 operators (Mr Marshall also has ambitions to open a second call centre in the Gaza Strip in the future).

While there are a number of start-up companies and UK-based charities on Mr Marshall's impressive CV, he is adamant the Bethlehem call centre gives him the most pride by far.

“Setting up a call centre in Bethlehem was a stupidly risky thing to do,” he admits.

“But as a Christian I find that I do take more risks. It may sound daft, but I got God's guidance that opening the call centre was the right thing to do.”

“And we have created a real business that has created real jobs, which Bethlehem, and the West Bank and Gaza in general, certainly need more of.”


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