Arlan Hamilton Went From Homeless to Running $20 Million in VC Funds. Here’s How She Did It

13 minute read

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Arlan Hamilton was homeless and sleeping on the floor of the San Francisco Airport in 2015, when an investor wrote the first check that set her on the way to becoming a venture capitalist.

Hamilton, then 34, hadn’t attended college and had been working in the music industry. But she read about venture capital and decided that she needed to break into the elite and largely white and male corps of investors funding startup companies.

Now, six-and-a-half years later, Hamilton’s VC firm, Backstage Capital, has invested about $20 million in nearly 200 companies, and is in the process of raising a new $30 million investment fund. Backstage has focused on underrepresented founders, including women, people of color, and LGBTQ entrepreneurs.

“Many of them talk about how we were their first check or we were their first round, or we were the people who stayed with them for years and believed in them,” says Hamilton. Companies with only women founders received just 2% of venture capital funds invested last year, according to PitchBook. Investments in Black and Latinx female founders represented just 0.64% of VC investment since 2018, according to a 2020 analysis by digitalundivided.

Hamilton says it remains a struggle for Backstage to raise money from institutional and corporate investors to invest in these startups. Her effort to launch a $36 million fund in 2018 to finance Black women entrepreneurs fell apart after an anchor investor withdrew. Hamilton went on to raise a smaller fund.

“I want to share this journey, not because I think I’m exceptional, but because, like many people, I have been exceptionally underestimated,” Hamilton wrote in her 2020 book It’s About Damn Time (released in paperback last month.)

To help finance her firm’s operations and open up access to returns from venture capital investments, Hamilton last year raised about $5 million using a new crowdfunding model. Government regulations generally restrict venture capital investing to “accredited” investors, requiring most individuals to have $200,000 in annual income or a net worth over $1 million. But, using a new regulatory framework, Hamilton was able to sell shares in her VC firm itself to anyone—and is committing to sharing returns from its investments with them.

Hamilton spoke with TIME about this new funding approach, her own unconventional journey as a VC, and how she sees accumulating wealth as a form of activism.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you become a venture capitalist?

I kicked my way in. I didn’t know what a venture capitalist was in 2010. I learned about startups around that time while I was on the road with musicians as an assistant and a production coordinator and fell in love with the startup ecosystem because I always felt like an entrepreneur. I just didn’t know exactly what to call it or who my people were. And so I had this grand plan that I was going to go to Silicon Valley, start a tech company. I started doing research in order to do that. I didn’t have much money and I didn’t have any connections in that world, but I knew it was for me.

During my research, I found out that 90%-plus of all venture funding and angel funding goes to white men in a country where they make up one-third of the population. That caught me off guard as a gay Black woman in the South with no connections. I thought, ‘That doesn’t seem like that’s going to end well, if that stays the same.

So instead of going out and teaching myself how to raise money for a company, I taught myself how to raise money for a fund by diving into any book I could get my hands on and any interview I could get my hands on. I started making phone calls, sending emails in the dozens at a time and little by little started making breadcrumbs and finding my way. And then, you know, an overnight five years later I got a check for $25,000 that would kick off my investing career.

How have you expanded access to more people to be able to invest in venture capital?

What we’ve done so far is two things: we make it possible for accredited and non-accredited investors to invest alongside us in deals where we’ve negotiated the terms that they wouldn’t get themselves. We’re using things that were already built, with the Jobs Act for unaccredited investors and special purpose vehicles for accredited investors. We’re just utilizing that a lot more than most funds use it.

What we did in 2021, with our Regulation Crowdfunding, was more groundbreaking. In the past, in the U.S., you haven’t been able to have ownership in the management company of a private venture fund. And in the fourth quarter of 2020, I looked at the different rules and regulations and with my legal team and with, we figured out a way to make that change legally and with full compliance. And we introduced the idea to the SEC and got it through. So now other people can do that too.

So what that means is 6,500 people invested approximately $5 million over an eight-day period in Q1 of 2021 to now become partial owners of Backstage Management Co., which shares in any upside that we have as a fund across any investment we’ve ever made in the past and will ever make in the future, as long as they hold that stock.

To be clear, that’s not an investment in the companies that you’re investing in, but it’s an investment in your own company, which gets returns from those investments?

Yes. As the managing partner of Backstage, I have a certain large amount of carry share, carried interest. You normally find at a fund that the partners would share in that. What you don’t find in a fund is a partner who shares that—in this case 13% of it—with the crowd. It just doesn’t happen.

It’s not Bitcoin. It’s not going to happen overnight. But over the life of Backstage, as we start to get returns on top of original investments from limited partners, whereas I would have gotten a check for a million dollars, I will now share that check with 6,500-plus people.

The advantage for you is that it gives you cash to operate your firm…

Yes. As a fund, in the immediate, you have a management fee and it’s based on usually 2% of whatever assets under management you have. Well, we’ve never had more than $20 million under management at any given time. And so that’s not enough to run any fund. So this was also a clever way of having immediate runway in the now.

It is actually quite insulting how little we’ve raised comparatively based on what we’ve done. But we didn’t sit around and say, “Oh, well that sucks.” And fold our arms. We said, “Well, let’s find a different way.” So it’s a win-win situation. We get runway to do the things that we do to make our portfolio even stronger. And then the portfolio wins as a result of that hopefully and other variables will then play out. What we hope is that the money you put in 2021 is worth more than that over the next decade.

You said that it’s insulting the amount of money you’ve raised relative to what you’ve done. Have you found that there’s been more friction in raising money than you anticipated?

Yes. There is an enormous amount of friction in raising. Make no mistake. We have thousands of people who want to invest in us, who find us viable, who would invest more if they could. And we have a lot of accredited investors. We have a few dozen who have invested in our funds over time. But when it comes to institutional investors and corporate investors who are throwing money at one company at a time, in some cases that fail, in my opinion it’s insulting that we have to scrape for so little.

For instance, we’ve only raised $6 million of our $30 million raise. And there are white men who use our thesis and get $200 million, $300 million to start a new fund because they worked at Facebook for two years. But they haven’t done the work that we’ve done for the past decade, I’ve done for the past decade and our team has done for the past six, seven years.

After George Floyd’s killing, there was a lot of talk about investing in the Black community and Black entrepreneurs. From where you sit, are companies following through on their pledges to invest?

Some are, some are not. I think a lot of it was just talk. A lot of it was PR scrambling. And some of it was real. Some of it was true change. I think Microsoft has done a really great job of following through. I think the people who already got it beforehand are the ones that I’m seeing doing a better job. So Microsoft, with Satya Nadella at the helm, they invested in our accelerator four years ago. We didn’t have a relationship with them post-George Floyd. So it’s not that I’m saying that they’re great because they gave us money—I just noticed that they’ve been putting their money where their mouth is.

There are a few others that I think are doing a great job. I think Bank of America has stepped up with our fund. What I noticed with Bank of America, which I didn’t notice with most of these other companies like PayPal, is that with Bank of America, every single person I talked to was Black, who had the decision making ability. On PayPal, nobody was Black and they passed. JP Morgan, Black person was going to say, yes, white person said no. I just recognize patterns. I don’t think there’s much bias to it. It’s just what I’m seeing. Right?

While the returns from venture capital have been greater over some period of time than putting your money in an S&P 500 index fund, it’s more risky. What’s your rationale for expanding access to a riskier class of investment?

A couple of things. One is the lottery is really risky, but this country has no problem letting Black and brown people spend half their paycheck on the lottery in certain states, casinos, et cetera. The other thing is, Ollen Douglass at Motley Fool Ventures pointed out to me that seven out of 10 of the largest companies in the country were venture backed. For better or for worse, I think there’s not an equal playing field. And I want us to have the opportunity to be part of that.

I also think, speaking of George Floyd, that if Black people had more wealth in the country, simply put, we wouldn’t have watched a Black man get murdered on television because the policies that would have already been in place one could assume would have had this sort of thing in mind. If there were more richer people—and even more so, not the 1%, but just richer people—who were Black and brown they then could influence policy. And then policy influences what happens on the street. So all of it’s important. And to me, my success and wealth and future wealth is all activism. My activism is in being successful, wealthy, and also opening up access for others who look like me to do the same.

When you say it’s activism, what do you mean by that?

People are activists in different ways for different causes. There are people who march in the street, which I have done. There are people who will chain themselves outside of government buildings, or so they don’t knock down this building, don’t do this pipeline. They’re risking life and limb. They’re risking reputation. They’re risking livelihood because they believe in something so strongly. That is what I’m doing by being so brazen in public, and being so non-humble in public. And also I’m being called a key maker, not a gatekeeper. So I’m throwing open the gates for others to follow me and in doing so I risk life and limb, reputation, livelihood every single day, because I want it to change something in the future, whether I see it or not. I want it to effect change.

What do you think is needed to create generational wealth for underrepresented groups, including Black Americans?

I like ownership. I think ownership is a big deal. People starting their own companies, people working at companies early that are successful. So that’s why I like entrepreneurship so much.

There is a group of people that will benefit greatly from being investors. That’s why I do talk about that. But I actually like entrepreneurship more for generational wealth. When I look at the top 100 richest people in America, I look at what they’re doing and either they inherited stuff or they’re building stuff, they own stuff.

So I think about ownership. I can get people to either own something by creating it, own something by working for someone else very early and having a large stake, or catalyze other people by investing in them and perhaps having a piece of that tailwind. All of that goes in that direction.

Some people think investing in cryptocurrencies is a way to build generational wealth, a way to have freedom, a way to have ownership that’s immutable that people can’t take away from you. Do you think investing in cryptocurrencies is a good route to achieving those things?

I don’t have any opinion of cryptocurrencies that’s worth sharing.

How do you decide what to invest in?

Today at 41, I say, “Within 10 years, could I build this myself?” Could I learn everything about what you’re doing and build it myself and be successful? If I could, it doesn’t have my attention. If I couldn’t, it has my deep attention because I can then both live vicariously through you and I can also effect greater change—ripple effect—if I can help catalyze what you’re doing.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I will be one of the richest Black women in America, probably in the echelons of Oprah and Beyonce and Rihanna and Serena and all them. I would have put at least half of that with Backstage, so I would put it to work, to catalyze other entrepreneurs and emerging investors in the crowd. And hopefully I’ll just be wearing purple tracksuits every single day and living on a tour bus.

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