Arlan Hamilton can only be described as a force of nature.By Fatimah B.
The story of Hamilton’s ‘rag to riches’ journey is not only inspiring but proves that determination, drive and the will to overcome limitations is true.
Hamilton represents everything the tech industry is not: African American, Female, Gay, Unapologetic, Direct to the point of blunt. Like we said earlier – a force of nature.
“If you were anything but a straight, white man you were honestly not even getting into the room.”
She’s also the first African American woman to have built her venture capital firm, Backstage Capital, from nothing. She’s seen as a Silicon Valley disruptor, particularly because she knows how to blaze through long held biases.
“It was crazy to me that 90% of venture funding was going to white men, when that is not how innovation, intelligence, and drive is dispersed in the real world. I had no background in finance, but I just saw it as a problem. Maybe it’s because I was coming from such a different place that I could recognize it,” she told reporter, Ainsley Harris.
What Singles Out Arlan Hamilton?
Hamilton is quite different compared to the rest of the women we highlighted this month. With no college degree, no money, and no relevant network, her arrival in Silicon Valley had one purpose: “to invest in underrepresented founders by becoming a venture capitalist.”
The usual response to a statement as bold as that is complete and total silence, with some shock. How does one go about creating a venture capital fund in an industry as closed as this, especially when you’re not the ‘regular’ tech head?
Hamilton’s first real job started at the age of 21. She wanted to see a Norwegian pop-punk group on tour, so she reached out to them to arrange it. They agreed and she ended up becoming their touring manager. Taking those valuable experiences, she slowly worked her way up to manage touring for artists like Jason Derulo and Toni Braxton.
Her interest in venture capital (VC) piqued in 2010 when she noticed celebs, like Ashton Kutcher and Ellen DeGeneres investing in start-ups. Kutcher was a recurring investor on the VC reality show, Shark Tank. Hamilton noticed that minorities were continuously underrepresented, something that irritated and exasperated her.
How She Broke the Walls
She understood the game would not be easy – challenging diversity and equity gaps never is.
She taught herself how to start a VC fund and took off to San Francisco on a one-way flight. During the day, Hamilton hunted investors like a bloodhound. After darkness fell, she found herself making her way to the airport where she would camp out on the floor – a period which can only be described as homeless.
“I was going toe-to-toe with people who had an unlimited amount of money, who could wine and dine their limited partners with lavish events and big productions. It was me and my backpack, going to conferences and meeting people, sleeping in cars — doing whatever I could to meet with them face to face because I had to play ball.”
If she was broke and desperate, it never showed, and her tenacity finally paid off when Angel investor, Susan Kimberlin gave her a check for $25 000 – her first investor check. Kimberlin believed that Hamilton was right, “it wasn’t a talent-pipeline problem as much as a resources problem.”
Ellen Pao, an investor in Hamilton’s company says, “There are a lot of people who are talking about investing in women and founders of color, but when you look at their portfolios, it’s still majority homogeneous.”
With her first endorsement in hand, others followed. Backstage Capital soon started reinvesting the money into start-ups, particularly those often overlooked because their founders were either women, a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQ community.
Hamilton says that 80% of the start-ups they come across are funded by the founders themselves. While the VC industry might be swimming in capital, this capital is available to selected groups, “Every time I look at a TechCrunch or Axios article that says the ecosystem is flush with capital, with VC capital, there’s a bubble, I’m like where? Because we’re not seeing it.”
Why Ally with Hamilton
Pao, who filed a ground-breaking sex discrimination lawsuit against VC powerhouse, Kleiner Perkins in 2012, thinks Hamilton is the real deal who has the cajones to not only identify talent but invest and support them directly. Though she has now stepped down in her role as CEO, she’s more determined than ever to carry on certain duties, like raising capital, working with founders, creating brand awareness and taking some “Me” time.
Some might say that Hamilton has a huge chip on her shoulder but in an industry where the privileged works hand-in-hand with their persons of equal financial status, Hamilton is all the more raring to go, “How much of a fist in the air would it be to just be obnoxiously wealthy as a gay black woman? And [how powerful] to be able to help other people do the same?”
Food for thought…