“Who I work for, who I answer to is that Black woman in the back, who I need to reach with my voice.”
You may have already heard of LA-based trailblazer Arlan Hamilton, the founder of boutique venture firm Backstage Capital who invested in more than 100 start-ups led by women, people of color and/or LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs. As an investor, Hamilton rooted her business in the importance of providing much-needed financial resources for “underrepresented, underestimated founders.”
Since establishing Backstage Capital in 2015, Hamilton’s phenomenal rise against odds that are stacked against her and all queer Black women, demonstrates uncanny instincts, persistence and courage. From navigating racism, misogyny and queerphobia in an arena drenched with all of it, Hamilton managed to ensure that many marginalized entrepreneurs can have access to the funds they need to start their businesses. In this exclusive interview with Wear Your Voice, she describes her experiences thus far, announces some exciting news, and talks about why it is crucial to sometimes take a step back in order to be at a hundred percent.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity
On making space for Black folks, queer people and women in a mostly white and male dominated space:
I’ve learned that it’s worth it, I’ve learned that it works, I’ve learned that it doesn’t happen as quickly as any of us want, but that it does happen with enough nurturing, enough care, time and space. You really have to understand what you want your outcome to be [and] why you’re doing this because it is hard and deep work. You learn a lot about yourself, how people see you, and what your value to other people is. So you have to be extremely rooted in what your value is to yourself or you might get eaten alive in this work. You’ll notice a lot of people who work [towards] intersectionality and equality seem rundown and [in] need [of] nourishment. That’s because they are on the front lines. They need to be thought of and cared for as they are caring for others.
On stepping down as CEO [of Backstage Studio] and making professional shifts at Backstage Capital for herself and the people she works with:
I recently promoted Christie Pitts to CEO of Backstage Studio, which is the operations and innovation arm of the Backstage brand. My role hasn’t changed dramatically, as we’re still in transition, but I was doing the work of maybe four or five people. Now, I’ll only do the work of about two.
I continue to help manage Backstage overall with Christie, and now have time to take better care of myself health wise, and emotionally, and get to work with founders who are in our portfolio more closely to help them with their own fundraising, with their own missions. I get to help Backstage itself with more fundraising efforts. I also get to work on more creative projects that keep me inspired. I had been doing all of those things already, but this frees me up to do more of them, and to be more focused and have more intention behind them. I don’t necessarily deal with the minutiae of day to day work, and that we’ve found that is really beneficial to Backstage and myself.
On her new partnership with Mark Cuban who is investing one million into a joint venture fund:
Mark Cuban reached out to me in March and offered to be a sole LP (limited partner, aka fund investor) into a $1 million joint venture fund that I manage, and that he invests in, so that I could invest in a handful of companies, $50k – $100k at a time, so he could mentor me and I could learn from him. I had recently spoken with him on stage at SXSW for Twitter, and we had a really great time. He was a very unassuming guy. You would imagine with his personality on “Shark Tank” and on the basketball court, that he’s this overwhelming person that makes a lot of noise on their own. He actually showed up without an entourage, he was by himself as far as I could tell. Very humble, really just seemed like he had the spirit of wanting to invest, wanting to work directly with founders, and teach them, and have a ton of fun while doing it. He believes in what I’m working on, he thinks he’ll make some money back. That’s a good thing, I believe the same thing. I can bring him deal flow that he doesn’t get to see very often. At the same time, he can teach me, and help instill some of that sharkiness in me. We definitely don’t agree on everything, but he gives me the space to challenge him and vice versa. I think there’s a lot I can teach him, too.
On whether the lack of funding and resources available to LGBTQ+, POC and women is mostly due to ignorance or an intentional move:
I think it’s a few things. I think yes, it’s ignorance in a few cases, and I don’t know how you’re a forty or fifty year old white man and still are ignorant to what it’s like to live in America, but that does happen, there are some ignorant people. Hopefully that “ignorance” means they can be taught, and educated. Some of them have been, and some of them can be.
There are also people who want to blatantly put up a wall between them and anything that comes between their money and their positioning in their view. There are a lot of people who have a selfish agenda, and they’re doing okay by themselves, they don’t want to share. That’s how they want to live their lives. It’s really not my intention to decide whether that’s right or wrong, it’s my intention in my role to navigate around that and leave them in the dust while securing the bag for the people who do want to collaborate and do want to make change.
On being carefully watched and the standards Black queer woman in any space are held up to and how they aren’t allowed to make any missteps:
I’ve thought about it a lot in the last few weeks after press came out calling what Backstage has accomplished as a ‘failure’ for not reaching a certain funding goal yet. I do think about how many white men and other people that I know, who have been in the exact same shoes when it comes to not reaching their fundraising target quickly, and have not been picked apart the way that I have, or have not been shot down out of the sky as if it’s over.
I think that there are people who really champion what I’m doing, what Backstage is doing, and they want us to win. You can see that in their actions and in their words. They don’t need a parade for it, they’re just there because they believe it’s the right thing and a smart way of investing. But then there are some people who have been in wait, ready to pounce on any sort of dent in the armor. They feed off of this as a blood lust that they have for someone who is constantly positively in their Twitter timelines being taken down a notch, kind of being put in my place, so to speak. Some of that I will accept. I am making bold strides and I am saying things loud and proud, so I don’t mind being held accountable and being held to a critical eye, and being asked very important questions that are deeper than the surface. I don’t mind that because I know my intention, I know who I am, what I am, what I represent, and what impact that has. I am not above reproach.
The part that is troubling is when a certain cynicism comes from people’s insecurities or they’re simply being annoyed by me being everywhere, being loud and proud of who I am, or want me to be too good to be true.
I am not going to shrink myself. I am here for the Black woman who’s in the back of the room, who’s timid, who’s just finding her place in the room; understanding that it belongs to her as well. It might have taken her three trains and a bus to get there, but she’s there. I’m not here for the people in the front row with their arms folded, waiting for me to fall off the stage. I don’t perform for them. I don’t work for them. Who I work for, who I answer to is that Black woman in the back, who I need to reach with my voice. So, I’m going to be loud and I’m going to be proud and I’m going to reach out to her and yell out to her so that she can hear me, and come closer and closer to the stage. And then the stage is hers. That’s why I’m here.
[If] I were to stop today, I [would] feel I have done more than enough to be proud of.
On how Hamilton has been covered in the press and how she affirms herself and heals from negative attention and anti-Blackness and sexism:
There has been a lot of positive press about me over the past couple of years, and especially over the past 6 months. There’s been a lot of press. I retweet that, and I post it, and I applaud and champion it, because to me it’s about representation. I try to practice what I preach, and one of the things I preach is that you have to be your biggest champion, you have to be a hero for yourself. You can’t leave it up to others to do so. I also want people to see themselves represented.
One of the things that I do, because there is so much positive press, is I don’t buy into any hype. I don’t look at a headline that’s positive and jump around, and say “oh, I’ve made it”, and celebrate and sit back and relax. I’m always working and thinking of the next step. I’m always trying to be more valuable in the room and be a better version of myself than I was the day before. I’m always trying to give value and spread value. I am, heads-down, working. The good press happens, and I’m very grateful to it. I think it helps spread the message and I’m very flattered by it. But because I don’t place my personal value on what someone says about me, good or bad, when the negative press comes out, even though it does hit me personally because I am human, and it does sting, I’m able to recover from it faster than I might’ve been when I was younger. That’s because I am so grounded in who I am, I am so persistent in my understanding of who I am, why I’m here, and what my purpose is. To spend too much time looking left and looking right to see who’s saying what about me would have me lose my balance.
On her hopes for the future and what she is currently working on:
I’m currently working on Backstage Capital, Backstage Studio, and Backstage Accelerator. I am working on getting more capital and resources into the hands of underrepresented, underestimated founders, just like I was six years ago, a year ago, and a month ago. I’m still fundraising for the $36 million fund (we never stopped!), and for private projects that we’re working on behind the scenes. I’m working on trying to take better care of myself personally. I had been neglecting my self care. I tried my best, and I did a much better job than when I was younger, but I was still finding myself overworked. So now, I take more time for myself.
My hopes for the future are that this temporary blip on the radar is just that, and it’s soon a distant memory. In a few years, I think we’ll be talking about the dozens and hundreds and thousands of Black and brown and women [entrepreneurs who] have been created because of the work that’s being done today in the ecosystem. I may be taking a bunch of the hits for it, but I know there are a lot of us out there.
On making changes at Backstage Capital, launching an accelerator to promote underrepresented founders and start-ups:
I would like to say that I have not retired, I have not been sent out to pasture. It was my idea and my suggestion that I promote Christie. She is a capable, brilliant, creative, kind, giving, [and] sharing person, who is perfect for this job. There is no one else I can imagine taking on this role helping to lead the way forward for Backstage. I look forward to seeing her style in place, and there are already flowers blooming figuratively at Backstage because of the seeds Christie has planted and because of the way she operates and values people.
I also want people to understand that I am still here, I am working on things. You haven’t seen what I am capable of yet because I have been pinned down by the minutiae thus far. But once I am unencumbered by that, you will really start to see what I’m capable of, what could happen to both Backstage and hopefully the ecosystem at large.
Finally, we are so proud of our Accelerator cohort. We launched across four cities, in two countries, in the last few weeks. We need to really take a breath and step back a second, and give them the spotlight. These 24 companies across four cities: Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and London—beat out 1850 applicants that applied last year. They were the result of six months of diligence, and two dozen individuals who helped make the decision to invest in them and back them with resources. Their teams on the ground are each the cream of the crop, the change-makers locally. We are led at the HQ level at Accelerator by Christie, by Wayne Sutton, by Melinda Epler, by the folks at Tangelo, by Brittany Davis and Bryan Landers, and many more people. I just encourage people to take a closer look at the Accelerator. Support them, put your energy into supporting the companies in our Backstage 100 portfolio and our Accelerator…and not so much on what I do on a day to day basis.
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