Weird and Wonderful

What does a cocaine baron have to offer society? Self-confessed chief misfit, Alexa Clay, has seen the best in some of the worst.

Somali pirates throw great parties. This we have on the assurance of a London taxi driver who hailed from the troubled East African nation. Advocate of the“misfit economy” Alexa Clay disagrees; she believes New York’s Latin gangsters know how to put on a better bash: “I’m sure the Latin King parties are much better,” she tells The Mint. Clay’s party preferences are a bi-product of her researches into the innovative thinking and practices of the world’s outsiders including hermits, hackers, hustlers, gangsters and… Somali pirates.

Her studies of outcasts from mainstream society – or “misfits” as she dubs them – have, she says, revealed outstanding skills and strategies in entrepreneurship, leadership and other important attributes for business. And in the recently published book she co-wrote with writer and innovation strategist, Kyra Maya Phillips, The Misfit Economy: Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs, she explores how the mainstream has valuable lessons to learn from those practices.

“When we think of entrepreneurship, it readily goes to a portrait of a young guy in a hoodie in his 20s out in Silicon Valley who often comes from enormous privilege. I think part of the purpose of [the book] was really to cast a different light on entrepreneurs and to be able to see gangsters and people in the black market as just as creative and entrepreneurial as the Silicon Valley incubators.”

Clay’s motivation to shine a light in some of the darker corners of the economy was in part also a reaction to the glamour associated with today’s high profile entrepreneurs. “I think there’s such a halo around entrepreneurs today. I remember, when I took entrepreneurship in high school, it was a remedial class that all the bad kids went to because it was notoriously easy. “Most of the class was spent learning how to spell entrepreneur. Now it’s become kind of sexy. I guess with that, its everyman roots, have been cut.”

Clay’s recent researches have roots in her early work with Ashoka, a non-profit organisation with a focus on young people. Ashoka seeks to develop solutions to society’s most pressing social, cultural, and environmental challenges through “social entrepreneurship.”A defining statement by the organisation says the days of a ruling elite cracking the whip are over: “Because we live in a changemaker world, everyone must be an effective and confident changemaker. Today, all of us have the means to lead and get big things done. This is causing social change to explode in every direction.”

Her time at Ashoka generated her early contacts in the “informal economy”. She explains: “Through that work, I met a lot of people doing work in slums. I was in Kibera in Kenya and I went to slums in Mumbai and started meeting people in the informal economy.” Clay is eager to emphasise how the way into her various assignations with misfit groups varied: “Each connection was a very different story in a very different rabbit hole,” she says.

“Each connection was a very different story.”

She elaborates: “I met King Tone, who ran the Latin Kings, a Hispanic street gang, because I had known someone who was a Latin King.”The pirates from Somalia proved the most difficult to meet and ultimately arranging a face-to-face proved too challenging and costly. So it was the Somali justice system that provided the in.

“[Meeting up with the Somalis] took the longest time, and we didn’t end up meeting in person. So finally we made connections with a fixer on the ground there who took us into a prison in Somalia. We spoke to pirates over Skype, over the course of a few months.”

Once a meeting or a line of communication was arranged it was not difficult to get any of the misfits to talk says Clay. “I would say people were pretty interested in getting their story out there. I lot of the guys who ran gangs have a lot of bravado and were just interested in being profiled in a book and in a film project. No one feared, really, the threat of the police.

“We interviewed this guy, for example, that was part of a mafia family in Bombay, and he had a policeman sitting down there as part of his entourage, and who he was doing drugs with at the time. The policeman was bragging that he was a policeman and also a criminal.

“I think the fact that the book was portraying a lot of these individuals in terms of their leadership skills, in terms of their entrepreneurial skills, was something they were proud of.”

“Our filter was always, what creative ideas are being applied? Or who was innovating within these misfit economies rather than just this is black market as usual.”

Not wishing to ask Clay to give away too much of the substance in her book The Mint avoided dwelling on the precise nature of the aptitudes and methods the misfit communities displayed and how they might find homes in the boardrooms of conventional commercial enterprises. But we explored the link if any between the entrepreneurship we encounter in the mainstream and the misfit varieties.

“I think there were a number of different things. One was just meeting people that were developing new ways of organising,” Clay says.“ I think, traditionally in business, you see this very hierarchical structure that’s pretty command and control. But if you speak to hackers, for example, they’re often functioning in collectives where there aren’t any bosses and they have more pure accountability.”

Speaking at a LIFT conference in 2014 Clay put forward some examples of where misfit skills might be deployed in the conventional world. She posited that. “Nigerian spammers might have great IT skills which, if properly leveraged, could be incorporated into the mainstream economy.”

Hustlers, she said, “are really key and should be integrated in a creative way into the mainstream economy.” Her misfit workforce included not only criminals but also perfectly legal “weirdos.” Activists such members of Occupy group, according to Clay, bring, “Alternative soft skills that we will need that go against the command and control capitalism that we’ve been living in for the past couple of centuries.”

She emphasises, however, that “networks and relationships are going to be critical to the misfit revolution. There are amazing entourages at work in these subcultures –incredibly supportive entourages,” she told the conference.

Clay stresses that neither her interest in the misfit economy nor its greatest value to the conventional world were necessarily allied to the raw commercial success of outlawed ventures. So for example, the Sinaloa drugs cartel headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán that brutally crushed rivals, to make billions of dollars from trafficking narcotics to the US, Europe and Asia did not, in Clay’s estimation, have anything to offer to the boardrooms of legitimate businesses.

“If you look at other kinds of gangs, like the cartel structure in Mexico, we ended up not interviewing or spending too much time sharing those stories because those organisations are just as hierarchical as Exxon. They have very ruthless forms of hierarchy. Our filter was always, what creative ideas are being applied? Or who was innovating within these misfit economies rather than just this is black market as usual,” says Clay.

She says she was drawn especially to “stories of hussle – people that were just able to make due with very little resource or function incredibly creatively in these environments of enormous scarcity.”

Would she say the intensity of the creativity she has encountered among hustlers and other groups whose strategies passed through her filter outstripped that of their Silicon Valley counterparts? “Of course,” she says.

“I’ve brought King Tone to different events that I’ve done and he’s, by far, the most interesting speaker. He has a lot more life experience and he has a lot more depth of character than you find in a 22-year-old programmer. He has broader perspectives on racial issues in the US today and on wealth inequality.”

Clay says King Tone had ambitions during his leadership of the Latin Kings gang to make it a legitimate organisation working to give poor and disadvantaged people a helping hand.

“I think at the time that he was leading the Latin Kings, he was very much trying to think, how to pivot the organisation into more of a social movement,” says Clay. “He was trying to do change management in the Latin Kings and think about how to make it a group that could teach important skills to young people who came from impoverished areas; a sort of incubator. He had mixed results with that because the gang was still in the black market economy and the drugs game.”

Today King Tone is giving talks to corporations about leadership and company culture largely focusing on their relevance to young employees. And those speaking appointments are exactly the result of his featuring in The Misfit Economy according to Clay. She says the point of the book was to create a platform for misfits – a platform that they might not be able to create themselves that enables them to join in a conversation. Returning to King Tone Clay says: “I think the book helped to de-risk his perspective a little bit.”

But King Tone was not the only one to be given a platform says Clay. Notorious convicted drug runners including Freeway Rick Ross, George Jung, and David Victorson says Clay, have been provided profile off the back of their presence in The Misfit Economy. Victorson’s is an uplifting tale. On leaving prison he made a million dollars from a string of rehabilitation clinics: “He’s living proof that you do something in the black market economy, then you can also make it as a legal, formal entrepreneur,” says Clay.

Victorson’s path to apparent rehabilitation from criminal misfit to making legitimate profits from his entrepreneurial aptitudes is an example of a thread in Clay’s conversation with The Mint and is recognisable in the book. Clay says this path is an important element in her work. “I think a lot of people that I interviewed have very precarious economic situations and part of why they’re in the black markets is because they don’t have the same opportunities. Yeah, figuring that out and figuring out how to create sustainable sources of income for people is definitely part of what I’m interested in.”

Lack of opportunity in the mainstream economy, she says, is exacerbated and perpetuated once a person has crossed the line into illegal ventures.“The challenge is, a lot of these guys who get out of prison, they don’t really have CVs that they’re proud of. Or they don’t even know how to talk about their experience in a way where their skills, their positive skills, shine through.

“I think part of it is re-narrating some of that life experience so that you can say, if you ran a drug business, you actually know how to create a quality product and recruit customers and lead an organisation.”

Among Clay’s forays into the world of non-conformist entrepreneurship was her work with misfits within the established system. These “intrapreneurs” are, Clay says, are emplyees of often big, influential companies but are not entirely toeing the line. In an interview for Fortune magazine she described them as “tempered radicals” whose intrapreneurship is “a guerrilla movement happening with Fortune 500 companies.”

“The point of the book was to create a platform for misfits.”

The intrapreneurs were, she says, in need of support: “These are employees that aren’t asking for permission but are hell-bent on bringing their values and originality into the workplace. They are trying to jumpstart new business models and explore emerging markets,” she told Fortune. Out of those encounters Clay co-founded the League of Intrapreneurs to support its members in their risky endeavours“ often going against the grain of their corporate hosts.”

In her book, Clay asserts, “We all have an “inner misfit” — parts of ourselves that do not conform to conventional norms or that hold viewpoints that do not align with the majority.”

On being asked what was her own inner misfit after a talk she gave to promote her book, Clay introduced an alter ego – an Amish woman called Rebecca. Why?

“I was frustrated by a lot of the short-termism and just kind of purposelessness of startups that I was seeing coming out of Silicon Valley. I wanted to bring a Socratic inquiry into a lot of conversations I was having with entrepreneurs,” she says. The best vehicle for that was doing this performance character called the “Amish Futurist,” or “Rebecca,” where I dress up as an Amish woman at tech conferences.”

Rebecca allowed Clay to put very simple, naïve questions to tech types: “Why are you doing what you’re doing? Does it contribute to human wellbeing and happiness? Those types of things,” says Clay.

I think there’s so much technological optimism, too. The perspective of the Amish is that actually some things are good as they are, we don’t need innovation necessarily. With that perspective, people were able to inspect themselves with a little bit more nostalgia and see what they were doing within a larger historical frame.”

And it’s beguiling that while Rebecca , Clay says, more than a simple mask or disguise and closer to Clay’s real self.

“We all have an inner misfit.”

I think partially my exploration of this Amish character was because I, too, craved a simpler life,” she says. “I didn’t want to feel addicted to digital technology or social media, that I felt increasingly commoditised as an individual having to perform for various social media channels and being a bit of a talking head with the Misfit work. I think, for me, it was also a character that allowed me to escape some of that complexity.”

A simple assertion Rebecca might make is that the misfit entrepreneur gang might include the bankers and financiers who brought on the financial calamity that befell the world ten years ago. They broke the rules, ran the risks and invented the schemes in a way that bears a pretty good resemblance to the moves made by entrepreneurs and hustlers. Perhaps then there are examples among formerly self- serving entrepreneurs who are be brewing up socially valuable stuff, in a way akin to the criminals Clay has encountered who redirect their energies into positive ventures.

“There’s a big movement right now for platform coops, for example, which is to develop startups that have cooperative governance built in, and other ownership models. There are people working on a model of capped returns, which is trying to create different investment vehicles so that a lot of these companies aren’t just speculative assets. These are businesses where ownership can be retained by people working for them and who care about the longevity of those businesses. And they’re not controlled by outsiders with their motivations for exits.”

Might the misfit economy then offer a counter to the mindset that gave us the 2007 crash? Clay: “I remember being in London when Lehman collapsed and feeling like it was such a right moment for people to challenge some of the orthodoxy in economics. I also feel, in some ways, it was a missed opportunity.

It felt like all the people that were working on alternative economics at the time had great rhetoric and had been, for twenty years, in this position of opposition, but had never really developed solutions. In some ways, the crisis felt like a missed opportunity because people were looking for alternatives, but there were no alternative solutions or instruments that could really be scaled up or that could really be a serious contender that some of the institutions could turn to.

“Since the financial crisis, people have been working on different types of initiatives that do offer those alternatives and that are more appealing to some of these institutions.

“I think now we’re at a different moment.”

Alien Ideas
Early in her academic career Clay, it seems, displayed an attraction to the alternative view and the counter-intuitive conclusion. One of her undergraduate professors, she says, “approached a lot of liberal economics as myth.” It was a view that resonated with her. “I guess that got me interested in trying to understand some of the origins of how economic orthodoxy started to take shape in the West and the ways in which moral philosophy started to provide justifications for different economic doctrines,” says Clay.

She subsequently came to the UK to do postgraduate studies on so-called solidarity economics – a whole society-focused economic outlook. She worked on her Masters with Avner Offer, whose recent work includes analysis of the post-war struggle between neoclassical economics and social democracy and who recently wrote in the FT: “the doctrines of economics are not well founded: premises are unrealistic, models inconsistent, predictions often wrong.” Clay says having been told, on arrival at Offer’s department, that solidarity economics “did not exist” she chose, arguably in intrapreneur style, “to focus on solidarity economics, but camouflaged in 17th and 18th-century liberal economic theory.”

From that time she concluded that Adam Smith’s widely perceived role as the guardian of status quo economics, is a misinterpretation: “He actually had a lot more to say around at the intersection of morality and economics. That doesn’t sit squarely within this canon of liberal economics. “I think there was this need for economics to become more of a science. I think, a lot of the moral considerations that early liberal economists were thinking about didn’t pass the subjectivity test and so increasingly became divorced from some of those moral questions. I think economists felt like moral and ethical considerations weren’t part of the job description anymore.”

While her focus in the early 2000s on the social and moral aspects of economics points broadly to a trajectory away from mainstream thinking, Clay’s encounters with life’s outsiders began in her early years. Her stepfather from when she was eight, was a clinical psychiatrist, John E Mack, who, having established a sound academic reputation and laudable career, put it all on the line in the 1980s by researching people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. His work drew flak from his peers but he was revered from many sides of society. Finding, unannounced, Hollywood film star Woody Harrelson talking with her stepdad in the kitchen was normal says Clay in a recent essay for Aeon magazine.

“Normal was also being offered a peace pipe by Sequoia, a Native American shaman,” she says. What Clay might have witnessed in her stepfather – and maybe learned – was extraordinary intellectual courage. The sort of courage needed to champion the notion that murderers, drug pushers and swindlers are human and have something to offer and respect. She acknowledges much of this in her essay when she says her childhood experiences “left me with a profound openness, and a generous ear. John taught me the power of listening; really hearing people out and having the courage and resilience to question established orthodoxies.

“John’s legacy has also left me with a certain reverence for misfits, for outliers and challengers of the status quo: for the type of person who walks the line between delusion and insight.”

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