“Be yourself so that the people looking for you can find you.” – Arlan Hamilton
Arlan Hamilton can remember being no more than six years old when the thought came to her that one day the world would know who she is. She was climbing onto a little daycare bus when the realization hit her. She says, “I can just remember looking around at all the other kids and thinking everyone is going to know my name. I don’t know what I knew that to mean back then, but anytime I want to conjure up the image, I can still see it. It’s like my rosebud.”
No specifics came with that long ago knowing for Arlan. But today that inner assurance is coming to fruition. Growing up poor, black and gay in Texas, her opportunities where limited. Feeling “less than” was the perfect prerequisite for forming Backstage Capital a seed investment fund that backs up underrepresented startup founders. So at the tender age of six, the path to her life’s purpose was already being paved.
Arlan was an insatiably curious child. In grade school, she wondered about what her classmate’s houses looked like, how they lived and if they were happy. In third grade, she wore six watches, set to different time zones. She wanted to see what time it was in different parts of the world. That was the same year she started her first business. She repackaged the candy her mother bought at Cosco, into smaller units, and sold it to her classmates at a profit. If she had been born into a family with financial means, she would have been enrolled in a school for the gifted. I shared this thought with Arlan and she agrees.
“Oh yeah, like the Hockaday School. I would have gone there. I love discussing things and thinking about different angles. I also think there is not always one right answer. That’s why I got into so much trouble in school.”
Arlan and her brother were raised by their mother, Earline Butler Sims. She was devoted to her children. An ardent Jehovah’s Witness, Earline never challenged the religion’s extreme intolerance of the LGBTQ community. Arlan couldn’t accept the idea of a higher being doling out its love to only a select group of people. “I grew up believing gay people were bad and wrong and going to die.” When she was fifteen, she told her mother that she was an atheist and left the Witnesses. Earline didn’t try to stop her. Not long after that Arlan knew without a doubt who came first in her mother’s life.
“I really understood how much my mama loved me when she told me that she knew I was gay one morning. I wholeheartedly believed that when she returned from work that evening I would need to have a plan for where I was going to live. I knew she wouldn’t hit me or call me names. But I also knew her religion and her deep down beliefs were stronger than anything. When my mama came home, she was laughing about the whole incident. She said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ From that moment forward if any of her friends said anything about gay people, in jest or not, she would set them straight. When she chose me over her religion is when I knew she was in it for the long haul.”
Before Arlan was founder and managing partner at Backstage Capital, she was a live music production coordinator and tour manager. Through it she became an expert in dealing with all kinds of people, a skill she relies on today.
“There was a lot of salesmanship in being able to handle all of those personalities. I mean being on the road with musicians, you have to be a certain kind of crazy to want to do that. I had to learn how to endear myself to all different types of people. And most of them were white. To them I was this black woman who is telling them what to do, overcoming that was a feat.”
There was a lot of uncertainty with Arlan’s gig in the music business. When she understood the feast or famine nature of it, she began giving thought to starting her own company. Around that time is when she began noticing people like Ellen DeGeneres and Ashton Kutcher making small investments in a place called Silicon Valley. “I wondered with their big lives, why where they interested in putting money into a three person startup based in a garage? Then it hit me that those small companies could go on to become something much bigger and have a broader impact on the planet.”
Arlan began researching the world of venture capital. When she came across the statistics that in the United States 90% of venture funding goes to white men, she was blown away. It became clear to her that bias was the reason so many promising startups failed. She was shocked by how many people of color, women and members from the LGBTQ community where being overlooked by investors. So much potential was being left on the table. Having that awareness pointed her in the direction of what she now considers her calling.
“I couldn’t believe that this disparity hadn’t already been addressed when there are so many intelligent, wealthy people around to address it. I was like, ‘this doesn’t make any sense, and why do I care?’ But it just kept pulling me, and there was nothing that could stop that pull. So, I answered it.”
Focusing on funding startups by the marginalized is not only making Arlan money, but it is waking other investors up. Backstage Capital has done over 160 deals so far, with investments in everything from online beauty retailers to satellite internet companies. The title of her book, It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated into Your Greatest Advantage says it all. Thanks to Arlan, what were once liabilities are now considered assets. Mark Cuban, billionaire investor and Shark Tank co-star, would agree with that. He normally doesn’t fund companies like Backstage Capital, but his trust in Arlan lead him to give $6 million to invest in any way they saw fit.
When she interviewed him on her podcast, “Your First Million,” Arlan asked Mark why he invested in Backstage Capital.
“You go places that I can’t get to. And there are doors you walk through that I don’t even know exist. Historically the best investments come, where nobody else is looking. That’s it in a nutshell.”
Arlan says she’s frequently asked the same questions she asked herself when she started Backstage Capital, “How do I know if I should keep going on with this company, on this project, or this mission?”
Her answer always is, “If you close your eyes and can’t imagine the world without the thing you are working on and want it to exist whether you get to enjoy the benefits of it or not, then not only is it important to you, it is your calling.”
Growing up seen and accepted allowed Arlan to trust her instincts. In many ways the world was weighted against her, but having Earline for a mother softened the blow. Her mother’s love gave her permission to shine. Any believer in destiny would have no problem following the thread of providence woven throughout Arlan’s life. It seems that at some level Arlan sees it too. When we spoke, she told me that all of her life experiences are an education built just for her. No lesson has gone unlearned on Arlan’s journey. Nothing has been wasted. Her life’s purpose is wrapped up in being exactly who she is.
“I often talk about being authentically yourself. It’s emblazoned across my wall. It will be on a t-shirt eventually. What I’ve found over and over again is that any problem I have can only be solved by remaining true to myself. I don’t look for validation from the outside. I follow my inner compass.”
As time goes on, Arlan is a little more open about the existence of God. She says, “It’s not that I don’t believe that one exists. It’s just that I don’t feel one. Today the way I find hope and keep going is in my belief that what I’m doing is right. And I believe right always wins.” It doesn’t matter whether she feels God or not. Something greater than Arlan Hamilton believes in her. I’ve heard Oprah Winfrey say that she is supported by a whole team of angels and guides. Atheist or not, I suspect the same holds true for Arlan.
*Coming up next month: Jenna Lamia, actress and a writer/producer for film and television. She serves as a consulting producer for NBC’s Good Girls and is appearing as “Judy Cooper” on SyFy’s hit series Resident Alien.
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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan