Arlan Hamilton – Founder & Managing Partner, Backstage Capital
- From starting her own magazine, to being a tour manager for indie bands, and building a venture capital fund which has raised more than $15million, Arlan Hamilton has had an unconventional career path. But as she says herself, “At the heart of it all, I’ve always been an entrepreneur.”
Arlan is a successful venture capitalist, and not necessarily the kind of person that most would expect to head up a capital fund. But that’s Arlan: she’s unexpected. A breath of fresh air who’s not afraid of taking the road less travelled if it will lead to something special. This has not gone unrecognised, with many praising her novel approach to VC. She’s featured in Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list and been a cover star of Fast Company magazine in acknowledgement of what she’s achieved through her company. Backstage Capital is a fund that’s dedicated to minimizing funding disparities in tech by investing in high-potential founders who are people of colour, women and/or LGBTQ.
“Backstage Capital funds underestimated founders because we believe that underestimated does not equal underqualified, or underachiever,” says Arlan. “We invest in those founders who are being overlooked by mainstream investors because they don’t fit the mould of what a successful founder looks like, according to this sector. We understand that diversity is essential for true innovation and we’re working towards a world in which technology is a net positive for all people, not just those with a higher social standing.”
“If Mark Zuckerberg can do it, why can’t I?”
Backstage Capital is all about helping the underrepresented, those who don’t normally get a seat at the table when business deals are being done. And this is something that Arlan has experienced herself. “Venture capital is overwhelmingly white and male, which can make it unwelcoming or uncomfortable for people outside of those categories,” she says.
“I’ve certainly experienced being the only *something* in the room, whether that be the only woman, or the only person of colour. I’ve been given advice that I know I wouldn’t have been given if I were male. I’ve been advised on how to dress as a woman in business, to ensure people will take me seriously. To that I say: if Mark Zuckerberg can spend every day in a hoodie and jeans, why can’t I?”
Now as Managing Partner as her own successful business, she’s the one calling the shots, while comfortably dressed in a black hoodie. She often also wears a flash of purple; her signature colour and one often associated with the LGBTQ community, but also pride, ambition and power.
Investing in others
Arlan is using her power for good, helping other entrepreneurs who may otherwise be overlooked. I asked her which of the over 170 companies that she’s invested in really stood out to her. Two really exciting organizations came to mind.
She tells me about Healthy Roots, a toy company that combats societal beauty standards for girls of colour during the early stages of identity development. “Healthy Roots dolls are the first line of natural hair dolls to enter the toy industry. They have different facial features, skin tones, and hair textures that can be styled in countless ways, teaching natural hair care to young girls of colour and celebrating their beauty. I’m so honored to be an investor.”
The other is ShearShare, a B2B mobile platform that connects salon and barbershop owners to over one million independent stylists to fill empty salon chairs on demand. “This means instead of cold calling and using Craigslist to find spaces, stylists can look and see where chairs are available near to them. This saves salon owners triple their revenue on unused space, and stylists save thousands of dollars per year in overhead costs. Shear Share helps self-employed people in the beauty industry, who have been hugely impacted during the Covid-19 pandemic, find spaces where they can continue to work.”
A selfless self-starter
Arlan may now be a celebrated businesswoman, but it hasn’t been an easy journey. In fact, she as homeless when she set up Backstage Capital as she was pouring every cent she had into her new business. She spent her time backpacking between conferences and meetings, crashing on friend’s couches, or staying in Airbnbs in-between.
It was her spirit that kept her going, and it’s clear that Arlan was born an entrepreneur. “Even from a young age, I was making money selling candy at school, and trying to convince the other kids to ‘invest’ their scratch ’n’ sniff stickers into my sticker album, with the chance to win it at the end of the school year.”
She’s the kind of person who doesn’t wait for opportunities to come along. If she wants something, she makes it happen. She started her own magazine when she was in her twenties, Interlude. And she told the Los Angeles Times that she wanted to see a band she liked go on tour. “So she reached out to the Norwegian pop-punk group when she was 21 and asked if she could arrange the tour herself. They agreed, and over time, she worked her way up to managing area-level touring for musicians including Jason Derulo and Toni Braxton.”
It was during this time that Arlan started to hear about venture capital and began educating herself on finance with late night trips to the library. “At first I wanted to be a founder, but when I learned about the state of venture capital as it was in 2015, I realized I needed to be the one giving out the checks to really make a difference.”
It’s About Damn Time
Her hard work and determination to make a difference has got her recognised. She notes one of her career highlights as being the first black woman who wasn’t a celebrity or athlete to appear on the cover of Fast Company magazine.
“There have been so many highlights,” she says as she thinks about all her achievements. “One is setting up the ‘Oxford-Arlan Hamilton and Earline Butler Sims Scholarship’ to help fund Black students going to [Oxford] University less than a year later.” The scholarship, named in part as a living tribute to Arlan’s mother, covers annual fees and living costs for an undergraduate course at the university to give young people in the UK of Black African or Caribbean heritage the opportunity to study at the leading university.
Another highlight was holding a copy of her book for the first time and seeing her name on the spine. The book, ‘It’s About Damn Time’ was published in May 2020 to rave reviews. It’s about how to use being underestimated to your advantage and combines personal anecdotes and advice on how to use what you have and get past imposter syndrome.
“It feels amazing to be a published author. Every day I get feedback from readers about how the book has helped them, and I’m seeing the powerful effect of word of mouth on sales, which is great. What I’m most excited about is seeing the book in airport bookstores when it is safe to travel again, as I used to spend a lot of time browsing those stores!”
Words of wisdom
Arlan’s book is just like her aurora, a mix of nurturing warmth but undoubtable strength and resoluteness. She’s always going give backing to those who need it most and is never short of insight and advice.
Her words of advice to anyone who feels underrepresented, is that they should use it. “Whatever you have, whatever makes you different, whatever makes you feel that you’re worth less than someone else, reframe it. Look at all of your experiences as valuable assets that give you insight into the needs and wants of people like you. You don’t have to go the well-travelled route to get to the same destination.”
Arlan certainly hasn’t taken the well-travelled route herself, but she certainly has ended up in a great place. I can’t wait to see where she goes next.