Business

Arlan Hamilton is a rising star in Silicon Valley. She has a soft spot for Durham.

Arlan Hamilton is the founder of Backstage Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in companies started by minority founders.
Arlan Hamilton is the founder of Backstage Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in companies started by minority founders. Courtesy of Innovate Raleigh

Arlan Hamilton thinks that something special is happening in Durham — it’s why she keeps coming back to the Bull City.

Hamilton, who graces this month’s cover of Fast Company Magazine, is a rising star in the venture capital industry, going from being homeless a few years back to controlling millions of dollars in capital. She was in Durham last week for the annual Black Wall Street Homecoming conference, which brings together black entrepreneurs from across the country to network and learn.

“We went from rags to riches, but we were never raggedy,” Hamilton told attendees, paraphrasing the singer Diana Ross.

She has made a name for herself through her company Backstage Capital. Through the company, Hamilton, who is gay, invests in companies founded by people of color, women and members of the LGBT community.

Hamilton started the company after moving from her native Texas to California — temporarily going homeless in the process — while she educated herself about the tech world and tried to convince people to invest in Backstage.

Her mission was simple: To create a company that could put money in the hands of under-represented entrepreneurs, and she got some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names to buy into her vision, including Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield and Box CEO Aaron Levie, according to her profile in Fast Company Magazine.

She has also become somewhat of a fixture at the Black Wall Street Homecoming though she had no connections to Durham before visiting her first Homecoming in 2016. This year’s event was her third in a row.

Hamilton will also soon make her first trip to Raleigh, where she will be the keynote speaker at Innovate Raleigh’s 2018 summit on Nov. 9.

Her signature fund is nicknamed the “about damn time” fund, because of what she points out as the striking inequality of which startups get money from investors. She cites this statistic often in conversation: only 0.2 percent of venture capital goes to women of color.

It’s not just empty talk for Hamilton — she has already invested in 100 companies and is launching a new $36 million fund to invest in companies led by black women as well as accelerator courses in four cities.

This all makes her annual return to Durham’s Black Wall Street Homecoming conference a remarkable event. She was one of the keynote speakers at this year’s event.

The event, which is in its fourth year, has attracted sponsorships from the likes of Google, which hosts black-led startups at the American Underground in Durham throughout the week of Homecoming. The event’s name is a callback to when Durham’s Parrish Street was home to several prominent black-owned financial firms such as N.C. Mutual Life Insurance and M&F Bank. Today Black Wall Street, is a nonprofit organization trying to recreate the collaborative business environment that existed on Parrish in the early 20th century.

Without the Black Wall Street Homecoming it’s likely Hamilton would never have visited the Bull City, but it’s proven to be an opportune place for her to keep coming back to.

Ten of the 100 companies that her firm has invested in have come out of interactions that she made while in Durham for Black Wall Street Homecoming, including the companies Please Assist Me, Care Academy and Bandwagon, which all participated in the Google for Entrepreneurs Black Founders Exchange in Durham.

“The quality of the companies and interactions is why I keep coming back,” Hamilton said. The event, she added, has given Durham a good reputation in some venture capital circles.

“It’s known, and if it were stopped people around the country would be like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” she said. “And, it’s not just about Google being involved. I love Google, but it’s not about Google, it’s about the people here.”

She pointed out that people of color hold several leadership positions in Durham’s startup scene, people like Doug Speight, the executive director of the American Underground.

“I think (people in Durham) have done a really good job from what I’ve seen, especially American Underground of putting people in positions of power who represent the under represented,” Hamilton said.

Jesica Averhart, executive director of Leadership Triangle and one of the co-founders of Black Wall Street Homecoming, said Hamilton’s continued pilgrimage to the event continues to elevate the reputation as a destination.

“It definitely means that Durham ... and the Triangle is relevant” for minority entrepreneurs, Averhart said. “Not every company she invested in came out of the Triangle, but they came to the Triangle to get those resources. And Arlan is one of those resources. She was here, she wasn’t anywhere else.”

Hamilton said she hopes to keep exploring the region as well, noting she is still confused about the differences between Raleigh and Durham.

“The quality of life here is really special,” Hamilton said. “I’m from the South, so there is a charm here and I miss some of that in California.”

About Innovate Raleigh Summit - 2018

When: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Nov. 9

Where: 500 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh, NC 27601

Cost: $150

Details: www.innovateraleigh.com/summit/

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes
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