Alexa Clay's Misfit Economy

By Seth Ferranti 09/04/15

Pirates, terrorists, drug cartels, computer hackers and inner-city gangs have a lot in common with Silicon Valley and the top innovators in the world. Just ask Alexa Clay.

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In her new book, The Misfit Economy, Alexa Clay, a leading expert on subculture and innovation and an Oxford graduate, breaks down how pirates, terrorists, drug cartels, computer hackers and inner-city gangs have a lot in common with Silicon Valley and the top innovators in the world. Just like the CEOs of leading companies such as Apple and Microsoft, criminals in the underworld face a diverse array of challenges that need solutions. On a daily basis the avalanche of problems they face can bury them if they don’t figure them out. In her book, Alexa argues that these deviant entrepreneurs don’t pose threats to our economic and social stability, but instead provide uncompromised ingenuity, in their ability to pioneer methods and overcome the ambiguity of their tenuous situations where jail, death, deportation, injury, financial loss or even beheading is right around the corner.

The Misfit Economy explores the underworld side of innovation that is hardly even considered as a viable avenue due to the criminal misdeeds that can prove the entrepreneur's undoing. But Alexa delves into this subject matter and explains it all in great detail in her book, which she cowrote with Kyra Maya Phillips, after doing field research in far flung parts of the world looking for the innovators on the fringe. Her forthcoming book caused such a stir that National Geographic even adopted its premise for their show, Underworld Inc. Despite all the acclaim, Alexa took some time to sit down with The Fix and answer questions about her book and how it applies to the drug world, economy and even addicts.

From the drug cartels to the dealer on the street, how do you think the illicit drug trade affects the drug users and addicts?

Because drugs are largely unregulated that means you have worse outcomes for drug users and addicts. You have issues with quality control. I remember when I was living in London a new drug called "plant food" or "meow, meow" was on the market—it was a bit like ecstasy and cocaine combined. But it was imported from shady factories in China. You had no idea what chemicals were in it and people could order it very cheaply off the Internet. A lot of the people doing it thought of themselves as "researchers" or "beta testers." The same was true for LSD in the '60s, people experimented. If you had a drug trade that was more regulated and legalized, however, you'd have better quality products and less adverse side effects. I think you would also have a very different conversation about addiction and the impacts of drugs.  

How does the money spent by drug users and addicts fuel the global economy?

The drug trade provides job opportunities for many living in poverty where unemployment is high. Not unlike the origins of Somali piracy. Drugs, like hijackings, provide income and livelihood. A petty drug dealer can make 20-30K a year, if not more. That said, 99% of the money made in the drug trade is not made by the petty drug dealers, it's primarily earned by the middlemen (the producers, distributors, and launderers). While drug economies can offer quick cash and short-term economic security, they often retard long-term growth and bring with them cultures of violence. Drug money also fuels the arms industry. But the biggest economic burden of drugs is often on our justice and healthcare systems. 

What type of impact do you think this book will have on society?

I hope this book builds empathy for innovators within the black markets. In the U.S. right now there are two innovation ecosystems—you have all these fancy start-up and tech hubs, on the one hand, and then you have street-level entrepreneurs, on the other, who have barely any access to resources or training. I think mainstream tech infrastructure has to find a way of creating access for people that are denied economic opportunities, but have great entrepreneurial potential. If you can create entrepreneurial pathways for kids beyond drug dealing in tough neighborhoods, that'd be a great conversation I'd love to help ignite with my book. 

For example, the federal prison population in the U.S. has increased more than 90% since 1980. The U.S. has 25% of the world’s prisoners. The problem is that currently, prisons are more likely to be incubators of start-up gangs than start-up enterprises. How do we change that? Well, we can build out formal entrepreneurship curriculums in prisons—run business plan competitions for inmates and do a better job of connecting ex-cons with entrepreneurial opportunities after release. 

How does the money made from illicit ventures all over the world tie into the overall world economy?

Taken together the size of all the world’s informal economy would total $10 trillion. And in some parts of the world, up to 70% of the economy is informal. 

What made you want to write The Misfit Economy?

Growing up I was always surrounded by unusual people. Both my parents are anthropologists and my mother spent some time researching people who claimed to be abducted by aliens. I also grew up near Walden Pond and loved Henry Thoreau and his experiments with hermit life and self-reliance. Since I was young these types of stories of outsiders always intrigued me. 

How long did it take to do the research for the book?

The book took three years to research and write. I spent time on the ground in Kenya, India, China, Brazil and New York City. I then spent a lot of time synthesizing my notes in cafés in Berlin, which is where a lot of the writing took place. 

Sum up what your book is about and why someone should read it?

The book is basically about deviance and how we can all strive to be a little more deviant in our lives and work. I don't want to turn my readers into pirates or gangsters, but I do want people to feel emboldened to shake things up. No offense to Sheryl Sandberg, but the message of the book is basically the opposite to hers: we need more people leaning out and working to transform the status quo, not leaning in to conform to a job description. Read it if you like stories of outlaws. Read it if you are bored or frustrated with the way things are. Read it if you like the color yellow. 

What was it like having your book inspire Underworld Inc.?

It was enormously exciting. It was also challenging. How can we use media to inspire greater understanding of the humanity of those working in the black markets and informal economies, rather than media that is out to tell a voyeuristic story. It was thrilling to see it air and see it do so well. I think at a time when people are fed up with bureaucracies and cubicle life, stories of entrepreneurial hustles by bootleggers and drug dealers are a kind of return to self-reliance that's inspiring. As much as you might judge someone working in the shadow economy, you also empathize. NatGeo did a great job. 

Describe the innovators in your book.

They are all quite diverse. An Amish camel milk farmer. A French feminist activist and prankster. A former leader of the Latin Kings. A Somali pirate. If they have one thing in common, it's that they don't conform to the system, but are finding ways of bending the rules to chase an opportunity. 

What are the types of misfit innovators and their characteristics?

All the misfits we profile are natural hustlers. They are very opportunity-driven. They don't take "no" for an answer. Many of them are quite stubborn. I think one of the biggest personality traits is their sheer resilience. Going against the grain of the status quo or working in the underground is exhausting—you take risks, you have your failures, and you pull yourself up again. That doggedness applies to just about everyone we interviewed. 

Check out Alexa’s book, The Misfit Economy, on Amazon.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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