Featured case: Arlan Hamilton and Backstage Capital

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The case

whoWho – the protagonist

Arlan Hamilton, Founder and Managing Partner, Backstage Capital.

What?

Backstage is a venture capital firm that makes early-stage investments in underrepresented founders.

Why?

whyArlan started her own Venture Capital firm (they provide a form of private equity to start-up companies and small businesses that are believed to have long-term growth) after growing frustrated at unsuccessful attempts to convince existing funds to invest in companies founded by women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ people.

Raising nearly $5 million across three funds and investing in 85 companies, Arlan’s latest goal was to launch a fourth fund with an ambitious target of $36 million. $1 million each would be invested in 15 to 20 companies led by black women founders, with the remainder reserved for later-stage funding.

When?

Arlan founded Backstage in 2015. It was April 2018 when Arlan hatched her fourth funding plan.

whereWhere?

Arlan is based in Los Angeles, US, but her crew members (staff) are located remotely around the country. They would fly in to L.A. for monthly all-staff meetings.

Key quote

“[These] people have historically all been underestimated for one reason or another – because of their gender, because of their race, because of their social economic standing…I can tell you from personal experience that drives you. That fuels you. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s not cool, but I tell you what, it does fuel you. And some people are fuelled to the point of…astronomical success.” – Arlan Hamilton.

What next?

Resources were scarce at Backstage. Arlan knew some crew members might question her decision to push forward with a new fund, while external debate would consist of restricting the initiative to black women. Arlan wasn’t deterred though.

 
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Arlan Hamilton and Backstage Capital
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The authors

author

Laura Huang and Sarah Mehta

Laura discusses the importance of students learning about diversity in entrepreneurship, producing a case that combines both published sources and field research, plus much more.

Diversity value

Laura said: “I was inspired to write this case to push business students to consider the value diversity has in entrepreneurship and imagine what a more inclusive entrepreneurial industry might look like in the future.

Diversity value“The entrepreneurial world has historically been a white male-dominated space, and to this day female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of colour continue to struggle for a seat at the table.

“This case explores the journey of venture capitalist and founder Arlan Hamilton, whose work has challenged the status quo of venture capital. Hamilton, an LGBTQ+, African-American woman, has sought to redefine the historically white male-dominated venture capital space by founding Backstage Capital, an investment fund which seeks to only support African American female entrepreneurs.

“This case introduces students to important concepts in entrepreneurship, such as the world of early-stage financing, diversity, inequality, and implicit bias.”

Combining field research and published sources

Laura continued: “Backstage Capital is certainly very media savvy, which was very helpful in gathering publicly available information and learning more about the firm’s background on my own.

“However, I was also able to conduct interviews with Arlan Hamilton and other leaders at the firm. These interviews provided greater insight into Arlan’s personal journey and the mission of Backstage Capital, which is greatly reflected in the case.”

Structuring a case

She added: “This case handles many controversial and complex topics, which challenged me to structure the case in a way that ensures students are left with a holistic understanding of the main learning objectives. Diversity and inclusion are incredibly complicated topics that all businesses must grapple with at some point. There is also a difference between learning about diversity and inclusion in a classroom setting and actually applying it as a policy in the workplace. Given this complexity, I think it is very important that business students are introduced to these concepts early in their education, and the case study learning model is the perfect medium.
 
“As such, I wanted to make sure this case study gives students, particularly those not already familiar with these concepts, a hands-on experience in thinking about diversity in the workplace. Presenting Backstage Capital as both an ethnically exclusive yet minority-championing investment firm accomplished this challenging task by encouraging students to think about diversity not just as a concept, but also a reality which is applied in actual workplace environments.”

Managing class discussion

Laura concluded: “In general, the ideas of diversity, inclusion, and implicit bias tend to be controversial topics that can lead to disagreement among people. Particularly if a class is comprised of students with vastly different life experiences and backgrounds, opinions of what is right and wrong can be polarising, which can be reflected in the class discussion.

“I think that passionate discussions on these topics are a great opportunity for students to hear and learn from each other, which is the optimal result of an in-class case discussion.

“With that said, it is important that spirited debate does not cross the line into heated arguments or offensive commentary – when this happens, no one in the class benefits. This is where the instructor must step in and assume responsibility for monitoring the class discussion. While we should be mindful of all students’ opinions, the instructor must also ensure that the class discussions remain civil, inclusive, and constructive to imparting the learning objectives.”

About the authors

Laura Huang is MBA Class of 1954 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
e lhuang@hbs.edu
Tw @LauraHuangLA

Sarah Mehta is a Case Researcher at Harvard Business School.

 

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