Investor Arlan Hamilton Plays by Her Own Rules

Arlan Hamilton

Arlan Hamilton is a woman on a mission. As founder of Backstage Capital, she’s the first black, queer woman to built a venture capital firm from the ground up; she’s a sought-after speaker and leader; and she’s made a name for herself as a shrewd collaborator with sharp instincts and a pull-no-punches style. Hamilton formed Backstage in 2015 with the goal of investing in underrepresented founders. Today, its portfolio is 80 percent people of color, 68 percent women, and 13 percent LGBTQ. Last year, Backstage announced a new $36 million fund solely for black female founders, which Hamilton has referred to as the “about damn time fund.” The Riveter caught up with the Hamilton to talk change and hopefulness, real-life inclusion, and her most useful business hacks. 

The Riveter: So, we’re looking at this first issue as a way to reflect on women and work over the past two years — January marks two years since the administration took office, two years since the Women’s March. What do you think has changed in these two years? 

Arlan Hamilton: What’s changed is that the politeness and the façade that we all had to walk around with — both as the oppressed and as the allies — that has gone away. We don’t have time to dance around things anymore. Because of that, I think people are being confronted with reality on all sides, and I think things are getting done — we’re actually making progress and I am still an optimist, even after being bruised and battered over the past few years in this country and in this industry and all of that, and by life. I still have hope, and that hope is because I see these glimmers of light that have come through. There’s this new dawn that’s coming, and it’s not meant to sound corny, because we still have so much to accomplish. We can’t throw the parade yet. But I do see the hope.

TR: In your opinion, what still needs to change?

Hamilton: What has not changed is that the things that are happening to [marginalized communities], are still happening. I’m still being mistaken for housekeeping. I’m still being handed people’s keys. People are still getting shot in the streets. People are still being tortured on Twitter if they dare say anything about their own identities or try to help others. But I think, when the body is healing — I don’t know too much about it, so I’m not gonna pretend I know what the words are — but the cells kind of attack, and there’s all this sort of uproar, and that is painful, and it’s not comfortable, and I think that’s what’s happening right now, and hopefully that leads to healing.

TR: Do you feel like you bring your politics into your professional life? For example, you’ve made some decisions like not working with YCombinator [a startup incubator once advised by Peter Thiel]. Everything is political, now, obviously, but in times past, people may have advised you against limiting yourself or said, “Oh, that’s a bad move, business-wise.”

Hamilton: Yeah, I don’t care. I mean, I have never been part of times past in the industry, so that’s one of the things that sets me apart. I was always going to bring myself into it. So, it’s not that I bring my politics, I bring myself into the mix. I bring those that I am representing into the mix, and those that I feel that I want to be helpful to into the mix, but I didn’t make this political. Politics made this personal.

So, I’m going to say what I feel is true and right, and I’m not going to pretend that something is happening when it’s not happening, and I may say it earlier than others because, I guess at the beginning, for a few reasons, [Backstage] worked because I didn’t have that fear of losing a job or that fear that holds people back so often in the industry from speaking up. I didn’t have that. So, I was just going to talk about anything that I didn’t feel was just.

TR: Let’s talk about Backstage, what’s surprised you most since you started it?

AH: Can you be a little bit more specific? Just because I’ve been surprised so much.

TR: OK. What’s surprised you in a positive way, and what has been worse than you thought it would be?

I’m still being mistaken for housekeeping. I’m still being handed people’s keys. People are still getting shot in the streets.

AH: I am floored, still, by the fact in 2019 it’s still so difficult for most women of color to raise an amount of money that is sustainable and is on par with what other people raise. And that still, I’ve been saying this for six years, to still be considered some sort of charity case by some affluent white men and some white women. It just boggles my mind, it really does. I thought that with the cameras rolling, the proof would be there and it would be understood and it’s just not yet. So that surprised me on the bad side — that we’re still having to explain ourselves. 

What has surprised me on the good side has been the flip of that, how many straight white men come up to me on any given day when I’m out, across the country, who are following our story and who say, “I love what you’re doing and I wanted to talk about this but I didn’t know how and now I can talk about it.” How many people were just waiting and wanting to be helpful, and understand the value proposition of what we’re talking about here. So that has really pleasantly surprised me — I’m getting high-fives from all types of people. It’s not just preaching to a choir. That’s been really, really cool.

TR: How do you think women can move business forward in ways that are more inclusive?

AH: I need to directly quote Lena Waithe, here. She says this with love but: “Get out of our way.” I’m a big fan of things happening quickly, I’m a big fan of people making change quickly, but I’m also a realist and I understand that [change] is just not going to happen overnight. So I think we’re taking steps, I think we’re taking good, positive steps. People who have been [talking about racial injustice] all along are finally being heard. And people who were maybe not paying attention are listening and hearing it. 

And I think when Lena says “get out of our way” I think what she’s saying is listen to us. Don’t just ask us —the act of asking us what we think is not enough. And I think that’s where some people stop in their allyship. They stop and they say, “Well I’m asking what they want, I’m giving them a voice.” But then that’s where it ends. They don’t act on it, they don’t listen, they don’t go further. And that’s the next step that can happen and it can turn things around. Allyship is wonderful, but allyship doesn’t just mean, “Let me give you the mic. Hold my mic and speak.” Allyship is, “Hey, this mic is yours. Can I come for the ride?”

I’m trying not to be on a soapbox because I am trying not to be seen as some sort of savior, or beacon of hope. I’m trying to say, “Look, I didn’t create these people. They were already there. I’m just trying to shine a light. I’m just trying to shine the light and get out of their way, these women of color and these LGBT founders. I’m just trying to make people understand they already existed and they’re here.”

TR: What’s your best advice for female founders just starting out?

AH: There’s no magic formula, and that’s important to state. There’s no magic formula, or everyone would get a check. What has stood out in the past, because again there’s no magic formula, is that someone has domain expertise and is coming from [and industry or business model] that’s stodgy or has been stuck for a long time or frozen in time, then taking their domain expertise and flipping that specific vertical on its head. That has stood out a lot.

It’s also important to think about hacks — like, if you’re thinking about Backstage specifically, you don’t just have to pitch to me, we have people on our staff who get 100 pitches when I get 1,000. You’ll have a better chance of getting their attention than you will mine.

TR: Are there any other hacks you’d want women to know?

Well, with mentors. A lot of people come up to me, a lot of women come up to me and they ask me to be their mentor. We’ve just met and they want me to be their mentor. They’ll email me or send me a DM, and say, “Will you be my mentor?” That to me is just an unrealistic ask. But, I do understand the desire for mentors. I no longer seek mentors but I understand the desire for it.   

So one [great way to connect with mentors] is to start a blog or a podcast, like an indie kind of vibe. If you have a list of 30 people who you want as mentors, ask them all. Ten of them will say yes to a 20 minute interview. And ask them the questions you would have asked, and then make it so that you say, “I’m going to ask you six questions in 20 minutes. The sixth question I’d like to ask offline, if that’s OK. That’s not going to make it on to the podcast, or not going to make it into the transcript.” The sixth question is just for you, it’s like that one moment you have with them. So you give them a win for having their thoughts and insights exposed. You give your audience — maybe it’s an audience of five but you gave an audience some insights. And you got your questions answered.

TR: That’s excellent advice and very, very true. The worst thing is when somebody’s like, “Can I pick your brain?” And you’re like, “No, you can’t pick my… “ 

AH: Yes! Someone said that to me on Twitter a few days ago. She said, “You’re going to be at this event, I’d love to get you a coffee and pick your brain.” I said, “We can meet but really, I really don’t want my brain picked.”

— Jennifer Romolini
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

Photo credit: Bloomberg

This article was featured in The Riveter, a bi-weekly roundup of thoughts, insight and news about women and work. Sign up here and receive the next edition!