For someone with a fear of public speaking, Arlan Hamilton sure has a lot to say.
Since her emergence in 2016 as a public persona in the venture capital world, Hamilton has established herself as one of the most vocal leaders of the tech industry's push for increased diversity. Beyond a background that makes her a rarity among VCs -- she is black and a lesbian -- Hamilton stands out thanks to a firehose of uncensored Twitter commentary directed at an industry that, in her view, needs to create more opportunity for women and minorities.
"I respect when I know where people stand, and I don't think that anyone who follows me online or speaks to me can say they don't know where I stand on things," Hamilton tells Inc. "I like transparency, and I like being upfront with people. There's a lot going on in the world that I have an opinion on, and I'm not going to be silent about it."
Two years ago, Hamilton was homeless. She was bouncing around from couch to couch while flogging her dream of a venture capital firm focused on minority, women, and LGBT entrepreneurs. Check by check, Hamilton turned her vision into a reality, gathering investments from tech-industry notables including Marc Andreessen, Lowercase Capital founder Chris Sacca and his wife, Crystal English, Rose Tech Ventures managing partner David Rose, Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie, and Swati Mylavarapu of Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers.
After getting Backstage Capital up and running in 2015, her made-for-Hollywood story went viral in 2016. That helped generate attention for the things she was saying on Twitter. But Hamilton has always made a habit of speaking up.
"When I worked at a pizza shop, I spoke up about the conditions of the pizza shop," Hamilton says, laughing. "I'm going to always do that."
The difference is that these days Hamilton has a vast audience, and she no longer is criticizing a pizza parlor. She's focused on the investors who fund the companies that make up Silicon Valley. More specifically, she criticizes the dearth of opportunities they give to underrepresented entrepreneurs and their treatment of those entrepreneurs. She does this knowing full well that every time she speaks up she risks future funding for her venture capital firm.
Hamilton has used her increased profile to apply pressure to big names in tech, including Donald Trump advisers Elon Musk and Peter Thiel.
"Elon, you want to take us to Mars, and break on-land speed barriers. Your ambition knows no bounds. Aim higher here," Hamilton tweeted after Musk recently explained his reasons for staying on Trump's business council.
When her story broke, Backstage was a small team of four, consisting of Hamilton, one venture partner, and two staffers. Backstage Capital now employs 11. The firm has also expanded its portfolio. Six months ago, Hamilton had invested in nine companies. Now, the firm is an investor in 31 startups. Among the CEOs of those businesses, 35 percent are women of color, 64 percent are African-American, 64 percent are women, 13 percent are LGBT, and 7 percent are Hispanic. Most of those figures are still too low for Hamilton's liking, but they're better than most of her peers'.
"We ultimately want 50 percent or more of our CEOs and founders to be women of color," says Hamilton, adding that her network's access to those entrepreneurs is Backstage Capital's "edge. It's like our super power."
Backstage is now raising a second fund, building on the millions she raised the first time around.
Since Hamilton's story was reported, she has been asked to speak at a number of events. Hamilton has declined all but a handful of fireside chats, citing a fear of public speaking that stems from her childhood. But she hasn't kept quiet.
In 140-character spurts, Hamilton uses her Twitter account to push her mission and call out anyone she believes deserves it. Her favorite targets these days are President Trump, anyone involved with him, and the actions of his administration. Most of the time, however, Hamilton focuses her ire on her fellow investors. In December, she took on Jason Calacanis after the investor said he lowers his bar as a way to help more diverse entrepreneurs get started. That rubbed many the wrong way.
"...jeez I'm gonna get into so much trouble today if I'm not careful. But eff it. @Jason, you and I need to talk," Hamilton tweeted. Calacanis has since the deleted the controversial tweet. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week, Hamilton called out investor Mike Rothenberg, who was disgraced after reports last year that he was using his limited partners' funds to fuel his own exploits. Hamilton criticized Rothenberg and expressed disappointment that he was being accepted back into the tech industry. Rothenberg reached out, and the two engaged in private discourse, but they had their disagreements, to put it simply.
"I feel personally offended by someone who abuses their privilege, who does not recognize their privilege and then is somehow allowed back into the arena where I am a player with a stake in the game," Hamilton says about the situation.
"Mike Rothenberg does not have any issues with Arlan Hamilton, on Twitter or otherwise," Rothenberg's venture firm says. "Everyone here at Rothenberg Ventures, including Mike, wishes Arlan well."
Most notable of all has been Hamilton's criticism of Thiel. While big tech companies have scrambled to redefine their stances toward Trump in the wake of his executive actions on immigration, there has been relatively little fallout for his leading Silicon Valley surrogate. He remains on the board of Facebook and a part-time partner at Y Combinator. This is something Hamilton refuses to let anyone forget, and she often brings the matter directly to her and Thiel's mutual business partners. Most notably, Hamilton says she would no longer send founder recommendations to startup accelerator Y Combinator until it cut ties with Thiel.
"Some people have written to me and said, 'Thank you for saying what you're saying because I can't say that,' " Hamilton says. "I know in some ways I am speaking for other people, and I know in some ways I am not."
When Hamilton speaks up, she often receives praise from her colleagues and associates, both privately and in public. For entrepreneurs like Emily Best, who recently received funding from Backstage Capital, seeing Hamilton's tweets is empowering.
"It makes me feel so good to know that she's unafraid because it helps me be unafraid," says Best, whose startup Seed&Spark is a crowdfunding service focused on helping filmmakers of underrepresented backgrounds raise money. "I am also fighting a battle in an industry that does not want to change, and it involves making a lot of people uncomfortable."
Among her limited partners and her entrepreneurs, Hamilton says she welcomes anyone to challenge her on her views. If anyone thinks that she is crossing a line, she says she will listen to them.
"It takes a tremendous integrity to continue to say, 'No I won't let you get away with pandering statements or weak statements in the face of injustice,' " Best says. "Now is the time to say, 'You either believe in diversity and pluralism or you're against it.' There's no two ways."
It's tough to keep business relationships while putting your peers in the crosshairs. Already, Hamilton says, she has chosen to give up a $500,000 investment from an unnamed party with ties to Thiel. On the other hand, a habit of picking public fights is a great way of attracting attention; just ask President Trump. For now, though, Hamilton says she has no plans to stop tweeting or slow down with her investing.
"If you're doing anything that can create change and create positivity at a large scale, you're going to have these voices called haters," she says. "If that discouraged me, I wouldn't be here."