Why business needs misfits

Barbara Speed meets Alexa Clay over a fruit pressé to talk about The Misfit Economy.

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In a dining room at Soho House, a private members’ club on Greek Street in central London, Alexa Clay sips a bottle of fruit pressé and speaks about what drew her to gangsters, pirates and computer hackers. “I suppose a lot of them were just more philosophically interesting than the people you encounter in places like this,” she says.

Through research and conversations with rule-breakers and rule-benders, Clay, an American, and her Venezuelan-born co-author, Kyra Maya Phillips, developed a theory of unconventional economics, outlined in a new book, The Misfit Economy.

“From these misfits,” they write, “we can learn much about ingenuity, about determination, about the innate human itch to create, build and exploit an opportunity.”

Indeed, informal economies are huge: undeclared work earns up to £200bn every year in the UK across industries as diverse as agriculture, cleaning services and private security.

Yet Clay and Phillips are interested in those areas where misfit activities overlap with more established structures. The book is a kind of business primer, offering unexpected lessons from the stories of mavericks such as Catherine Hoke, who self-funded an entrepreneurship scheme to put ex-prisoners’ street skills to use, or Dale J Stephens, the founder of the “UnCollege” movement, which promotes “experimental learning”.
Some stories – those of Somali pirates, say, or the hacker group Anonymous – fall on the wrong side of the law; others play out in multinational companies or NGOs.

The pair met while working for a sustainability consultancy, meeting “a lot of people at Fortune-500 companies”. Clay tells me that she is as likely to meet a misfit in a boardroom as on a pirate ship. At the book launch party, guests such as the ex-street gang leader King Tone and David Victorson, who smuggled 37 tonnes of marijuana from Colombia to Seattle, chatted to mainstream entrepreneurs over drinks. “The book is really an invitation for empathy between these different types of misfits,” Clay says.

She is also clear that misfit ideas do not always crop up where we might expect them. Tech culture, with its supposedly progressive remit, is, in her view, stuck in the past. “I meet a lot of these tech ‘hoody bros’ and many are really misogynistic,” she says. There’s a social lesson here, too, about opportunity – or the lack of it. Clay says that, on a recent trip back to the US, she was shocked to see the resources being shovelled into tech and innovation hubs while, “across town, there are street sellers who have no connection to this type of economic opportunity but are just as entrepreneurial”.

In misfit economics, as in formal economics, men usually win out. Clay believes that this is because risk-taking is gendered in most cultures. “I think women and minorities aren’t allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in less wealthy communities.” Yet the book is a rejoinder to the culture epitomised by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which teaches, in essence, that only those who fit in will succeed.

At heart, the book tells stories of people who, as Clay puts it, “try to transform the culture they were born into” and who can tackle the established practices of post-industrial society. They are the exceptions who change the rules.

“Whether you’re a schoolteacher or work in a big company, you’re likely to be working within antiquated structures and hierarchies,” Clay says. “How do we change ideas about schooling? How do we develop businesses that are more accountable to society? This is why we need misfits. They can change the agenda.”

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn