Celebrate Women’s History Month . . .
Embrace Difference as Your Super Power
You might feel more at home in the entrepreneurship “club” if you were a white man, but being a bit of an outsider can be one of your greatest strengths. That difference provides a distinctive platform to build on as you tap into your unique perspective and experiences to bring new solutions to the marketplace.
To get inspired, look to the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital and author of It’s About Damn Time, Arlan Hamilton. A Black, gay woman who launched a venture capital fund from scratch, while frequently homeless, Hamilton has invested in more than 100 high-potential tech founders who are people of color, women and/or LGBT.
She makes the point that women and other underrepresented founders are not waiting to be rescued — they are busy creating, innovating and bringing their dreams to life. In a Bloomberg Studio 1.0 interview, she asks, “If they are doing amazing things with so little, what will happen when we give them more?”
The future is yours
Hamilton credits challenging early life experiences and being an outsider who had to fight her way into the Silicon Valley start-up space as advantages. “The way that I’ve had to hack my way through things has given me an edge,” she says. She is self-taught and learned about start-ups and investing by reading, watching videos and making flash cards to test herself.
Hamilton’s humble beginnings have also acquainted her with many of the pain points of women and underrepresented founders, such as not being taken seriously and not having access to traditional sources of investment. Today, she encourages other investors to widen their lens of who they see as potential business owners. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban has invested $1 million in Backstage Capital.
To create the business you want, consider this advice from Hamilton. “Someone has lied to you in the past if you think you can’t be part of this. The future is yours.” Here’s how to grab it.
- Build unwavering belief in your own capacity. Without a college education, broke and with no connections to the world of tech start-ups, Hamilton still felt she was worthy of investment. It took her three years to find her first investor, but she knew her ideas were worth supporting.
- Recognize the strength in your struggle. Although women and people of color encounter far more than their share of challenges, the very act of confronting and overcoming difficulties can also make you stronger, leading to what psychologists call post-traumatic growth.
- Embrace what makes you unique. Differentiation is key to market success for products and services, and it can provide competitive advantage for founders too. What makes you dissimilar, less understood and underappreciated may also help you identify and exploit unmet opportunities in the marketplace. Competing on similarity leads to competing on price; when you offer something unique or target services to underserved market segments, you carve out a niche that only you can fill.
- Conduct your own evaluation. Constructive criticism is a great source of insight, but biased expectations about your capabilities and potential based on race, gender or personal background are simply damaging. When others assume you don’t have what it takes, step back and evaluate the facts. Are they really in a position to judge? Do they understand the breadth of your life experiences, determination, support system or commitment? Focus on your own goals and measure progress with your own yardstick.
- Develop thick skin. It sounds harsh, but most founders have had to find a way to see no as a stepping stone to yes. Hamilton suggests thinking of no as “not now.” She pitched her Backstage Capital concept and sought funding for three years before she finally found someone willing to invest. When people turn you down for meetings, to carry your product or use your service, for investment, or to partner with you, evaluate the situation for learnings and then move on to the next person who may say yes.
- Build a support system. As Hamilton says, there is no such thing as self-made. Founders who succeed likely have a host of people supporting them in big and small ways — from investment to advice, introductions and, sometimes, just an understanding ear.
- Build a strong case. It’s unfair, but women and underrepresented founders often have to tangibly establish their credibility when it is simply assumed of white men. Lay the groundwork before an initial meeting with a brief email to highlight your areas of expertise, years of experience and success to date. During meetings, have concrete, results-oriented stories to share that speak to your credibility.
Building a business is a major undertaking for everyone, and can be even more so when others underestimate your potential. Hamilton suggests picturing a whole group of fellow women and people of color walking the journey with you — proving together that the future is yours.