08/08/2012 02:11 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

Why The Entrepreneurship Of Inner-City Drug Dealers Might Signal American Strength

I hate thug culture.

But I think that ex-thugs might actually help save our inner-city communities in America.

Specifically, I am talking about the seemingly untapped brilliance of otherwise corrupt drug dealers and gang leaders here in our American inner-cities.

At the recent Clinton Global Initiatives America meeting (CGI America), I spoke about my vision for the re-winning of America, and it centers around our newest innovation with HOPE Business In a Box, Powered by the Gallup-HOPE Index. The example I gave while on stage at CGI America was not a traditional one. It was one of an inner city drug dealer.

As we were talking about the power of the American idea, small business, entrepreneurship and the thing we all need now -- job creation -- the simple question I posed to the audience of more than 1,000 assembled dignitaries and leaders from across the nation was "what do you think a drug dealer is, if not an unethical American entrepreneur?" I went on to make it clear that the whole idea of drug dealers and the gangs I grew up around in Compton, California and South Central Los Angeles actually turn my stomach. That I believe drug dealing to be immoral and unethical, and that "there is a special place in hell reserved for anyone who sells death to their own people, in their own community and in our schools." That said, they may be immoral and unethical, but if someone is a so-called successful drug dealer, one thing they are not is dumb.

They understand import, export, wholesale, retail, markup, marketing, geography and territory, financing, and of course 'security.' They understand how to take something from an idea and with very few natural resources available to them, they then make that idea real (maybe a bit too real) in people's lives.

In doing all of this, and yes, again, unethical and illegal at its core, they did succeed in creating a job for themselves and several others around them. None of this is sustainable, none of it should happen, and given that they are not paying their fair share of taxes on their ill-gotten gains to the IRS, it will not even continue for very long (remember, the government did not finally convict Al Capone for murder and mayhem, but tax evasion). At its core, the drug dealers and gang organizers in my inner-city neighborhood growing up were brilliant organizers, strategists and enterprise builders. To be blunt, these inner city drug dealers are natural hustlers and entrepreneurs, just with bad role models and a corrupt business model, built on a form of 'bad capitalism.' All this is true, but they are not dumb.

As I look for real and sustainable solutions to the poverty and lack of opportunity I see everyday in my work at Operation HOPE in our inner-city communities in America, I am coming to a strange conclusion. We have locked up and thrown away the key to, in all probability, some of the very character traits that are required to stand up a community, create an emerging market and jobs, and grow local GDP growth. In order to be a successful entrepreneur you have to be a contrarian, an out of the box thinker and doer, someone who takes risks, is innovative, hard working and someone with a vision. All these are the traits of drug dealers and gang organizers. They are also single-handledly helping to destroy the very community and family structure that I am trying to grow and sustain, but the point is still not lost.

What if we have actually tossed away the 20% of society we actually need to save it, leaving the elderly, the infirmed, the young, broken families, or the traditional job striver to save a faltering community? What would have happened if all of the otherwise brilliant young people who want to become drug dealers, rap stars and athletes (because those are the only symbols of success and role models they see in their communities), had a proper business role model or business internship growing up? Maybe it would have changed everything.

It did for me.

John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama.  Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum. Mr. Bryant serves on the board of directors of Ares Commercial Real Estate Corporation, an NYSE Euronext publicly traded company, and a division of $54 billion Ares Capital.