For many of us in the world’s increasingly thought-based economy, the goals and ambitions we work toward don’t always take on a tangible form. But for Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner of venture capital fund Backstage Capital, she had the opportunity to see a particularly concrete extension of her life’s work in New York City on Thursday at the Black Women Talk Tech conference.
“This is what I dreamed of in Texas in 2014 when I would walk across the five or six lane highway to go to the grocery store with my food stamps. I thought about what I wanted my fund to look like one day and why it needed to exist,” Hamilton said to the audience of predominantly women of color entrepreneurs gathered before her. “What I dreamed of is this room. A few years ago, rooms like this for Black founders didn’t exist.”
Hamilton conceived of the idea for Backstage Capital in 2015, while she was grappling with homelessness in San Francisco. Designed to minimize funding disparities in the tech world — where 90 percent of venture capital still goes to white men — the fund has invested over $5 million into underrepresented founders (namely, those who are women, of color, and/or LGBT) to date.
“I don’t think you get anywhere great by taking a mediocre path,” Hamilton, who began her fund despite not having a college degree or a background in finance, told the conference crowd. “And Black women — we are the best hackers this country knows. Use that to your advantage and embody that. You deserve success just as much as anybody else. The chips have been stacked against you because of institutionalized situations we’ve been in for forever, but those chips are falling.”
Drawing on the highs and lows of her experience building Backstage Capital from nothing, she shared five pieces of advice with women yearning to build their own empires.
1. There is no "magic pill" for success.
In her own life and also in the lives of the founders Backstage Capital invests in, Hamilton says she's seen no set formula for success. What's more important than hitting traditional milestones, she argued, is having "grit."
"There is no magic pill," she said. "It's just a deep understanding and an insatiable desire to learn constantly about your own company, about your industry, and about your competitors."
2. Building your reputation will help you build your empire.
"Our reputation is really what matters most, and you can take it with you no matter what. You lost a job, you win the lottery — but your reputation goes with you every step of the way."
3. Look at the process as a package instead of as a particular milestone.
"Think of what you’re working on and the journey that you’re on as a package," Hamilton advised. "It's a full experience. Even on your bad days and when you're disappointed, remember that it's all part of the existence and experience you're going through. That's how I survived; it was a conversation reminding myself that it's not just about an end goal or one thing that's going to make everything else perfect. That's not realistic."
4. Hearing "no's" is simply a part of that package.
"Think of a person who recently said 'no' to you," she said. "Are they bigger than our ancestors' fight for us to be in this room? I don’t think so."
Claiming that she's never felt imposter syndrome (and attributing that, in large part, to the positive influence of her mother), Hamilton reminded the audience that the worst that can come from being turned away isn't really so bad after all.
"I don’t think anybody has ever died of embarrassment, so put yourself out there," she said. "I've heard a lot of 'no's' from people, and that's just part of the odds of trying something bold and something new."
5. Your knowledge is your superpower.
"When you don’t have much, your truest leverage is your knowledge and information," she said. "Educating yourself is free. If you have trouble reading, then listen to podcasts. For me, I couldn't afford books, so I went and sat and read books in the store or I would watch YouTube videos."
Hamilton also encouraged the audience to view other women in their network as a means of further educating themselves, too.
"There is a treasure trove of information in the other founders around you," she said. "Get an email list going or a monthly standing dinner. Have meetings, bring a notebook, and say, 'How are we going to go out and fight today?'"