Underestimated and underrepresented in an industry that wasn’t built for you
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Arlan Hamilton is the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in companies with underrepresented founders. Hamilton has realized that the people she invests in — women, people of color and LGBTQ folks — are also systemically “underestimated” in society, a term that frequents her new book, “It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated into Your Greatest Advantage.” Hamilton’s book gives readers a window into her own journey from food stamps to the cover of Fast Company and all the life lessons she’s learned along the way. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Unfortunately, underestimated groups suffer from imposter syndrome partially because they are often perceived as and treated as imposters by the wider society. I’ve come across this myself many times over the past few years, especially when I’ve shown up to a speaking engagement at a conference or a meeting at a fancy hotel and been asked for my ticket, for proof that I’m meant to be there. This has happened when I’ve been the headlining speaker at a conference. My face is in the program. It’s on the poster. And still there’s the person taking tickets with a skeptical look on their face, waiting for the A- OK from someone who looks “more legit.” Eventually someone hurries over, embarrassed, and vouches for me. The problem is, people don’t expect to see us in certain locations or in specific roles. We’re expected to be in the background, helping someone more important, bringing out the lunch or clearing away the plates. We carry this around all the time, the flicker of confusion on the face of a White man the moment he realizes that maybe he’s supposed to be paying you attention, that maybe you aren’t meant to be invisible. Sometimes it’s the momentary surprise on a person’s face when you show up to your first meeting, because, oh, they never expected you to be . . . different. All of this weighs us down and piles onto the imposter syndrome we already feel and compounds our internal self- doubt.
Not only that, but the standards for us are different. We don’t just have imposter syndrome to contend with, we have what I like to call, “Impos . . . sible to Live Up to These Double- Standard- Ass Measures of Success the Institution Keeps Setting and Changing Syndrome”! When I started Backstage Capital, I was told that in order to be considered a success story, I would need to earn a tenfold return on my investments, rather than threefold like other venture capitalists. Anything lower, and I would be considered a failure. There are literally different rules for underestimated people!
I’m here to say: We do not have time for this. We cannot be slowed down by this. We need to be extra confident, extra sure of ourselves; we need to give ourselves 1,000 percent permission to do whatever it is we want to do. Confidence isn’t just a hack, it’s a superpower, and it’s one we need to harness. How? Well, it’s different for everyone, and you need to find what works for you, but here are a few things I find helpful.
1. I listen to music. Before a big meeting, before I go onstage, anytime I’m feeling those little doubts creep in, I listen to the songs that empower me:
- “Get Up 10” by Cardi B
- “Battle Cry” by Angel Haze
- “New Agenda” by Janet Jackson
- “Skyscraper” by Demi Lovato
- “Price Tag” by Jessie J
- “Red Light” by Jonny Lang
- “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves
- “Roar” by Katy Perry
- “Keep Your Head Up” by 2Pac
- “CRZY” by Kehlani
- “Fly” by Rihanna and Nicki Minaj
- “All I Have” by NF
- “Try” by P!nk
- “Chandelier” by Sia
- “Run This Town” by Jay- Z and Rihanna
- “This Moment” by Janine
- “Somebody Loves You” by Betty Who
2. I “dress for success” in my own way, making my own rules. For some people, dressing for business means wearing a suit, it means power dressing, and it gives them added confidence. For me, power dressing is comfortable clothes and shoes, because for me to feel confident, I have to feel like myself. I can’t feel as though I’m wearing a costume. If I wore a suit and heels every day, I would feel as though I was pretending to be someone I’m not, and that would make me second-guess myself. My go-to is dark jeans, a hoodie, and purple shoes (always purple shoes). Try it out; see what outfit makes you feel the most confident, the most like your authentic self: the self that knows your business plan or your résumé or your portfolio is solid, the self that knows you are not to be messed with.
3. Whenever I doubt myself or I worry that I might be overstepping or thinking too big, I ask myself, “What would a White male do?” That usually snaps me right out of it! If it’s an idea he would pitch, if it’s a question he would ask without embarrassment, if it’s a move he would make, there’s no reason I shouldn’t do the same. As long as I believe in it.
4. I tell myself every day: I deserve to be here. I worked my ass off. I will not shrink myself to make someone else more comfortable. I deserve to be in the room.
5. I refuse to compare my chapter 2 with someone else’s chapter 10. When others make unfair comparisons, I call them out, and when I find I’m starting to make comparisons, I call myself out. If you don’t give yourself room to grow, learn, and make mistakes, you’ll never make it to your chapter 10.
6. I take comfort in community. No matter what you’re going through, no matter how much you doubt yourself or how degraded you feel by someone questioning your ability, someone else will have had that feeling. So find your community, and reach out to it. I use Twitter for this all the time. I’ll tweet about the microaggressions that have bothered me that day, and I’ll get a hundred replies either commiserating, telling me similar experiences other people have had, or just supporting me and reminding me that I have what it takes. We’re stronger together.
Here’s what I know: everyone has imposter syndrome because we’re all figuring out this thing called life. Everyone you’re jealous of is jealous of someone else, and there are people out there wishing they were you. So just remember: you’re human, you’re flawed, and everybody has to start somewhere. If you know those things, you’re ahead of the game.
Excerpted from IT’S ABOUT DAMN TIME © 2020 by Arlan Hamilton. Published by Currency, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, on May 5.
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