Arlan Hamilton, Founder of Backstage Capital
Arlan Hamilton has taken Silicon Valley — and just about anything else she’s set her sights on — by storm. She built venture capital fund Backstage Capital from scratch and uses it to invest in founders who are traditionally overlooked: women, LGBT people or people of color. Previously, she founded indie magazine Interlude and toured the world with musicians as a production manager; she is currently tour manager for recording artist Janine.
Founder, Backstage Capital
Silicon Valley is not known for diversity, but Arlan Hamilton — founder of venture capital fund Backstage Capital — is the black queer woman here to change that.
Arlan Hamilton, Founder of Backstage Capital
Why she’s a MAKER: Arlan Hamilton is a self-taught entrepreneur who never let anything — inexperience, racism, even homelessness — stop her from success, whether in founding popular indie magazine Interlude, cold calling music venues to book bands she was passionate about or building Backstage Capital from scratch. As she says, “I put myself through, essentially, a four year homeschooled university about venture capital and the startup ecosystem.”
Sugar and Spice: Hamilton grew up in Dallas, Texas, and had an entrepreneur’s hustle and determination from the start: In the third grade, she realized she could buy candy in bulk from Costco, sell it to the kids at a profit “and also be sort of a hero,” which she thought was “amazing.” She also learned that her confidence could be viewed as a threat, which prepared her for the future. “I was a taller than normal black girl in Texas who was lippy, who was talking, who was asking questions. And that just wasn't OK,” she admits.
Production Value: After attending community college and getting a data entry job, she became intrigued by a Norwegian pop-punk band — “because that’s normal, right?” After reaching out to the band’s lead singer, asking them to play in the U.S. and being told they tried but couldn’t make it happen, she taught herself how to book a tour and began cold calling venues. “I was very convincing,” she says. She booked a U.S. tour for the band two summers in a row and years later helped produce tours for CeeLo Green, Toni Braxton and Amanda Palmer. She’s now tour manager for Janine.
Sapphic Startup: Hamilton always loved magazines, but, in her early 20s, felt “frustrated by the lack of diversity” within their pages. “I couldn't find that magazine,” she says. “So I decided to create my own.” Interlude ran on a shoestring, with some powerful cover stories — Gavin Rossdale, Tyler Hilton — before morphing into a strictly queer mag; she also ran a popular blog, “Your Daily Lesbian Moment.” She recalls that her readers “would say things like, ‘I was going to kill myself because I know I was gay…and I didn't have anyone that I could turn to… But I found your site.’ It was just overwhelming.”
Learning to Fly: She discovered venture capitalism through celebs like Ellen DeGeneres and Ashton Kutcher. “They were all investing into Silicon Valley. And I said, what is Silicon Valley? What does that mean? …I spent years teaching myself about venture capital, Silicon Valley, startups, the players. I had flash cards.” She bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, attended a venture capital boot camp and ran out of money, networking by day and sleeping in the airport by night. On a wing and a prayer, she built Backstage Capital — which has now invested nearly $5 million into over 80 startups. Word had gotten around: “There is this black chick who is, like, trying to be a venture capitalist. And she's doing a good job. And we trust her.” Hamilton appeared on the cover of Fast Company in 2018.
ARLAN HAMILTON: You will be left behind if you do not catch up as an investor and invest in the people that are today underrepresented, today underestimated, but tomorrow's leaders. I grew up in Dallas, Texas. My mom probably would describe me as someone who had a lot of interests. And everything that I found great interest in, I would just go all in on. I would constantly ask questions. And I spent more time in the principal's office, because I was a behavioral problem than anyone else I knew. And I wasn't being aggressive. But what I was, was a tall, black girl, in Texas, who was lippy, who was talking, who was asking questions. And that just wasn't OK. I thought, this is amazing. I love the fact that she was a black woman in charge. And I said, I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I'm going to be around this energy as much as humanly possible. And from that point on, it became my mission to work on concert tours. So I taught myself how to book a tour. I would call all these cities and find these different clubs, and I would call them over and over and over again. Of course some people are going to say no. But someone will say yes eventually. And if I can get one yes, I can get 100. All these people who are in the entertainment world, they were all investing into Silicon Valley. And I said, what is Silicon Valley? What does that mean? And so I started doing research. And I essentially put myself through a four-year home-schooled university about venture capital and the startup ecosystem. Pretty much my whole spiel to everybody was, hey, I'm a gay, black woman. You don't see many of me in Silicon Valley. Don't you want to? A lot of guys would write back and say, we don't talk about that around here. Really quickly I understood how much of an opportunity that would be. If I said, OK, what is a safe place that's indoors, but it's open all night, and I could somehow pretend that I was there, just like, stuck or something? The airport. I would tell myself, I'm just a world traveler who has missed their connection. And that is why I'm sleeping on this ground. And then the rest of the day I would get on that train and I would go down to Silicon Valley and meet with investors and get them to invest in this fund, and do all of that without letting them know that I was homeless. When I got that yes from her, that, I'm in, and let's go for this, I did just a little bit of a dance in the parking lot of a grocery store that I spent a lot of time using as my office. And I never looked back. When I found out I was going to be on the cover of Fast Company, I just started crying. All I could think of was, like, me, years ago, looking for her-- a black woman on a business magazine who isn't a celebrity, who turned herself into something. People who are not often represented, they don't feel heard, they don't feel seen. It has nothing to do, really, with me. It's about what it represents. It's our cover.