It’s About Damn Time

Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress and to run for president of the United States in the 70s, famously quipped, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” In Arlan Hamilton’s book, “It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated Into Your Greatest Advantage,” Hamilton’s update suggests you need also carry a pair of scissors. Why a pair of scissors? Well, it’s not enough to commandeer your way to a seat at the table where the powerful may have already defined who gets to sit (historically, the monied, well-educated, well-connected, hetero, male and white), but to use Hamilton’s words, “When you try to fit into a cutout that isn’t your shape, you can end up contorting yourself in painful ways.” “It’s About Damn Time” is as much a statement of exasperation as it is a call to action to bring an end to systematic rules of underestimation and exclusion of certain groups of people often left with crumbs than their fair share of the corporate pie.

Hamilton should know this, of course, as she has jockeyed her way into Silicon Valley’s old boys club, as the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, a multi-million-dollar venture capital firm with no prior experience, no college degree, no money, no connections, but possessing sheer will and drive. Hamilton is Black and lesbian and, like Chisholm, is a pioneer and a disruptor. Backstage, a nod to her years working as a music tour manager for acts such as CeeLo Green and Toni Braxton, sees the untapped potential in entrepreneurs that are female, of color, or LGBTQ—founders she considers “underestimated” and that see less than 10 percent of traditional VC dollars.

In the book’s introduction, Food Stamps to Fast Company, Hamilton utters the words “You are a venture capitalist. You are a venture capitalist,” to stoke herself in her quest to start Backstage, as she makes her way about a hotel for a few nights at which she cannot afford to stay before not long having to head back to an area down from the Virgin Atlantic check-in desk at the San Francisco airport where she sleeps and works on free airport Wi-Fi—for she is homeless. In the proceeding 34 chapters, Hamilton shares short, digestible and illuminating tales from her life experiences that give a backstory on her unusual path to success.

In her depictions of her childhood, she describes herself as an oddball kid – electing to wear 6 watches out of fascination with the concepts of time and space; an outsider – loath to playing with her classmates at gym, choosing to daydream instead; and too curious for others’ liking – penalized by her teachers for being smart or labeled as “disruptive” for asking too many questions. The young Hamilton sounds gutsy, eccentric and independent and whose rarity of spirit might have been better molded if better understood. The Hamilton in her twenties by contrast is less assured, traversing the complexities of both finding her way professionally, spurred by her interest in live music where she convinces a Norwegian band to be its manager (without any experience) for an American cross-country tour twice, as well as navigating relationships, the demise of which have been both emotional impediments and catalysts to her career pursuits.

Included is her family life and history with work, at times independent and others having to move various times with her mother, sleeping on her aunt’s couch over years because of job loss or underemployment. She has been a check encoder, a reality TV production assistant, and an arena-level production coordinator. But it isn’t until she writes about being a magazine publisher and blogger that her experience goes from enterprising to entrepreneurial. She channels the experiences of the founders she now backs when describing her editorial career; first, with her music-centric magazine “Interlude” that went under twice, followed by “Your Daily Lesbian Moment!,” her popular blog, which she created in the demise of “Interlude” and in the aftermath of a breakup. The blog saw its nadir when she couldn’t adequately migrate her audience in the transition from Myspace to Facebook. Lastly, there is brief mention of a cleverly-named dating app idea called Juliet and Juliet she beta launched and seemed to have abandoned, having shifted her focus to create Backstage.

So much of Hamilton’s story of fighting for the underestimated in the startup world is wrapped in hers. Yet, absent is a deeper discussion of her various experiences as a founder outside of Backstage, especially her magazine and why it faltered and what effort was made in securing capital and support from the VC community, if at all. It’s not clear if no one chose to bet on her, which may have inspired her interest in creating Backstage. Perhaps, she didn’t know that she could get a lifeline. Maybe she knew it would have just been pointless, given Silicon Valley’s reputation with the communities she now champions. Regardless, this experience is never addressed but would have added even further support for why this means as much personally and given greater insight into why creating Backstage became such a mission. The book becomes a series of lessons to inspire other audacious underestimated people, as well as to drive home the point that there is an inequality of opportunity given to people whose backgrounds and hustle might look different than Silicon Valley-favorites but who are nonetheless equally as capable, worthy and talented—the very kind of folks she seeks to place her bet on as an investor. It seems, ultimately, “It’s About Damn Time” may also be a statement of rejoice that finally someone saw Hamilton’s capabilities and had the confidence in her to propel her to a steady stride.

What you also learn is instead of being backstage, Hamilton is well at the forefront, now respected highly for her expertise and anti-establishment perspective onstage at global conferences. She sees opportunities where other venture capitalists don’t, because she doesn’t believe privilege is a synonym for potential. Setting a five-year goal of securing an It’s About Damn Time fund to invest in 100 ventures by 2020 when Backstage was only the stuff of vision boards—well, we won’t spoil what happens. But let’s say we anticipate a follow-up book and suggest a title—”Damn it! I Told You So!” As Hamilton routinely travels upwards of 300 days per year for business meetings to secure millions of dollars in investments, it’s clear she hasn’t left the airport. In fact, she’s spending copious more hours there, albeit in a different part, still propelled by the same hunger. In the last chapters, as she has become a face for the underdog in the startup community, she tells us why: “I don’t want to be the exception to the rule; I want the rule to accept me.”

Read “It’s About Damn Time” if you yourself have been underestimated and are looking for that extra kick or want to read a rags to riches story that suffers no shame in humble beginnings nor is braggadocios for its victories but, instead, regales in the simple virtues of moxie and hard work.

 

About this book

  • ISBN:9780593136416
  • Price:$27.00
  • Page Count:256