Backstage in the greenroom of the podcast festival where she’s scheduled to appear, Arlan Hamilton is quietly singing the lyrics to Janet Jackson’s “Control.” She’d like to walk on stage as the song plays, but the festival crew has copyright concerns. So instead, she is shimmying offstage in her chair, half-humming the chorus under her breath: “I’m in control / Never gonna stop / Control / To get what I want / Control / I like to have a lot.”
Like everything Hamilton does, the song request is equal parts self-aware and unapologetic. Hamilton knows that she stands out—she is the only black, queer woman to have ever built a venture capital firm from scratch. She also knows that she has a reputation for being direct, particularly when it comes to Silicon Valley biases, and how her own story is portrayed. (Indeed, the song is a jab at Gimlet Media, the podcast festival hosts, who devoted an entire episode of their StartUp series on her to what they saw as her sometimes counterproductive need for control.) But Hamilton exudes calm, even as she attempts, through her L.A.-based firm, Backstage Capital, the near impossible task of disrupting the way that venture investors pick winners and create wealth.
“It was crazy to me that 90% of venture funding was going to white men, when that is not how innovation, intelligence, and drive is dispersed in the real world,” she tells me. “I had no background in finance, but I just saw it as a problem. Maybe it’s because I was coming from such a different place that I could recognize it.”
Three years ago, the then 34-year-old Hamilton arrived in Silicon Valley with no college degree, no network, no money, and a singular focus: to invest in underrepresented founders by becoming a venture capitalist. The story of how the former music-tour manager studied up on investing from her home in Pearland, Texas, and pushed her way into the rarified world of venture capital, scoring investments from the likes of Marc Andreessen and Chris Sacca, has become legendary in the industry. After making contact with Y Combinator president Sam Altman, she bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco. For months she stalked investors by day and slept on the floor of the San Francisco airport at night. She was broke. Finally, in September 2015, she got her first check, for $25,000, from Bay Area angel investor Susan Kimberlin, who believed in Hamilton’s vision that the Valley’s lack of diversity wasn’t a talent-pipeline problem as much as a resources problem: Diverse entrepreneurs needed money. With Kimberlin’s endorsement, Hamilton created Backstage Capital and began investing. Other funding soon followed, from backers including Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield and Box CEO Aaron Levie. This past June, Hamilton announced that Backstage had exhausted its first three seed funds, doling out between $25,000 and $100,000 to 100 startups in everything from beauty products to business analytics. And at all 100, at least one founder is a woman, person of color, or someone who identifies as LGBTQ.
Now Hamilton is gearing up for Backstage’s next chapter, a $36 million fund dedicated exclusively to black women founders, a demographic that’s glaringly absent in Silicon Valley: Just three dozen black women entrepreneurs, nationwide, have raised more than $1 million in venture funding. Hamilton calls her latest initiative the “It’s about damn time fund.” Her first two $1 million investments, to be announced before the end of the year, will go to existing Backstage portfolio companies. And that’s just the start. This spring, Hamilton will launch the Backstage Accelerator to foster early-stage startups with locations slated for L.A., Philadelphia, and London. She’s also laying the groundwork for a $100 million fund to provide underrepresented founders with even larger checks.
Every nascent VC is under pressure to demonstrate success—Hamilton even more so. Those in Silicon Valley who believe that the next Facebook will be created by a woman or person of color are watching her portfolio closely. Others view Backstage with more skepticism, seeing her funds as relatively inexpensive ways for investors to appear committed to diversity without having to do the hard work internally.
Hamilton shrugs it off. In an industry where privilege begets privilege—and at a time when racial justice in this country seems precarious, at best—she is claiming her seat at the table. “How much of a fist in the air would it be to just be obnoxiously wealthy as a gay black woman?” she wonders. “And [how powerful] to be able to help other people do the same?”
Entrepreneur Stephanie Lampkin had an engineering degree from Stanford and an MBA from MIT. But she couldn’t get a job at Google when she applied there in 2014. “They told me I wasn’t technical enough,” she says. Shortly afterward, she developed the idea for her startup, Blendoor, which sets out to eliminate bias in hiring practices through software that anonymizes job-candidate data and analyzes talent pipelines. She was soon accepted into a Stanford-run accelerator program, but struggled to persuade investors to back her efforts. “I went through the demo day, and nothing converted to a check.”
Advisers suggested that Lampkin, who is African American, seek out women-focused venture funds. There has been an explosion of angel syndicates and early-stage funds in recent years that target women entrepreneurs. But as Lampkin discovered, the founders in such funds’ portfolios are almost exclusively white or Asian. In the end, she shifted gears and looked for VCs “who understood the problem really well,” including Hamilton, who put $25,000 into the company in 2017. (Laszlo Bock, the former head of people at Google, is another early backer.)
“There are a lot of people who are talking about investing in women and founders of color, but when you look at their portfolios, it’s still majority homogeneous,” says Ellen Pao, a Backstage investor and activist who filed the landmark sex discrimination lawsuit against VC powerhouse Kleiner Perkins in 2012. She sees Hamilton as the real deal, capable of leveraging her network to identify talent that everyone else has ignored.
Though she is still a small player in a venture landscape awash with money, Hamilton has proven adept at connecting entrepreneurs to a robust network of top-tier VCs and executives from Airbnb, Google, and more. Silicon Valley runs on warm introductions, and Hamilton, by force of will, is now able to offer them. “Time and time again I’ve seen Arlan tell the world, don’t count me out. It’s her persistence that I’m most inspired by,” says Uncharted Power founder and CEO Jessica Matthews, whose seven-year-old renewable energy startup has raised more than $7 million, with backing from Backstage.
Hamilton is gaining prominence at a time when black female founders are increasingly giving up on venture capital entirely. Reham Fagiri, cofounder and CEO of used-furniture marketplace AptDeco, is one of the rare black women to have raised more than $1 million in venture funding. She cashed her first VC check in 2014, before Hamilton arrived on the scene, but has since soured on the standard startup path, due to her interactions with VCs. “I always got asked who was running the tech, even though I ran a team of engineers at Goldman Sachs for six years,” she says. These days, Fagiri prefers to bootstrap her company.
Crowdfunding is also becoming popular: Republic, a platform that allows founders to raise money from nonprofessional investors in exchange for equity, reported in May that founders of color accounted for 25% of the investment dollars generated through its site, while women accounted for 44%. (Industry-wide, the percentages are 1% and 2%, respectively.) And facial-recognition startup Kairos, one of Backstage’s portfolio companies, has raised millions through an initial coin offering—a type of crowdfunding that relies on cryptocurrencies—this past summer.
Many black female founders turn their backs on venture funding out of sheer fatigue for “having to defend themselves as human beings,” says Jean Brownhill, cofounder and CEO of Sweeten, a matching service for homeowners and contractors. (Backstage is not a Sweeten investor.) Brownhill recalls meeting with an investor whose first question was whether her father was around while she was growing up. “I said something very pleasant with a smile on my face. But where do you go from there?” Matthews, for her part, cites the unique pressure of raising money as a black female founder: “Whenever you are a black face in a white space, your presence represents all black people. You don’t have the ability to be flawed. Any mistake you make, that will be the one data point to explain an entire people.”
Hamilton knows that feeling well. She recalls the fellow VC who once told her that for Backstage to be taken seriously, it needs to be an “outlier” in terms of its performance. “He said I need to be better than everyone in order to be seen as an equal,” she says. “It’s very unfair. But he can ship it to me; I’m not signing for it. I don’t feel the pressure.”
Under a pastel blue sky in mid-June, Hamilton is doing what she does best: hosting a group of investors and portfolio companies at a Los Angeles coworking space for a day of founder-VC speed dating. It’s an important moment for Hamilton. For every Backstage startup that raises a Series A or Series B round led by a top-tier firm, Hamilton will be one step closer to convincing prospective investors that she’s capable of picking winners. She dispenses hugs and greetings. But she’s here to work. “We definitely want to think about making deals today,” she announces as she scans the room, eyebrows mock-sternly raised.
The attendees fan out to their assigned meeting tables, each decorated with miniature succulents. The dozen-plus founders in the room mirror the overall composition of Backstage’s portfolio: 80% people of color, 68% women, 13% LGBTQ. One company makes dolls with natural hair, one uses data to drive sports ticket sales, and another develops analytics for vending machines. In assembling Backstage’s “headliners,” as she calls her companies, Hamilton has avoided focusing on particular industries. Through her presence on the conference circuit, she endeavors to attract the attention of all underrepresented founders. But the wide-ranging result can be challenging to manage and support. The less-than-charitable industry moniker for such a strategy: “Spray and pray.”
Hamilton defends the tactic, which mirrors that of high-volume early-stage funds like 500 Startups. “It’s not like [I’m saying], ‘Everybody’s getting a check! I’m Oprah!’ ” she says. So far, she has invested in roughly 3% of the companies that have pitched Backstage, a percentage that is on par with many venture firms. For her $1 million checks, Hamilton says she’s looking for companies that are transformative and scalable—and that “provide some sort of dignity for the end user.”
She approaches her investors with similar discernment. Amid the growing outcry around Silicon Valley’s stubbornly white, male norms, Hamilton seems to offer investors a convenient way to exhibit their good intentions. “There are probably a lot of people who see affiliating themselves with Backstage as a quick fix,” says Mark Levy, the former global head of employee experience for Airbnb and now a Backstage investor and adviser. “Arlan has a good nose for bullshit. She’s purposefully not taken money from investors when she thinks that’s the only reason they’re getting in.” Hamilton acknowledges that “there’s a bucket of people who are checking off boxes” by taking meetings with her. But she credits investors such as Butterfield and Sacca with “thinking about what the future looks like” and writing checks.
With other investors, she is less forgiving. As the 2016 election approached, she took to Twitter to announce that she would no longer encourage companies to apply for Y Combinator. YC partner Peter Thiel had just reaffirmed his support for Donald Trump, following the leak of Trump’s Access Hollywood comments, and Hamilton says she couldn’t stomach the idea of doing business with him. She also turned down an offer of more than $250,000 from an investor who was speaking out in Thiel’s defense. “I really weighed it, but I couldn’t do it,” she says. Later, she had to sell a portion of her Backstage ownership to cover payroll.
YC president Sam Altman, who lashed back on Twitter, might have greeted Hamilton’s decision with more understanding if she had spread the word quietly. But that is not how she operates. On Twitter and Instagram, she is disarmingly honest, posting about her loneliness and her longtime battle with alcoholism, even at the risk of unnerving potential investors. “I had a relationship with Tito’s,” she tells me. “It was my best friend, my comforter, the girlfriend that never cheated.” Today she’s sober, helping to support her mother, and engaged to a woman who lives in Bavaria.
Meanwhile, the number of diversity funds is growing. Until recently, Rethink Impact, which has a $112 million war chest, was the only diversity-focused fund capable of leading a large, post-seed round. Now there is also New Voices, a $100 million fund created this year by Sundial Brands CEO Richelieu Dennis, which has already invested in eight startups led by black women.
At the same time, the traditional venture world is starting to reform, albeit slowly. There are more women and minorities in junior roles, if not partner positions. And entrepreneurs are starting to seek out diverse investors: Ooda Health, a health-tech startup with male cofounders, decided to raise its initial round of funding this year exclusively from firms with female general partners.
As for Hamilton, she is thinking long-term. “I definitely am aware that the majority of my [investors] are older white men who are rich, and who will get richer by my work and the work of others,” she says. “But right now the focus should be on getting that money to the founders so that they themselves can have massive exits.”
What follows from all these potential IPOs and acquisitions, in her vision, will be nothing short of revolutionary. “What will come of that,” she says, “is decades and decades of generational wealth for black people.” If Backstage and other such firms succeed, “[this country] will be a different picture.”