Jamaica-based itel has firmly established itself as a prominent player in the nearshore industry. Founded in 2012 in Montego Bay, itel embarked on a remarkable journey of growth, expanding its operations not only throughout the Caribbean but also across the broader Americas region. Today, itel operates in seven different countries.
Nearshore Americas had the privilege of conversing with itel’s CEO, Yoni Epstein. During this discussion, Epstein candidly shared his experiences in building the company, shed light on the challenges both itel and Jamaica confront in their paths to success and explored the company’s commitment to giving back to the country. Furthermore, Epstein delved into his personal leadership philosophy, offering insights into his approach to leadership.
Though born in Miami, Florida, Epstein –an inaugural Nexus Illuminate Awards winner– grew up in Jamaica. He attended high school in the island, going back to Florida to study Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts at the University of Miami and returning to Jamaica in 2004.
“Upon my return, I started a job running the call centers globally for Unique Vacations, the worldwide representatives for Sandals & Beaches Resorts,” Epstein said during the interview. “In this job, I launched centers in Jamaica and Saint Lucia while managing their centers in the US, Canada and the UK.”
Building a Brand from Jamaica
The World Bank’s Doing Business report systematically highlights the difficulties of starting and scaling businesses in the Caribbean due to issues such as red tape, slow and uncertain processes and high costs associated with following regulations. In spite of that, Epstein chose Jamaica as the original platform to build an international business.
“As a Jamaican running a center in Jamaica, I could see that Jamaica and the region were not anywhere near capacity and that we had an opportunity to build something meaningful,” Epstein said.
When itel launched its first operation in 2012, the company was a one-client, five-employee unit, and Jamaica was still trying to consolidate its business and knowledge outsourcing industry. Today, the company operates in Jamaica, Guyana, Saint Lucia, Honduras, Colombia, Belize and the US. Beyond its physical presence, itel has a work-at-home network that connects agents across locations.
“Managing a multi-country and multi-cultural organization comes down to the people you have managing it. This has been the most difficult task, but one that I have enjoyed as I am truly a people person. I love interacting with the team and the people who drive our business,” said itel’s CEO.
Yoni Epstein believes that one of the main challenges he initially had to face was the fact that Jamaica was not thought of as a BPO destination. This meant building the path, the knowledge and reputation that would eventually lead to the current status the island enjoys.
“We had to invest in the right areas to create the destination’s credibility. It took a lot of effort from many individuals and government institutions as well,” Epstein explained. “We had to build the brand, which the Jamaica Promotions Corporation [JAMPRO] helped tremendously on.”
Those first efforts involved building not only a reputation and a brand, but also developing the physical infrastructure needed.
“The Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ) threw their hat in the ring with cheap money that developers could tap into for building space. To develop the workforce, we worked with HEART Trust/NSTA,” Epstein added. “However, none of this could have been achieved without the Global Services Association of Jamaica (GSAJ) and its drive and determination to advocate for what was needed to make this industry a success. I was the first President of the GSAJ. Those days, while tough, were some of the most enjoyable ones.”
From Epstein’s perspective, although Jamaica has matured as a BPO destination, the next few years will be harder than the development phase.
“We need to work on maintaining what has been developed and capitalize on it,” Epstein commented. “We need to address challenges in the workforce and make team members more productive, as I believe we have forgotten the importance of loyalty and hard work.”
Epstein has been involved in other activities that go beyond itel’s business operations. In 2019, he saw the launch of the 4Ys Foundation, an organization adjacent to itel which focuses on contributing in four different areas: education, innovation, environment and sports. Epstein is also a member of JAMPRO’s board, where he assists the organization developing strategies to drive investment in Jamaica.
“It is truly an honor to have had this opportunity over the past seven years. Learning about different industries and being at the table to help Jamaica has been a personal and professional development experience,” Epstein commented. “Supporting the growth of the BPO industry has been one of JAMPRO’s greatest efforts, and it is great to have been a part of that.”
For Epstein, this philanthropic work is part of the way he looks at leadership.
“Simply put, I am a people person and I drive all of my decisions through that vision. I enjoy the interactions and developing a culture through this engagement. I am a tough task master who wants to see success via achieving goals and exceeding our clients’ expectations,” he said.