Outside the Box: Arlan Hamilton’s firm invests in companies led by ‘underestimated’ founders.

Outside the Box: Arlan Hamilton’s firm invests in companies led by ‘underestimated’ founders. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Ayinde Alakoye, co-founder of Santa Monica mobile app Nedl, had trouble nailing down funds for his startup until he met Backstage Capital.

“It was the first venture capital firm that saw beyond my skin color,” said Alakoye, who is African American and a veteran of the radio business. He developed the mobile app that became iHeartradio and also founded social app Hitch Radio. His current startup project helps users find and play live radio broadcasts.

Nedl is just the kind of company West L.A.-based Backstage, led by 38-year-old Arlan Hamilton, is looking to fund. Specifically, the venture capital firm is targeting startups with founders who are women, people of color or members of the LGBTQ community. Hamilton, who is gay, calls them “underestimated.”

By focusing on businesses led by people from underrepresented groups, Hamilton said, “I have a front row seat to be first.”

Since Backstage Capital’s launch in 2015, it has invested more than $10 million in 125 companies. Hamilton counts among her partners Mark Cuban, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks and an investor on the ABC reality TV show “Shark Tank.”

Hamilton is currently working to raise $36 million for a new fund, with limited partners including big name investors Marc Andreessen, Susan Kimberlin, Leslie Miley, Lars Rasmussen and Brad Feld, among others.

But earlier this year, controversy swirled around Backstage Capital after tech trade publications reported rumors that Hamilton’s fundraising efforts for the $36 million fund weren’t going well and that she might be stepping down as managing partner.

In late March, she wrote in an email to the Business Journal: “I appreciate you wanting to hear this from the source. I have not left Backstage and in fact am doubling down.”

In the interview this month, Hamilton dismissed media reports that some of the limited partners had pulled out of the $36 million fund raise.

“The VC world is still figuring out what to make of us,” Hamilton said.

Len Lanzi, executive director of the Los Angeles Venture Association, said he’s “excited by the prospect that we now have a venture fund focused on the underserved community. (Backstage Capital) gives us an opportunity to help people become successful,” he added.

An unconventional story

Hamilton has an eclectic background for the venture capital world.

She doesn’t have a college degree to hang on her office wall, and she has spent time homeless or living in motels. You won’t find her playing golf with investors on country club courses.

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