From brain drain to brain gain – expats returning home due to COVID boost local economies


Expats forced home in the wake of COVID are helping build the cross-border networks needed for global innovation, according to futurist Ross Dawson.

They’re the elite of Silicon Valley but they don’t live in Palo Alto. They’re expats at home for the first time in years, looking for new opportunities. Their employers no longer care where they work.

These are the digital nomads of COVID. People who can choose to work anywhere they want, and who are driving a reverse brain drain unlike anything seen before.

A recent survey from professional global network Advance found of the hundreds and thousands of Australians returning home in the wake of the pandemic, 15% were building their own business, and 12% were working remotely for the same company they were with abroad.

“Suddenly someone who was planning a high-growth startup is choosing to do it from their own country – this wouldn’t have happened without COVID forcing them home,” says Dawson.

Talent coming home

The once-hub for global startups, Silicon Valley was already having a bit of an exodus with workers moving to other parts of the US for weather, housing or tax reasons. And while California is still heavy with big tech, the question is where, or perhaps if, the next wave of entrepreneurs will group together.

A survey from US venture firm Initialized found post-COVID, 42% of startup owners thought ‘distributed or remote’ would be the most beneficial place to start a company, well ahead of second-comer the San Francisco Bay Area at 28.4%.

Dawson says the globalization of innovation was already underway well before the pandemic hit.

“In the first instance these are people who have formed connections overseas, now coming home and re-establishing networks.

“Some of them will then stay here having now been able to draw on their international networks and some will then go back overseas having reignited their home networks.

“In all of these cases it’s actually a net benefit.”

Examples include former Uber executive and now angel investor Chris Saad who returned to Australia in 2017, and now runs his business from home in Brisbane; and Alisdair Faulkner who returned to Australia after selling his company in the US in 2018 and is now working on his next venture based in Sydney.

Connecting local to global

Post COVID there has been an explosion in traditional workers becoming digital nomads – working remotely and traveling at the same time.

In the US, a study by workforce solutions firm MPO Partners found an increase of almost 50% from 2019. In 2020 some 10.9 million Americans described themselves as digital nomads. Much of the growth has been among traditional workers, taking advantage of the freedom many independent workers had before COVID.


Source: MBO Partners Digital Nomad Report 2020


For government policymakers, leveraging this highly connected, educated and mobile workforce to help grow the economy should be a priority.

Greece, for example, has offered a 50% income tax break to lure digital nomads.

A report from CSIRO on opportunities for Australia to leverage science and technology as part of its economic recovery found digital innovation would deliver an additional A$315 billion in Gross Value Added over the next decade “if Australia catches up to global leaders”.

Dawson says the challenge for governments is to step up the support for new business formation and encourage networks or connections between those returning home and business leaders who are already well-connected in the home market.

“You’ve got these people with global networks – let’s use them to enable local to connect to global.”