Misfit Economies

Three years ago, I was introduced to Kyra Maya Phillips through a mutual friend, because we have a lot of similar interests. I had just finished a two year long research project on campaign investing in Colombia (by cartels, paramilitary groups, and the far left) and was trying to wind my way back into normal life in New York City. [how “normal” life is here is relative… but for me, this is much better than making sure I was inside and locked away by nightfall every night, staying up to write up my interviews and combing the universe for insight on organized crime… then having nightmares about said criminal groups haha]

She is a brave Venezuelan journalist who decided to start looking at black markets and the entrepreneurs that thrive in them. When we first spoke over the phone, she from London and me from New York City, we talked about cartels, and research methods and all the good stuff that comes from unusual research interests. Especially for young women.

Last night I attended her book party at the Impact Hub in Tribeca, just a block from the thriving counterfeit markets of Lower Manhattan. Perfect.

the panel for the Misfit Economies discussion
the panel for the Misfit Economies discussion

Their guests for the evening included Antonio Fernandez (from the NY State chapter of the Latin Kings), George Jung, and “Freeway” Rick Ross, all with their own stories to share about the power networks they connected to while in prison, their work in trafficking in the black market, and the power of organizing and collective action.

The event was powerful for a number of reasons.

The tug and intrigue of the topic was a major reason people were there. The black market and its rulebreakers intrigue a lot of people. Organized crime is sexy.

When I tell people I compiled a lot of research on the history of organized crime in manhattan and made a tour for myself, they get really excited and ask me to take them to see it. It’s less epic than it sounds, unless you love history and stories about the past. The truth is, organized crime and black markets look like real businesses. The same urgency to meet the demands of customers and, honestly, cheat the government out of whatever they can is there is many many different kinds of businesses.

[If you don’t believe me, talk to anyone thinking through compliance measures inside a bank. There is a whole lot of where can I make as much money as possible and slip through the holes in this regulatory web going on. Also, the research I did a few years ago on remittance transfer markets for the World Bank Transparency tools shows another side of secret costs in business. I can offer many other examples from topics ranging from pharmaceuticals to construction etc.]

Once there, people got to see organized crime and the entrepreneurs who work “the streets” from a new perspective.

The panelists come at business from a different angle: consistently they brought up that they were locked out of the acceptable system. As “King Tone” put it, when we worked within the system, we were ignored and hungry. There weren’t any options for us. When we worked outside the system, we could eat. And then at least you weren’t bored. 

Rick Ross added that he meets a lot of youth who are frustrated that school doesn’t teach them to make money and survive. The applications of school feel too distant to feel valuable. For him, he said, I asked a drug dealer how to make money, and he told me in the ways he knew how. So I followed that business model.

Antonio Fernandez spoke passionately about the power of organizing his community against police brutality, and what that meant for a city with an identity as confusing as New York City. He demonstrated the need for local organizations that spoke to the needs of the communities that they served. It was not about destroying a system, so much as creating a chapter for those trying to live in an ecosystem that blocked them out at every turn.

Kyra’s work (and my own) are about bringing these narratives into the conversation about economies. While I look at the layers that operate sometimes in harmony and sometimes in direct contrast with the regulated economy… Kyra is bringing an important narrative and perspective on some of the most misunderstood sections of the economy. The criminal base of “pirates,” “drug dealers,” and “gangsters” to some come from only movies and articles about neighborhoods they dare not explore further. For many others, these professions offer a better life or alternative to starvation.

The book just came out and I encourage you to read on. Keep exploring!

Greetings From the Christmas Markets!

Greetings from Munich!

I am here in a cafe called the “Hungry Heart” near the ancient part of the city, hanging out and wandering through the streets until my speaker rehearsal for TEDxMunich this afternoon.

I haven’t been back to Southern Germany since I was an exchange student in Ulm in highschool. This time, my German is much better, I feel comfortable wandering through the streets on my own, and the weather is much more Grey. It made my decision to bring my bright yellow coat better!

Grey Munich Skies

German design, at least on the larger scale, is much more sparse than the little nooks I know and love in France, Spain and the Netherlands. But then, sometimes, people leave the doors to their inner courtyards open and you see the whispers of bright, goldenrod yellow interiors… and I find that delightful. They are also very careful about details and functionality. For example, our bathroom in our hotel is very very compact, but as soon as you open the door, a little blue light goes on so you can see where you are moving in the dark, even while the rest of the lights in the room are off. The room is also carefully organized so you never feel cramped, though it is quiet small and compact. Clearly the work of some thoughtful engineers and designers. I expect nothing less from Germans!

Last night I wandered through the Christmas markets, which I am surprised to say I had never seen before in this scale and glory! They make the set ups in Columbus Circle and Union Square in New York seem like child’s play.

The streets all around the old part of the city were set up with little stands offering beautifully sculpted chocolate tools, shaped like little gears and wrenches that could move and be used together, curry wurst stands, christmas ornaments made from straw and glitter, felted tiger slippers, little wooden toy ducks and other critters, cheese, advent calendars, wreathes, beer, bread and everything else you can image. It smelled wonderful. Like mulled wine, fresh bread and evergreen.



It was a Thursday night but it was packed. Tourists and Germans alike came to see the live music and celebration. And even while it was packed, I didn’t mind — it felt less like the insanity of Time Square and more like gentle crowds of people enjoying the busy market place.

I love marketplaces, as many of you know. I can’t wait to go back and explore some more after my tech rehearsal this afternoon.

And tomorrow, see you at TEDxMunich! My talk is in the first session and it’s called “Lessons from the Informal Economy.” It’s a variation on the talk I gave at TEDGlobal in Rio in October. I decided to take some risks and play with new concepts that I am going to try to present tomorrow. Wish we luck!