Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton spoke to Ann O’Dea about the VC firm’s soaring trajectory.
As the second day of Inspirefest (22 June) rolled on, a familiar face to the event made a welcome appearance on the main stage. Arlan Hamilton, a champion of diversity in venture capital (VC), sat down for a fireside chat with Inspirefest founder and Silicon Republic CEO Ann O’Dea and reflected on what has been a transformative year.
Since her appearance at Inspirefest 2017, Backstage Capital has hit the 100-company investment milestone, all founded by underrepresented minorities, including people of colour and LGBTQ individuals.
In an extraordinary move, Hamilton announced in May of this year that she would be raising a $36m fund exclusively for black female founders. As opposed to a ‘diversity fund’, Hamilton quipped that it should be dubbed an “IT’S ABOUT DAMN TIME fund”.
A growing team
Hamilton also brought along the majority of the Backstage Capital team, a motley crew of like-minded people who gamely waved from the front row as she gave them a shout-out. “I’m so grateful that we found each other and that we work so well together.”
Last year, the team was much smaller and mostly part-time, so the large group in attendance was a testament to the success of Backstage and the power of its core ethos. Hamilton said: “Lots of people have joined our journey.” As a gay, black woman, Hamilton is blazing a trail for others, something that O’Dea praised her for.
O’Dea asked Hamilton just how she and Backstage managed to have a year filled with wins after wins. Hamilton answered with her trademark candour: “It has never gotten easier.” She compared the work Backstage does to the very event she was attending, noting that Inspirefest is a success due to consistent work throughout the year, and Backstage is the same.
She explained to O’Dea why Backstage is so well equipped to help its founders reach their full potential and navigate the still largely homogeneous world of VC, citing the example of the start-up Airfordable, which allows flights to be bought in instalments before departure. Although the company is doing well, the founders, a black man and woman, Emmanuel Buah and Ama Marfo, “still have to answer silly questions at investor meetings”. Backstage wants to change the conversation.
Hamilton’s aspirations are still sky-high, something she noted when discussing the company’s journey with Backstage team members Lolita Taub, Brittany Davis and Christie Pitts. Taub described the team with unabashed praise in her voice as “diverse, talented and collaborative”.
A catalyst for change
The power of representation in VC for minorities is not lost on Hamilton. In fact, it’s something she takes very seriously. “It’s about what I represent. Some people say now: ‘I can do something.’” She described her love for “things that catalyse” and spoke of her hopes to be a catalyst for change herself.
Hamilton also noted her own personal progress in terms of getting over her fear of public speaking. When O’Dea noted how many talks Hamilton had given in the last year, the founder laughed and said: “You’ve created a monster.”
Despite her roaring success, Hamilton admitted to O’Dea that she’s still the same person, the woman who indulges in a little too much Diet Coke and avidly watches General Hospital.
In terms of the future for Hamilton and Backstage, paying it forward looks to be the key tenet as the future unfolds. “You have a spotlight, so why not deflect it on to other people?”
Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. To find out more about the best event for bright minds in Europe, please visit inspirefest.com.