Arlan Hamilton: “Back in 2015, I wrote a draft email that said ‘Backstage Capital Invests in 100 Companies!’ Of course, at that point Backstage Capital was not even a fund, it had no investors, and it had certainly not invested in any companies. But that was the future I wanted for my company; that was the headline I wanted to see written about us. I set the date for the headline as 2020, and I knew that I’d achieve it. In May 2018, we reached that goal, way ahead of schedule. Not only that, the headline I wrote in 2015, which I predicted would be a statement of fact by 2020, actually showed up on the Fast Company website as a real headline! I’m not claiming that simply writing down a goal will automatically bring it to fruition. But it does keep you pretty damn focused and motivated to achieve it.”
Sometimes people ask me what gave me the confidence to think that I could be a venture capitalist when everything and everyone was telling me I couldn’t. Honestly, the answer is that I fought insecurity with information. I spent the years 2012 to 2015 reading everything I could get my hands on. Every single day, I read blog posts, books, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings; I listened to every podcast I could. I did that day in and day out for years before I ever got one check. (Another key is I never stopped! I still do that to this day.)
I learned everything I know from reading, listening, watching, and being intent on learning. I learned from relentlessly consuming information that is available to everyone. I dedicated time and effort to the thing that fascinated me, and I found a way into this business by using my knowledge as capital. In other words, I became the money. I became the attraction. My mind, my information, my brain trust became the assets.
And as of May 2020, I have a new asset: My own book, It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated Into Your Greatest Advantage. When I was learning about start-ups, venture capital, and investing, books were my starting point, so I’d like my book to be the same kind of helpful tool for its readers. Plus, I love paperbacks. I love throwing them in a bag and going to the beach, or jumping on a train with one in my hand. Paperbacks are like the back half of a mullet: a party!
Read on for a selection of resources from the book, along with Hamilton’s notes on why these links are essential.
Reprinted from IT’S ABOUT DAMN TIME. Copyright © 2020 by Arlan Was Here LLC. Published by Currency, and imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Image courtesy of assemble.fyi
AH: “My first speaking event was a fireside chat with one of my good friends and someone I’ve invested in, Aniyia Williams, and it was in a friendly setting, a Black & Brown Founders event, talking about a friendly subject, Backstage Capital. There were about fifty people in the room, and I was so nervous. But I tell you what: as soon as I looked out into the audience, I saw a group of Black women looking back at me and smiling. I realized, ‘Wow, this isn’t about me. This is about them. This is about the experience that they came here for, the information, the inspiration. It’s not about how I feel.’ That moment changed everything for me, because I understood what my role was. It was no longer ego, fear, and insecurity; it was gifting.”
AH: “Over the years, I’ve learned how to adapt very quickly, to compartmentalize to protect myself, and how to separate the personal from the professional. This is not something that you learn once and you are great at it forever. You have to work on this as you would a muscle. You have to work on this as a craft. Silicon Valley Bank economist Natalie Fratto has coined the term ‘adaptability quotient’ (AQ) to go along with the better-known intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient (EQ). She has often used me as a case study in fleshing out her thesis around adaptability being the largest indicator of someone’s future success, and she wrote about me in this 2018 think piece.”
AH: “Alanis’ song ‘Rest,’ [is] about giving people in the public spotlight a break. Sometimes we make fun of celebrities; we laugh off the idea that they can have a bad life. But if you think about it, most celebrities have struggles just like the rest of us. They have to live with the constant worry about their personal boundaries being breached, their every move being watched, and their mental health being at risk because of the attention and the pressure. Everyone deserves your empathy, even if they seem as though they don’t need it.”
AH: “When I started [my blog,] Your Daily Lesbian Moment!, I wasn’t just building a readership for my thoughts; I was building a community. I had feedback from readers that made me realize how important just being myself and speaking my truth could be. I would get messages from people saying that my blog had helped them understand themselves or that it had helped them to come out to their parents, or even that they had been considering suicide but reading my blog and seeing that there was a community out there and they weren’t alone had changed their mind. We have the power to save lives, just by being authentically ourselves; just by being true to ourselves and not letting other people make us smaller or quieter. Is there anything more powerful than that?”
YDLM is no longer active, but you can keep up with Hamilton through her Twitter account.
AH: “Everything we’ve done with Backstage Capital has had an element of both learning and teaching. Check out the section of our website dedicated to learning resources, The Green Room, where we discuss all things start-up and investment; the Bootstrapped TV YouTube channel, where we show you what it looks like behind the scenes; and now Your First Million, an indie podcast where I interview successful people about how they reached their first million, whether dollars, subscribers, downloads, or customers. I’m doing all of this for you, but I’m also doing it for me, because in teaching this stuff, I continue to learn on a daily basis as well.”
This collection is created from excerpts from Hamilton’s 2022 book, available for purchase here.
She founded Backstage Capital in 2015 to invest in founders who are people of color, women, and/or LGBTQ. Since its founding, Backstage has raised nearly $30 million and invested in 200 startups led by underestimated founders. Arlan also is the founder of HireRunner.co, a startup that connects outstanding employee talent with inclusive companies.
Arlan published her book, It’s About Damn Time, in 2020, detailing her journey from homelessness to venture capital trailblazer. Arlan also hosts the popular podcast Your First Million, and in 2018, she was the first non-celebrity Black woman to grace the over of Fast Company magazine.
Arlan is a big proponent of paying it forward and supporting other underestimated people in the tech industry and beyond. She’s a limited partner in 27 funds led by emerging, underestimated managers, and she and her mother, Mrs. Earline Butler-Sims, have established scholarship programs for Black students at Oxford University, HBCU Dillard University, and Harvard Law.