I’m a misfit and that’s okay: Inspiration from Alexa Clay on lessons learned from misfit subcultures

As a recent alum of The Portland MBA and staff member of Portland State’s graduate business programs, I got to attend PSU’s 2020 Elevating Impact Summit: The Edge Effect. This annual summit is a convergence of changemakers from the social and environmental sectors who are passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship, and want to make positive differences in their communities. The programming consists of back-to-back presentations, a pitch event, tabling by changemaking organizations, networking, good food and interactive artistic experiences.  I was especially moved by ethnographer Alexa Clay’s presentation on misfit economies, “Learning Innovation from Pirates, Hackers, and Other Informal Entrepreneurs.”

Inspired by Misfits

Alexa Clay

Alexa Clay, author of The Misfit Economy, gave her presentation on the potential and value of innovations created by misfits. She gave examples of gangs who created the concept of franchising, the porn industry leading to the birth of online video streaming and pirates developing economic structures for equal pay.

As I listened to Clay speak about the contributions that misfits have made to innovations that are now ubiquitous, I was awestruck by how people who were shunned by society had the drive and entrepreneurial spirit to create new systems that worked for their peers and commonly enabled their survival. Through her framing, Clay spun the oppression created by dominant cultural norms on its head, and gave misfits permission to own their power as innovators and positive changemakers.

Misfits and The Marissa Mission

When I was 20, I started volunteering for a program called The Marissa Mission (MM), which teaches bellydance and yoga to teens. A few years later, I took over as executive director. The students who came to MM typically stayed with us for years, and we saw incredible levels of personal and social transformation among them. Our visibility grew each year as we performed and forged partnerships with other organizations that serve young women, such as Girls Inc., Betties 360 and Girls Scouts of the Pacific Northwest. As we started serving more young women from increasingly diverse backgrounds, our students started asking harder questions, such as which genders we should include in our program and how to address the cultural appropriation of bellydance and world music. Additionally, we felt like the stigma and misconception that bellydance is a sexualized performance created friction that kept us from reaching more young women. Concurrently, members from the the expansive bellydance community in Portland were holding discussions about the oversexualization of the artform, and how bellydance had been appropriated by white women in the U.S. We ultimately decided to go on hiatus in 2017 because of these tensions, but I still continue to receive inquiries from past students, parents and community members asking when The Marissa Mission will return.

Rachel Shelton belly dancing.
Rachel Shelton, MBA ’19

I decided I had more to learn about managing a nonprofit, so I enrolled in the Public Administration and Nonprofit Management Certificate program at PSU. During the program, I learned how similar nonprofits are to for-profit businesses, that they need strong community support to survive and are increasingly dependent on earned revenue, in addition to donations and grants. Feeling like there was still much to be learned, I enrolled in The Portland MBA. I’m glad I did because the program helped me continue to grow my network in Portland, strengthen my leadership skills and give me a new point of view on earned income strategies that make positive social impacts. However, I found myself laughing nervously every time I told my professors and classmates about my background of teaching girls to bellydance. Here I was among financial analysts, supply chain professionals, and corporate managers; internally I felt like I was a long way from my cultural peers.

As I listened to Clay’s presentation, it dawned on me that I am an entrepreneurial misfit. The friction and complexities that I was facing at MM were not signals to stop, but catalysts to grapple with them more deeply and continue to innovate. Clay’s presentation inspired me to apply for a grant to hire dancers from a variety of disciplines to incubate and cultivate the community impact MM was built on and develop the mission to scale further.


Rachel Shelton

Rachel Shelton is Lead Ambassador for Portland State’s Graduate Business Programs and Operations Associate for the Women’s Venture Capital Fund. She earned her MBA from PSU in 2019, and is passionate about helping businesses make positive social and environmental impacts.

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