When Simbongile Ndlangisa ditched her nine-to-five job to start her own PR business from home, she thought, great, now I can sit and watch series all day. It hasn’t quite turned out that way but she’s not complaining.
Simbongile Ndlangisa, running a little late because of the Jo’burg traffic, runs a little into the meeting room at the headquarters of Student Village in Houghton, and sinks on to the couch with a sigh. Run, run, run.
At 24, she runs a public relations and celebrity management company called Melenial Media, a play on the target market she knows and understands so well. Millennials, with melanin.
As she catches her breath, I ask Ndlangisa how big her team is — who runs the office when she’s out of the office? She laughs, because she is the team and her home is her office.
She is a solo entrepreneur, a company of one, a “onetrepeneur”, let’s call her, proof that all you really need to kickstart a business these days is a phone and a computer and a way of making your way through the traffic, from pitch to meeting to coffee shop to co-working space to the Google Hangout video call-back at your home office HQ.
You don’t need an address to impress, you just need a dress code, and today Ndlangisa is wearing a black harem-pantsuit ensemble, offset by dazzling white sneakers, a black turban and full-moon glasses.
“I don’t try to look rich,” she says, “but I always make an attempt to look smart. That’s my main thing. Look like you know what you’re doing.”
Only a year ago, with a BA in media studies and African languages from the University of the Witwatersrand, Ndlangisawas working as an operations manager at a small digital content-production agency and then: “You know, the proverbial hit the fan and I decided to leave. For a while, I was, like, okay, what am I going to do now? But because of the relationships I’d made, working with brands and agencies, a lot of people were asking me the same thing. And then I had one girl who said to me, ‘okay, you can finally be my manager now’. I was like, okay, maybe this is the thing that I can do.”
And with that, Ndlangisa had her first client: Tshepang Mollison, better known as Twiggy Moli of Sleepless in Soweto, lifestyle, beauty and fashion blogger.
“In a recent study by Sage (South African Graduate Employers’ Association), the fourth most aspirational employer is ‘Me’,” says Ronen Aires, chief executive of Student Village, marketing and graduate specialists.
“Entrepreneurship is certainly seen as the destination that more and more Afrillennials want to work towards. Beyond being trendy, many Afrillennials are seeing employment as a way to gain financial stability while their side hustle is a way to chase their dreams and earn extra cash.”
Ndlangisa had a blog of her own, Melenial.com, started with a friend, Nomvelo Chalumbira, as a fight-back against negative perceptions of millennials: “That we are lazy and entitled and we don’t want to work.”
The blog became a brand and the brand became a business and today her roster of clients has grown to include a swimwear label (Limakinis ZA), a hip barbershop chain (Legends) and a few actors (Shalimi Mkongi and Hlogi Sepota).
Ndlangisa runs the events, the promotions, the social media, the digital strategy, the brand management and (I-word warning), the influencer marketing. I ask Ndlangisa, while we’re on the subject, whether she sees herself as an influencer and she mock recoils: “I hate that question!”
Then she deflects, with an adroitness of diplomacy that reveals how swiftly she has grown into her role.
“I always say that everyone is an influencer,” she says. “Word-of-mouth is influence. In an office environment, someone can look at my shoes and say, I really like your shoes…that’s influence. To deny the fact that I’m am influencer would be very naive.”
And yet, in a media arena in which influencers are deemed to be able to influence us with their sponsored enthusings on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Ndlangisa admits to having second thoughts about the now-standard strategy.
“The jig is up,” she says. “We have to evaluate how we work with the correct influencers. Now it’s about who they’re talking to and what their audience is saying to them. Is this the engagement we want?”
The bigger niche for Ndlangisa is small black businesses and startups. She should know, having learned the benefits of making a brand name for herself.
But for all she gained from her media studies degree — “it gave me an amazing understanding of how the media industry works in our country, especially the framing and subtext of who owns what” — her greatest mentor as a PR has been her mother, Nomonde, a marketer and communicator with a special interest in tourism.
“I aways think she was a millennial before her time,” says Ndlangisa. “She started with medical diplomas, testing blood, I’m not sure what the actual profession is. I used to go to the lab with her. Fun times. Then she did a short course in advertising, and she moved on to doing the PR for Robben Island. She’s really influenced the way that I do things and the way that I think. She always says to me, ‘you don’t have dependants, you don’t have a house, fail now so that you can prosper in the future’.”
Sound advice, but for Ndlangisa succeeding now will do nicely too. Earlier this year, after only six months in the industry, she was invited to join the panel of Young Judges for the Prism awards for PR. The experience taught her that her time has come and that she shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and speak out.
“We had to sit in a room with, you know, PR people who have been doing this for aeons, and I’m just like, you’re not going to make me sit and mark about 20 campaigns and then I can’t talk about it. There was this one campaign where I just sat for about five to 10 minutes proving why it was a brilliant campaign, because it speaks to the youth. Everyone else had just been like, this was pretty standard. I was like, what do you mean? Just because it doesn’t speak to you as the target market?”
It’s that level of fearless confidence that pushed Ndlangisato ditch her nine-to-five and start her own business in the first place, and although she relished the freedom of her early days as a freelancer — “for the first two weeks, I was, like, yay, I can just watch series the whole day” — she soon realised that you don’t really work for yourself when you’re working for yourself. You’ve got clients, you’ve got commitments, you’ve got responsibilities. The series will have to wait.
Aires says: “Most Afrillennials feel that it’s unjust for a company to own all their time. Their default settings are more aligned to flexi time where they have more choice as to where and when they work. If employers embrace this need, it could make their company an attractive place for Afrillennials to work at.”
Ndlangisa says: “My clients can tell if I’m not working, because there are email exchanges that need to happen, proposals that need to be seen, presentations that need to be put together. I need to talk to this person, that person. So I had to ditch that strategy and actually just work. I sit in my office between 10 and four; sometimes I’ll end up working until nine. It really depends on what the demands are for that week.”
Looking back, the big lesson for Ndlangisa has been that you need to seize the opportunities that come your way and, more than that, you have to fight to find them.
“I feel like, as young people in South Africa, especially if you’re black, you almost have to create opportunities for yourself,” says Ndlangisa. “You have to fight even harder to get where you want to be. Everyone has a purpose. Noone goes to school thinking that, ‘oh no, I’m just going to sit at home’.”
Maybe one day, maybe sooner than she thinks, Ndlangisa will need to look for an office and someone to handle some of those commitments and responsibilities. For now, she’s happy to work with as few overheads as possible and to psych herself into the daily freelance routine.
“I’ve learned that I actually need to get up in the morning, take a shower, put clothes on, even if I’m just putting on sweats or whatever, and just get into the frame of mind of, I’m about to work, I’m about to do something,” she says. “And if I need to take a break and take a walk around my block, that’s what I’ll do as well.”
And with that, the founder, proprietor and sole employee of Melenial Media glances at her phone, widens her eyes at the pulse-quickening pressures of the day, the notifications and the messages and the reminders, and she gets ready, with a smile and a sigh, to make her move. Run, run, run.
This profile is part of the Afrilennials project run by Student Village (studentvillage.co.za)