Editor’s note: Tom Glaser, founding president of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce Southeast Region, was slated to deliver the below remarks at the Eagle Star Awards gala, which this year marked the chamber’s 20th anniversary.

An injury kept Mr. Glaser at home, but his wife, Connie, stood in and gave the speech, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 250 supporters at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North Hotel

Twenty years is a long time. Let me take you back to 1991 when we began to dream about creating the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce. I was the president of the Chamber in Athens. I had recently turned 40, and felt I needed to do something more important than save small southern cities.

I had been in Russia to visit relatives, and knew that most Soviet Jews would end up in Israel whose economy would need a boost to successfully absorb these new immigrants. I wanted to help this cause by using my years of economic development experience.

David Sarnat at the Atlanta Jewish Federation was having similar thoughts.

Marty Kogon had been appointed to chair a new Israel Economic Development committee, and they were working with Sandy Cuttler to forge research between Georgia Tech and Israeli universities to employ the Russian immigrants.

Businesspeople on the committee like Mark Braunstein, Bobby Rinzler, Alek Szlam, A.J. Robinson, Cary Rosenthal, and Firooz Israel believed the research approach wasn’t working fast enough to address this urgent job.

Alon Liel was the new consul general, and he immediately embraced the cause, recruiting the support of Johnny Imerman, Robert Arogeti, Atsmon Paz, Chuck Ganz, Jerry Zucker, Andre Schnabl, and Rob Arkin.

AICC was incorporated at the end of 1991, and I came to Atlanta in 1992 to begin work on the federation’s Israel Economic Development Partnership that joined forces with the consulate to become the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce.

In the beginning, we groped for the right formula. There were Israel chambers in other US cities, none very successful. And don’t forget that Israel was not a global entrepreneurial innovation economy in those days. Iraqi missiles had just fallen on Tel Aviv and Haifa. A million Russians were arriving, and unemployment was over 25 percent. There was hardly any investment, very few successful companies, a socialist government, recent hyper-inflation, government takeover of the banks, and an orientation more to Europe than the U.S. Our challenge was huge.

Sarnat suggested I start by meeting local Jewish industrialists to convince them to set up factories in Israel. That’s when I first learned heard the adage “How do you make a small fortune in Israel? Start with a large fortune!” These guys said they’d rather support Israel through charity than invest in Israel. So we began one project at a time.

Our first was an Israeli start up called NESS that was commercializing research from Ben-Gurion University to restore hand function to paralysis victims. We used the Jewish network to introduce them to Shepherd Center here and the Siskin Hospital in Chattanooga where a group of local investors put up a couple hundred thousand dollars to keep NESS going until they ultimately got a mega investment and were acquired 5 years ago for $75 million. Their product lines have expanded to all limbs, and are now sold around the world. This wouldn’t have happened without our early help.

This success took years to happen, and despite our best efforts, many such projects didn’t survive. We learned from our failures as well as the successes, but realized that with the introduction of VCs and incubators in Israel, there would be no shortage of Israeli startups to help through our growing network and volunteer mentors.

At the end of our first year, I joined Gov. Zell Miller on a trip to Israel, and the Ministry of Industry & Trade introduced us to Udi Sheintal who was soon to come to Atlanta to open the Israel Economic Mission. For the four years he was here, Udi and his team were involved in every initiative we undertook. Our two staffs, acting together, helped us expand throughout the Southeast, making us the only regional Israel economic support organization in the country. Of course Udi eventually went back to Israel, and the office moved to Houston via Chicago, but we continued to have a close partnership with his organization as demonstrated tonight by Roee Madai accepting the Community Partner Award.

Shortly after Udi arrived, I got a call one day from a local Jewish dentist who said he just had a BellSouth executive in his chair, and they were interested in the Israeli market. Could we help? This was the very beginning of Cellcom, BellSouth’s joint venture cellular operation in Israel, with our help winning the government tender and investing $300 million to get it running.

It was our breakthrough deal with a major Southeast corporation, and BellSouth was the center of our telecommunications activity for many years. In 2005 when they hosted the Eagle Star Gala, CEO Duane Ackerman announced their purchases of Israeli company technologies exceeded $100 million a year. Other Southeast corporations followed.

We honored founding AICC board member Bernie Marcus in 1994 for The Home Depot’s hugely successful Israel program when they were selling over $100 million a year of Israeli do-it-yourself products.

In 1997, we honored The Coca-Cola Co.’s legendary CEO Roberto Goizueta on the 30th anniversary of their Israeli bottling operation, and 10 years later, we were at the center of their initiative to establish an innovation hub in Israel to source solutions in ingredients, supply chain, water, and energy.

In 1995, Shimon Peres made his first visit to Atlanta, and with the consulate, we organized a business luncheon attended by 500 people who were treated to his vision of Middle East economic integration in the euphoric wake of the famous White House lawn handshake.

Over the years, we have hosted many important Israeli government and business dignitaries who helped raise Israel’s profile here and awareness of the Southeast back home.

Although the anticipated peace did not materialize, this potential paradigm shift prompted us to develop our first strategic plan, “Shaping a New Reality”. It was a grassroots process involving our members, leaders, and community partners.

For the first time, we organized industry-specific committees to get our members involved within the framework of Deal Flow, Educational Programs, Member Involvement, and Revenue Generation. Every three to four years since then, we’ve undertaken strategic plans that have kept our chamber fresh and relevant.

They were the catalyst for the award winning industry-specific business exchange matchmaker events that bring delegations of Israeli companies to our Southeast cities to explore business with potential strategic partners, investors, and customers.

They also inspired our extensive educational programming—the annual Professional Seminar and the Israel Innovation Impact series— supported by the American Israel Educational Institute, the charitable foundation established to set the record straight on business with Israel and how to do it.

Around the time of the Olympics, we noticed the phenomenon of Israeli companies setting up operations in the Southeast. We called together the CEOs of the first four of them, and had a brainstorming session on why they chose our community, what were the good and bad things, and what could we have done to make it easier if we had known them in the beginning. From this came our Israeli Headquarters program that has been hugely successful in giving these companies a soft landing. Today, there are over 70 Israel companies with U.S. or regional operations in our six states, and they are the heart and soul of the Eagle Star “Israeli Company of the Year” with the Southeast recognized as one of the top 5 centers for Israeli companies.

While it isn’t fair to single out any one of them, Given Imaging exemplifies the value of this activity.

In 1997, the Atlanta Federation asked me to visit Yokneam, their proposed partnership community in Israel. It wasn’t a pretty picture. The one industry there was a failing munitions factory trying to re-invent itself as a pots and pans maker. Lots of unemployed Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, but also a progressive mayor who wanted positive change. And then I went to a small private incubator where I met an engineer who described his game-changing guided missile technology that propelled a miniaturized camera in the shape of a pill through the gastrointestinal system. I told the federation what I had seen and that we needed to get involved with this emerging company and others like them in Yokneam.

We helped Given Imaging set up their North America headquarters here in 2000, and today, they are the world leader in their field, saving lives and employing hundreds of people in Atlanta and Israel. And over the years, our involvement with Yokneam helped make that town into one of Israel’s top 10 technology business centers. Yokneam and Ra’anana, Atlanta’s sister city, are regular stops on our business missions to Israel that have been built around governors of Georgia and North Carolina and delegations by leaders from Alabama and South Carolina.

Some are industry-specific while others are more general with representatives of our key clusters. We’ve even organized single corporation missions such as ones for The Coca-Cola Co. in 2007 and 2008.

Nothing beats the impact of going on one of these trips to produce business relationships and raise our profile in Israel. Missions led to high profile announcements such as UPS’s $100 million technology acquisition from Motorola Israel in 2000. We’ve been involved in many deals involving major corporations such as McKesson’s $105 million acquisition of MedconDelta’s non-stop Atlanta to Tel Aviv flights, and AFLAC’s IP conversion project with Modern Software Technologies. Many of these have been the basis of “Deal of the Year” recognitions at our Eagle Star Awards, and it has been rewarding to be recognized by our partner organizations in Israel and back home for setting the standard among our peer organizations. In 2008, we were named the official Southeast representative of BIRD—the US-Israel Bi-national Industrial Research & Development Foundation — that has further strengthened our offerings to Israeli companies and those in our region to fund joint-venture R&D. In all, we can claim over a billion dollars in completed transactions—not bad for a non-profit organization!

Our founders paved the way for the next and succeeding generation of leaders. Paul Steinfeld was our first board chairman outside Atlanta, and Laurie Olivier our first non-Jewish chairman. Charlie Harrison earned his leadership position through years as chair of our Medical Committee and Lorin Coles as chair of the Software Committee.

Joel Neuman, Ben Fink, Greg Kirsch, Ben Taube, and others extend this legacy of working through the organization by taking leadership roles on committees and special projects.

Jonathan Zucker has succeeded his late father, Jerry, to drive the South Carolina-Israel Collaboration, one of our most exciting initiatives that is proving again the chamber’s strength is our regional focus.

While the members are the secret sauce, we need to acknowledge our excellent professional staff. Shelley, Guy, and Barry round out a great team to whom we owe so much. And to my wife, Connie, for standing shoulder to shoulder with me as I followed my professional dream.

We’ve been an integral part of the success of the Start Up Nation, and while the past 20 years have produced amazing results, the best is yet to come. But we need your support. On each table are pledge cards if you’d like to make a charitable donation to support our work through the American Israel Educational Institute. And if you aren’t already a member, we invite you to join us and spread the word to others. Please join us as we toast our accomplishments and make plans for the next 20 years!