You think McDonalds invented the franchise model? That was the mafia. You think live streaming came from Ted Talks? That was the porn industry. For the past two years, I’ve been researching innovation from the fringe in an attempt to understand what we can learn from lesser-known subcultures (e.g., black market and informal economies, hacker collectives, protest movements, gangsters, hermits and performance artists).
On the one hand, it was an experiencing of getting out of my usual network and building up social capital with fringe outliers and “others.” On the other, it was a journey into the depths of my own misfit-ness. The results were unexpected.
One of my first conversations was with King Tone, the former leader of the Latin Kings, a Hispanic street gang. From my conversations with Tone, I learned that gangs were organizations, like any other. That they focused on recruitment and retention, thought about market competition, and had strict hierarchies in place, where members tried to work their way up. From Tone, I also learned about the challenges he faced personally in trying to transform the gang and pivot the organization into more of a benevolent force in the world. Tone’s ambition was to transform the soul of the gangbanger – and turn the Latin Kings into a civic movement similar to the Black Panthers. He struggled – like any other CEO trying to transform a massive organization into a force for good.
Tone’s journey reminded me a lot of many of the corporate mavericks or misfits I’ve worked with, as part of the League of Intrapreneurs, who are trying to drive change from within their multinational companies. While it’s common to think of misfits as “outsiders,” there are tons of misfits who set up shop within some of our most powerful and mainstream institutions – individuals who are trying to inject a counter-cultural agenda within the goliaths of mainstream culture.
I’ve tried to hedge my bets in working with misfits on the inside of institutions, while also spending plenty of time engaging with fringe subcultures. There’s a lot that the mainstream economy can learn from the governance models of Occupy or Anonymous that traditional entrepreneurs can learn from the habits of luddites and hermits. Creating these types of bridges between fringe and mainstream culture is critical.
Take Defy Ventures. Defy looks to take the leadership and hustle skills of ex-cons and plug them into formal entrepreneurship opportunities through an incubator program. This is an example of creating an effective pathway for misfits into the mainstream economy.
But all too often, many misfits may find themselves marginalized or occupying a territory as the “lone, misunderstood outsider.” It can be extraordinarily powerful to peal off from society and be outside the system. You often gain fresh perspective and have greater freedom to experiment. But at some point, you have to ask, how can I mainstream my misfit vision? How can I bring more of myself into my work life and relationships?
Misfits who are able to mainstream often have an incredible entourage of support – a community or tribe of friends and champions: think Andy Warhold’s Factory or Hemingway’s Paris set in the 30s; both communities fostered new norms and pushed the boundaries of society. Our formal institutions are leaving misfits behind. It’s time we created more neo-tribes – more networks of those with unorthodox ideas to challenge status quo thinking.
Alexa is co-authors The Misfit Economy which is available now from your favourite book retailer.
Main picture courtesy of Alexa Clay speaking with King Tone, the former leader of the Latin Kings, about what it is like to run an underground organization.
Anonymous Flag courtesy of Wikipedia