Backstage Capital invests in its 50th underrepresented founder

Backstage Capital's Arlan Hamilton, second from left, with portfolio company ShearShare.
Image: Rob Majteles

Backstage Capital launched with a mission: to support underrepresented founders and to invest in 100 of them by 2020.

Almost two years after getting off the ground, the venture firm is halfway to that goal. Last week, Backstage Capital invested in its 50th company, adding to a roster of portfolio companies nearly all from traditionally underrepresented founders.

The milestone is significant for the firm, but also for venture capital as a whole. The firm is one of few out there that use their moneyabout $5 million in two fundsto make diversity its top priority. While other firms tout their diversity numbers, they’re not explicitly pushing to diversify tech with every investment.

“It proves we’re able to choose great companies and that we have the deal flow to find them.”

“The reason it’s so exciting to reach this halfway point is that it proves we’re able to choose great companies and that we have the deal flow to find them,” said Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton.

Backstage Capital launched in 2015 with diversity at the center of its mission. Hamilton has shared in the past how she was homeless while trying to convince investors in Silicon Valley of the potential a firm that centered on underrepresented people and ideas in tech could have.

The strategy has turned out to be good business for Backstage Capital. It’s still a venture firm, interested in making smart investments. It just so happens that those 50 investments so far are good for businessand for the diversity of the tech industry. Backstage Capital sees about 1,000 companies a year and has the capacity to invest in 30 annually.

The exact deal that marked the halfway point for Backstage’s 100-company goal isn’t public yet and won’t be until the end of the summer. But the past dozen public investments by Backstage give a sense of what could have crossed the finish line. ShearShare, a B2B platform that lets hairstylists find salons that could use their work for the day, came from two black co-founders, a husband-and-wife team. Workfrom, a platform to find wifi-equipped coffee shops to work out of, also launched by a black founder, received a recent investment from Backstage as wella.

Sixty-two percent of Backstage’s investments are in startups founded by women, 44 percent are in companies launched by women of color, 72 percent are in companies run by people of color, and 12 percent are in companies with LGBTQ founders.

Those numbers are significant for Silicon Valley, where only a handful of black women have raised over $1 million and where only 3 percent of venture funding goes to companies with women CEOs.

Backstage’s own numbers are constantly changing. Over the past six months, Backstage upped its investment in startups led by women of color from 40 percent to 44 percent. One of Hamilton’s goals for the next 50 investments is to increase representation of LGBTQ founders to at least 20 percent. The firm’s investments are geographically diverse, too, across the United States.

“We are still always striving to make those numbers higher and higher. We can do better in the LGBT space,” Hamilton said. “We started out with good numbers, and every single quarter we try to see where we can improve.”

But more important than these 50 investments is how they influence Backstage’sand the tech industry’sfuture. With a growing network of founders underrepresented in tech, the firm is connected to more and more startups and ideas from others looking for a foot in the door in Silicon Valley.

“Now we have access to more and more companies led by underrepresented founders that have traction,” Hamilton said.

2020, watch out.

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Tags: business diversity silicon-valley startups venture-capital

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