Reprinted with permission from Rachel Nelson and Fan Club Zine, Nottingham, UK.
Rachel Nelson interviewed Arlan Hamilton, one of her besties, who also happens to be a successful venture capitalist.
Arlan Hamilton has been in my life for over ten years now. She’s taken on many titles throughout that time- magazine founder and editor, successful blogger, tour manager- but I think her latest is definitely the strangest: Arlan is a venture capitalist. When I sat down to talk to her, I didn’t know much about venture capitalism. All I knew was that it involved a lot of money; I imagined it as the career of someone with a trust fund. Arlan is so not that person; everything she knows about this business, she learned from books she read while touring with bands, and from people who were kind enough to email her back when she asked questions. When she started Backstage Capital, she was sleeping on couches with no home to go to. To say she’s a self-made business woman would be something of an understatement.
There’s a lot I admire about Arlan, and her ability to create her own opportunities is definitely up there, but the best thing about her new career is not that she’s entered a predominantly male, white, wealthy world and managed to take a seat at the table, it’s that her aim is to bring a dozen more seats with her and fill them with people who wouldn’t usually get a look-in. Arlan is African-American, gay, and she grew up in conservative Texas. She knows what it’s like to be a square peg in a round hole. Her company invests in start-up tech by women, people of colour, and people who identify as LGBTQ.
When I asked what drew her to this business model, she explained ‘I have always said that I don’t really care about trying to make Facebook or Twitter or those major companies in Silicon Valley more palatable for underrepresented people…I’m more interested in enabling the people who are minorities to create their own culture…if other people want to be involved, great, but if not, they’re not made or broken by traditional cultures.’ Because of this, Arlan is actively changing things in Silicon Valley; she’s not trying to fit into someone else’s worldview, she’s creating her own. That’s why she likes tech so much; the outside world is frustrating, racist, homophobic, and misogynistic, especially with the rise of the new President-elect.
She talked to me about the history of slavery, the few jobs that African-Americans are allowed to excel in, and the rising incarceration rate of minority groups. But the glimmer of hope she sees, comes from investing in start-up tech. She told me: ‘This is a hack, this is our hack. You can’t stop me from starting a company from my living room. You can’t stop me doing that. And I think that’s one of the most powerful things ever.’ To put it in perspective, currently 0.2% of venture funding goes to black women. Backstage Capital recently invested in their 9th black woman this year. To be able to those screw up those statistics must be incredibly satisfying.
Arlan began working when she was 15. She worked in retail, sometimes up to 40hrs a week- while also completing high-school — to help her mom pay the rent. She didn’t dislike working for other people, but she did struggle with falling in line with the ‘natural order’ of things, which so often put women, and people of colour, towards the bottom of the pile. She laughed telling me that, no matter where she worked, she never had the right clothes; she spends most work days now in her Backstage Capital hoodie. There’s no doubt that 9–5 was not for Arlan; she remembered ‘the physical act of clocking in, when I used to hear the sound of that punch, my soul used to die. It was like a gunshot.’
When I asked what gave her the confidence to be her own boss, not just with Backstage Capital, but with all of her previous endeavours, she told me she was certain it came from her mom, who never allowed her to believe she didn’t have a right to be at the table. She explained ‘I just never knew anything else. I never knew I wasn’t supposed to be in the room’ and recalled hearing her mom explaining to her friends “I want Arlan to do much more than I ever dreamed of doing- that’s what every generation should strive for.”
There’s a lot I’d like to say about Arlan to give you a full picture of who she is: smart, funny, kind, brave. I could tell a lot of stories about her, I could fill this article with the intelligent, moving quotes I collected from our conversation, but I have minimal space so I’m going to try and narrow it down to the most important pieces. Arlan has integrity, which is not the first word that comes to mind when you hear ‘Silicon Valley’. She recently turned down an investment that was worth around $500,000 because it came from a company who refused to condemn Peter Thiel’s $1.25m investment in Trump’s presidential campaign. It would be easy to see money as Arlan’s entire business, but people have always been her main priority, and to take money from anyone connected with Donald Trump was out of the question.
President Obama recently held an event at the White House called ‘South by South Lawn’ which celebrated the spirit of innovation. Arlan was nominated for an invitation, so she spent October 3rd walking around the White House lawn, pinching herself as the DJ played Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ and 2Pac’s ‘Changes’ (laughing to herself as she caught the line And although it seems heaven sent / We ain’t ready to see a black President) amongst people like civil rights leader John Lewis, Common, Ty Burrell, and oh, Leonardo DiCaprio. I asked how she felt being there and she replied ‘It was like, no matter who you were, you couldn’t be the most famous person in the room, right? So everyone was kind of equal. It was like this calming place that doesn’t really exist.’
In Silicon Valley a company that is worth a billion dollars or more is called a unicorn; if you ask me, whether Backstage Capital ever gets there or not, Arlan is one heck of a unicorn.
by Rachel Nelson
Arlan Hamilton is CEO of Backstage Capital Investments. She can be found tweeting at @ArlanWasHere
Rachel Nelson is one third of Fan Club. She can be found covered in glitter or tweeting at @Rachellous
About Backstage Capital: Founded by Arlan Hamilton, Backstage Capital is dedicated to helping to minimize funding disparities in tech by investing in high-potential founders who are of color, women, and/or LGBTQ. Backstage invests $25k-$100k in pre-Seed and Seed-stage startups that see the world through a unique lens. Follow us on twitter @Backstage_Cap!