After wandering down a Manhattan street to an address I was given for a release party on Tuesday, I came to a nondescript door nestled between two small clothing stores. Initially I stalled outside, wondering if I had come to the wrong place, until a man wearing all black and a white plastic mask beckoned me to approach, opened the door, and put me in an elevator that ultimately opened into Impact Hub NYC, a coworking space for "entrepreneurs, activists, creatives, and professionals taking action to drive positive social and environmental change."
At least a hundred people had gathered there for the launch of The Misfit Economy, a book by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, that dives into "innovation on the fringe" and what entrepreneurs can learn from pioneers in underground economies like hacking, drug trafficking, and gangs.
The party offered a confusing mishmash of different products, people, and ideas deemed to be "out of the box" by its organizers. Caterers walked around offering guests a variety of food and shots of camel milk (yes, camel milk). Drinks were provided by Sugarlands Distilling Company, a company that has culled the recipes for its 100-proof liquor from people who have been making moonshine illegally in the mountains of Tennessee for years.
About an hour into the party, the attendees gathered around for a panel discussion from "underground innovators" including Rick Ross (the prolific drug dealer, not the rapper); leader of the Latin Kings, Antonio "King Tone" Fernandez; George Jung, whose life and major drug operations in the 70s and 80s inspired the Johnny Depp movie Blow; and David Victorson, who once made around $30 million smuggling drugs over an eight year period.
What could four former drug kingpins and gang leaders teach a room full of "creatives and entrepreneurs"? A lot, it turns out.
"What I learned in prison is that if I took those same strategies and same techniques I learned from selling drugs, I couldn't be stopped in any field," said Ross, who claims he was once raking in more than $3 million a day selling cocaine.
The panelists all condemned the war on drugs, saying the government targets drug sales not to protect public health, but to prevent underground economies from taking money out of Uncle Sam's pocket.
"For about eight years we smuggled around 50 tons of pot and I made an awful lot of money," Victorson said. "Probably billions of dollars travel around the world every year off the balance sheets. Money travels around and nobody is counting it and nobody is keeping track of it. There's no war on drugs––this is about following the money. These guys are super pissed off that billions of dollars are going out of the system, and untraceable, and being used in other economies to buy other commodities that are also off the balance sheet."
Fernandez said selling drugs was a justifiable means to escape poverty for himself and many members of ]the Kings. He claims he was only targeted by the law after speaking out against police brutality and mobilizing thousands of members of the Kings to fight for basic rights.
"Don't kid me, if the Kings need to sell drugs to eat because we're hungry, we will sell. If we need to march to get freedom from living in poverty and not getting what everyone else gets, we will march. That's what I learned in prison, the value of freedom and the value of speaking out and doing what must be done for your people to get what everybody else gets," Fernandez said. "That's what the underground economy is: it's the immigrant fighting to be equal."
Victorson offered tips to entrepreneurs in the crowd hoping to "make an impact in the world," as the moderator phrased it.
"If you have an idea or a dream, the most important thing you can do is picture that in your mind, and put all the pieces of the puzzle together in your mind and never quit––just don't quit," he said. "Just keep working harder and harder. If you hit a brick wall, take a left or a right but don't quit."
Fernandez suggested aspiring entrepreneurs surround themselves with trustworthy business partners.
"The most important thing is having a burning desire and not quitting, no matter what happens. You have to diversify your staff, you find people who believe," he said. "I support those who support me and kick those the fuck out who don't. That's how you accomplish your dreams."
For his part, Ross suggested three books to aspiring entrepreneurs: Think and Grow Rich, As a Man Thinketh, and The Richest Man in Babylon. One aspiring businesswoman in the crowd interjected and had Ross repeat the list so she could write it down in her phone. Ross said all of the skills he learned building his drug empire apply to his "legitimate business" now.
"The only thing that I had to change was to not sell drugs anymore––for me not to sell cocaine was really tough," he said. "You can apply the same techniques that made me successful in drugs. One of the things I found out is when people like you, they don't mind if you make some money. So in the drug business I treated all my customers like they were human. They were my friends, who had problems, and I treated them like that. And they recommended other people to come to me. And that's the same way I do with my legitimate business now."
So there you have it. Read those business bibles, maintain your people skills, and never give up. Maybe just apply it to your new app launch instead of crack cocaine.