Arlan Hamilton is the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, a venture capital fund dedicated to minimising funding disparities in tech by investing in high-potential founders underestimated by the industry such as people of colour, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Ms Hamilton identifies as all three.
Although impressive, at first glance, Arlan Hamilton may appear to be a successful but ordinary entrepreneur. What if I told you that she founded her company while homeless?
Born in Dallas in 1980, Arlan Hamilton was brought up by a single mother. She did not have a college degree and started working as a music industry tour manager for a Norwegian rock band.1 At age 34, she read about venture capital and realised that there was enormous potential for marginalised businesses that were not given the same chances as their white counterparts. She wanted to create a venture capital fund that invested in people like herself but she had zero connections and no experience in finance.
"During my research, I found out that 90%-plus of all venture funding and angel funding goes to white men in a country where they make up one-third of the population. That caught me off guard as a gay Black woman in the South with no connections. I thought, ‘That doesn’t seem like that’s going to end well, if that stays the same.
So instead of going out and teaching myself how to raise money for a company, I taught myself how to raise money for a fund by diving into any book I could get my hands on and any interview I could get my hands on. I started making phone calls, sending emails in the dozens at a time and little by little started making breadcrumbs and finding my way. And then, you know, an overnight five years later I got a check for $25,000 that would kick off my investing career".2
Backstage has now raised more than USD 15 million and invested in more than 170 start-up companies led by underestimated founders. In 2018, Ms Hamilton co-founded Backstage Studio which launched four accelerator programs for underestimated founders in Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and London.
From a personal perspective, Ms Hamilton sees accumulating wealth as a form of activism.
“If there were more richer people—and even more so, not the 1%, but just richer people—who were Black and brown they then could influence policy. And then policy influences what happens on the street. So all of it’s important. And to me, my success and wealth and future wealth is all activism. My activism is in being successful, wealthy, and also opening up access for others who look like me to do the same”.3
Arlan Hamilton is important to me as a trailblazer because she is not afraid to change things and she is not letting the world shame her for having ambition and the drive to make the world a better place for the LGBTQ+ community.
She is a fantastic model of what can be achieved when you do not accept boundaries imposed by tradition and society. In my opinion, she is also the sort of leader that will define the future of business. For instance, when asked about resilience, she responded:
"At Backstage, we have mental health days that are paid. You do not have to give any notice because it rarely comes with notice. You just say, that day or that hour, I need to go, and you go. That is what happens. There is no question.
I know a lot of people have remorse about that when they’re in the leadership position. But turn it into: this is as much a part of my role as a leader, as learning the latest level of upskilling in my industry or going out to raise funds. Then, it becomes more of a habit and a priority in your life […] this is when you have to be the leader and step up. No one is going to come to you and say, “Hey, you are kind of frazzled right now. You are snapping at people. You are not on the top of your game.” No one is going to do that until the house is on fire. Instead, say: “What can I do ahead of time to get us in a position where if anybody, including myself, needs to be human for a day or for a week, we can make that work?”.4
If you would like to learn more about her, check out her book: It's About Damn Time. The name of her book comes from a comment made by Ms Hamilton when asked about the launch of a USD 36 million fund to be exclusively earmarked for the businesses of black women: "They like to call it a diversity fund. I call it the about damn time fund."5
So, I hope you join me in saying "about damn time" for a new generation of business leaders!