August is Pride Month here in Copenhagen. And what better way to celebrate than by shining a spotlight on boundary-breaking LGBTQ+ tech innovators? Our hope is, that by sharing success stories of amazing individuals each week in August, we can help honor milestone achievements within the LGBTQ+ community and help bring attention to those who, too often, fly under the radar.
This week, we’re thrilled to be celebrating Arlan Hamilton — someone whose work you may well have encountered in one way or another, even if you aren’t familiar with her name.
Introducing Arlan Hamilton and Backstage Capital
Arlan Hamilton’s list of achievements takes a while to work through. So, no surprise then, that she was the first Black, non-celebrity woman to grace the cover of Fast Company — one of the foremost tech-focused business magazines in the U.S.
Hamilton shares her commercial wisdom via Your First Million, a podcast exploring how anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit can achieve their first million dollars, customers, downloads, sales, etc. But she’s also the only queer woman of color to launch a venture capital firm from the ground up, as Founder and Managing Partner of Backstage Capital.
If this company is new to you, it’s likely you’ll hear more about it in the future. The journey her idea took from its formation to sustainable success is inspirational — a testament to the rewards that determination, hard work, and creative thinking can bring.
Backstage Capital is a VC firm done differently. Hamilton saw what she perceived as an injustice in the tech world, and sought to usher in positive changes to open doors for people who may have been denied entry previously.
By investing in underrepresented founders — people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ — Backstage Capital’s aim is to minimize disparities in funding within the tech industry, creating a more equal playing field on which anyone has a chance to achieve their goals.
The firm has attracted media attention from powerhouse outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, CNN Money, Fortune, and more.
“It was crazy to me that 90% of venture funding was going to white men,” Hamilton told Fast Company in 2018, “when that is not how innovation, intelligence, and drive is dispersed in the real world.”
Backstage Capital is based in LA but manages a number of accelerator programs in multiple key locations (London, Philadelphia, and Detroit). To date, the firm has invested approximately $7 million into 130+ startups with underrepresented leaders at the helm.
But Hamilton’s life hasn’t always been high-profile interviews and helping tomorrow’s biggest brands find a spotlight.
Her road to success has been a rough one — she was, in fact, homeless when she began pitching Backstage Capital to potential investors. As she told the Los Angeles Times, it was “me and my backpack, going to conferences and meeting people [...] my home would be the airport or a hotel or someone’s couch.”
But her commitment and drive was nothing new. Hamilton had begun flexing her leadership potential at just 21 years of age, when she contacted her favorite band in the hopes of arranging their next tour. She was a fan, she wanted to see them play live shows and build their profile, and realized she had what it took to make this happen.
This led to Hamilton evolving into a known talent in managing tours at arena level, working with A-listers Toni Braxton and Jason Derulo. Ensconced among Hollywood celebs, she noticed how many of them were beginning to invest in startups. Later, she noticed the extent to which founders of color were underrepresented, undervalued, and ultimately denied the same opportunities to make an impact on industries that white people may have taken for granted.
What’s even more impressive about Arlan Hamilton’s rise to prominence is that she launched her own venture capital fund firm without a college degree or formal business training. She arrived in Silicon Valley at 34 years of age, without a network in tech, six-figure bank balance, or any of the other luxuries that more privileged founders often possess.
But she had learned booking and managing music tours by doing the work, and felt confident she could initiate positive change in the world of startups.
Sure enough, Hamilton secured her first round of funding for Backstage Capital in September 2015: a $25,000 check from Susan Kimberlin. As an angel investor based in San Francisco’s Bay Area, Kimberlin saw exciting potential in Hamilton’s concept, and understood just how serious Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity was. For example, while startups founded by women secured $1.9 billion in VC funding in 2017, that still only accounted for 2% of the $85 billion raised in total.
Helping underrepresented entrepreneurs realize their dreams
Hamilton started Backstage Capital and began investing with this first round of funding, before additional support arrived from other notable backers (such as Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack). By summer 2018, Backstage Capital had exhausted its initial three investments and helped 100 companies grow.
Of the many founders Backstage Capital has supported, 8 in 10 have self-funded their own enterprises. According to Hamilton in her Los Angeles Times interview, she specializes in “augmented privilege [...] I have on the Iron Man suit [...] but it’s really everything that I built for myself. And so I try to give that same Iron Man suit and augmented privilege to others.”
A key part of this is Backstage Studio, which Hamilton co-founded in 2018. This three-month Backstage Accelerator program was designed to help 25 businesses with investments of $100,000, expert mentoring, and a dedicated workspace — all in exchange for 5% of the companies’ equity.
“White men have had accelerators for 10 years,” Hamilton told the Los Angeles Times, “we are starting from scratch as underestimated people in this field.”
A diverse portfolio of diverse innovators
Backstage Studio’s portfolio features a mixture of genders, backgrounds, and missions. It’s proof that Hamilton and her ventures stay true to her vision, helping to bring greater opportunities to people with tremendous potential who may still be overlooked.
The portfolio includes:
- Bitwise, a tech ecosystem dedicated to “activating human potential in underdog cities”. Bitwise has taught thousands to code — regardless of who they are and where they come from.
- Journey Foods, a company bringing food and data together to create “the future of nutrient consumption through food technology”.
- Frequency Machine, a podcast company creating audio content and experiences for audiences worldwide, covering fiction, documentaries, and other genres.
- Unomi, a business providing software for video game developers and animators, driving automation of complex tasks for a more streamlined creative process.
- LendStreet, a platform that helps people free themselves from debt, rebuild their credit, and start anew.
This is just a tiny sample of the companies Hamilton and Backstage Capital have helped to get their start in competitive areas. View the full cohort here — who knows, you may just find your new favorite brand.
Sounds great! Where can I find out more?
Want to learn more about Arlan Hamilton, her work, and the businesses she works with? Hamilton’s been making her voice heard across various high-profile websites, writing for Curve Magazine, AOL, and more. She’s also active on Twitter and Instagram.
And — somehow — she’s found time to write ‘It’s About Damn Time’, a non-fiction book published by Currency (a business imprint of Penguin Random House). The book shares many of Hamilton’s life lessons and experiences, helping to inspire readers with valuable, eye-opening insights.
This brings our first LGBTQ+ Tech Innovator feature to a close, but we’ll see you again next week.
What do you think of Arlan Hamilton’s story? Let us know!