Picture this: Nelson Mandela addressing a crowd of South African expatriates in Trafalgar Square from the balcony of South Africa House, and in that crowd, a high flying ad executive: Angel Jones. “I love you all so much: I want to put you in my pocket and take you home,” he tells them.
Jones bursts into tears, goes back to her office in Carnaby Street and puts a Post-It inscribed with the words “HOMECOMING REVOLUTION” on her computer screen.
“I didn’t quite know what it meant yet, but I knew I wanted to go home,” Jones recalls, as we sit in her office in Johannesburg 18 years later.
Mandela’s words were like an “absolute inner god call”. Having long been ashamed of her skin colour, flag and anthem, the role this “saviour” played in bringing about the new SA meant that “finally I could feel proud to be South African”.
She returned to Joburg in 2000 after seven years in London, tasked by the Saatchi brothers to establish the South African wing of M&C Saatchi with Nina Morris. The pair would take the agency independent a year later, renaming it Morrisjones.
Back in SA, she quickly realised, “There was this perception that if you came home you were a failure. But actually, there was so much possibility and so much to do. It felt so much more vibrant and alive. And as glamorous as my advertising career was, it felt far more exciting being back.” She found people here were more willing to run with new ideas and try new ways of doing things than in London.
In 2003 she launched Homecoming Revolution “as a website to tell the stories of people who had come home – the good bits and the bad bits”. The message was, “You’re not a failure if you come back; you’re a pioneer, entrepreneur and revolutionary, and look at all these amazing things that are possible. Don’t wait till it gets better, come home and make it better.”
She thought she’d only devote two hours a week to this, but the task of maintaining it became mammoth, as it quickly became a platform for people around the world
“to vent how much they loved and hated SA”. A sponsorship deal with First National Bank enabled a team to run it while she continued with her full-time role as Morrisjones’s executive creative director.
After a decade, “a very convenient midlife crisis” struck, and she wanted out of advertising. She grappled with “the limiting belief that my passion and my purpose of Homecoming (Revolution) could never make money”. Over the course of a year, with the help of a mentor, life coach and therapist, she tried to figure out how “to live a life of significance but also of success”. For this to happen, Homecoming Revolution needed to “make proper money – we couldn’t rely on grants forever”. It had a clear purpose: to get Africans “to come home, come build”; now it needed a business model – “that of a recruitment agency”. And so, three years ago she sold her stake in Morrisjones and presided over the evolution of Homecoming Revolution into the for-pro t “brain-gain company for Africa”.
She “lived on an aeroplane”, visiting countries across Africa as well as Europe and the US. In her trip to African business capitals, “I’d have my high-heels and my briefcase in one hand and then my running shoes and my movie camera in the other.” Through word of mouth she tracked down homecomers and filmed their stories to inspire others to come home. It was important to connect with a “groundswell of supporters because we couldn’t do it without them: we’re not some propaganda voice pretending it’s perfect”.
Her research showed that often people who returned to different parts of Africa were coming back for the same reasons: firstly, to be around friends and family again; second, to regain a sense of belonging and make a difference. Focusing her efforts on Anglophone Africa (predominantly Nigeria and Kenya), she also met diaspora groups, chambers of commerce and home affairs departments to forge partnerships.
“I wondered when we turned into a business whether we’d lose any credibility, but in fact we’ve gained it; we’re now sitting at the high table with all the big businesses who are growing across the continent and they really do need the talent so we’re playing a vital role in bringing skills home and (we’re) making good money.” She adds: “It has been really easy to do business with people who need the talent. Who doesn’t want great talent, right? Who doesn’t want help telling their story on an international stage?”
In addition to its small team of recruiters matching African talent with corporates, Homecoming Revolution also hosts Speed Meet Africa events in London, New York, Nairobi, Lagos and Joburg. Here, professionals considering a move home can interact with corporates searching for talent – such as Standard Bank, Barclays Africa, Deloitte and Roche.
Jones recounts chatting to New York- based African investment bankers in September, telling them: “In Wall Street you might be a little cog doing some corporate deal, but at home you’d be talking to presidents and creating real deals that built a dam that wasn’t there before, (or) a bridge that literally could change the lives of hundreds and thousands of people.” The response has often been, she says, “I really want to lead a bigger life than having this cushy thing.”
And the numbers bear this out too. A 2014 Adcorp survey estimates that over the preceding five years, about 359 000 South African expats returned home. “We’ve seen it so often that people abroad aren’t happier necessarily. There’s this yearning inside.”
And while load shedding and a sluggish economy “have seen an uptick in negative sentiment” in SA, “we’re still seeing the same amount of people coming home”.
Some even see the problems as an opportunity: one returnee decided that SA’s power woes made this the ideal time to launch his renewable energy business here.
“The beauty of SA is that you can leverage relationships and really make stuff happen,” she says. And with its entrepreneurial buzz and proximity to untapped markets, “we’ve got it good here. I couldn’t imagine trying to live anywhere else.”
This was first published in the April 2016 issue of Business Day WANTED.