I first heard of Arlan Hamilton on the Startup podcast a couple years ago, and her story was amazing as a queer Black once-homeless woman without a college degree who decided to diversify Silicon Valley venture capital through sheer force of will. I was recently reminded of her when she opened up her Backstage Crowd investment syndicate to give accredited investors the opportunity to invest with her in underestimated founders. As part of doing my due diligence before investment, I read her recently-published book (part autobiography, part lessons learned along the way) to learn more about her.
I love her writing style – it’s very raw and authentic, sharing what she did as well as her feelings. For instance, she was pretty frustrated with the Startup podcast framing of her story, particularly the implied judgment of Arlan over-reaching – as she writes, “Backstage proves what can be done by underestimated people with small resources, but just because our resources are small, it doesn’t mean we have to act small all of the time.”
The most inspiring part of Arlan’s journey for me is how she repeatedly has taken one of her dreams, and converted it into reality through grit and determination.
- When she was under-employed doing data entry at a bank, she found a Norwegian band whose music she liked, and asked them when she could see them live. They didn’t have any plans to come to the US, so she offered to book them shows. She didn’t know anything about the live music business, but she figured it out and booked them a multi-city tour across the US, and traveled with them in a van as their tour manager.
- “You only need one “Yes” out of a hundred”: After doing that sort of freelance tour management work for a few years, she wrote to one hundred tour managers and production managers to find more steady work. She got twenty responses out of 100 emails, three agreed to meet in person, and one turned into an actual opportunity, but one was all it took.
- “Write your own invitation”: When she learned about venture capital, she made it her mission to raise capital and invest in underestimated founders. She started off in 2015 with no investors and no Silicon Valley connections by writing herself a headline announcing that “Backstage Capital Invests in 100 Companies!” and set herself the goal of doing that by 2020. She did it by May of 2018, because this dream was so important to her that she would do whatever it took, including sleeping in the airport before an investor meeting, or sneaking backstage to pitch Chris Sacca (a prominent investor).
I also love her message of finding clarity in your goals and values, and being unapologetically authentic to yourself. Some quotes I highlighted:
- “The first step is to decide why you’re doing what you’re doing – whether it’s teaching, raising your children, working creatively, working in food service, or founding a company. Ask yourself, “Why do I care about this? What is my mission? What do my glory days look like?” Knowing what your intentions are will help you bring about your goals; you can’t reach your goals if you don’t know what they are. Reminding yourself why you do what you do is imperative. It enables you to look past the microaggressions and concentrate on your journey.”
- On the importance of self-forgiveness and adaptability: “I know I am doing this for something much bigger than myself, and it is too important to get this right for me to buckle under the pressures of such disappointments.”
- “Being so deeply truly yourself, as a nonnegotiable, is the answer to everything. … the world is constantly telling us to change ourselves. We’re always being pushed to make ourselves more palatable to the outside world, make ourselves smaller so we fit into the small boxes of expectation that society throws at us. … Be yourself so that the people looking for you can find you.”
- “two things I know: 1) the journey we’re on today, with its twists and turns, will take some time to reach the shore, and 2) we may not get to see the full breadth of all of our work. These two things help ground me and set me to flight at the same time. They help me understand that this is bigger than me, and it’s bigger than you, because it’s about us.”
Arlan’s relentless focus on people and relationships shines through as a key driver of her success, and in how she is using her success to help others. She calls it being a key maker, “understanding your privilege and sharing it to lift others up.”
Arlan’s story inspires me to be more bold in pursuing the impact that I want to have, and staying true to my authentic self and trusting that will have ripple effects in creating the world I desire. Perhaps someday I, too, will be viewed as a key maker.