Serena Williams Talks Backing Diverse Startups: "The World Is a Melting Pot"

Imran Amed and Serena Williams - Getty - H 2019
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for The Business Of Fashion

Speaking at the second annual Business of Fashion West summit, the tennis superstar also said she has her eye on developing children's wear and jewelry.

Tennis star Serena Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slams (sometimes in custom-made Nike tutus), sat down with The Business of Fashion founder and CEO Imran Amed on Friday at the second annual Business of Fashion West summit at Westfield Century City to discuss lessons that she has learned in life and business.

“I love what I do,” the 37-year-old said. “I love playing tennis, it's really exciting. But my dad and my mom always told me and my sister, ‘Tennis is great, but make sure you like something else and have a backup plan.’ And I've always done that. I've literally done fashion my whole life, but now there is a little bit more of a push to be more successful, because it is something that I'm seriously going to do full-time when the day comes.”

While Williams joked that her retirement date is still 20 to 30 years in the future, she's serious about her master plan, which is already underway. She launched the direct-to-consumer clothing line S by Serena in May 2018 (worn by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex) and previously had two other now-defunct fashion lines, Aneres (her name spelled backwards) in 2003 and Serena Signature Statement for HSN in 2014.  

“It's an incredibly difficult business, and that's why people say that fashion is hard," said Williams. "It's really difficult to make money in fashion before the first five or ten years. I love a challenge, and it's not just about fashion. The thing is, with S it's more about a lifestyle, and we are going to be rolling out a lot more things outside of fashion. It was important for us to start with fashion because with it comes a marketing tool, tons of opportunities to address different people.”

As a new mother to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., she also has her eye on children's wear. “I would love to do baby [clothing],” she said. “I'm obsessed with my baby. I just want to match everything. She can't really talk yet, but I wonder if she's thinking, ‘My mom is crazy, because I do not want to wear what she’s wearing.’ If you go to my Instagram, we always have matching outfits. It's a little bit much. So we're going to do baby, and we have jewelry coming out actually pretty soon.”





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Despite being an athlete, the Olympian decided not to venture into athleisure.

“We don't do athletic wear, and a part of me is really happy because I feel like every company out there is doing that. It's so oversaturated. So what I first thought was going to be a challenge, ‘How do I get into a different space?’ was actually a blessing in disguise.”

The decision to focus on clothing that includes tops, dresses, bottoms, accessories and denim also made for a seamless relationship with her longtime sponsor Nike.

“I love Nike,” she said. “They've been a great partner with me, and they take feedback really, really well. I actually learned a lot from them. I did not want that relationship to end. And so I thought we would work together to make it work. At the end of the day, I want to be able to do my own thing and be my own boss, be my own owner.”

Since 2014, her investment company, Serena Ventures, has has been quietly investing in over 30 businesses started by women and people of color, including women's club network The Wing, meal delivery services Daily Harvest and Gobble, New York-based feminine hygiene subscription company Lola, and African startup Andela, which focuses on software developer training and outsourcing.

“I started because I realized a lot of people of color and women aren't getting funded. When I first started [investing in companies], it was less than 2 percent [women]; in terms of people of color, it's 0.2, so less than 2 percent,” she said. “It's basically all white and Asian men as well. So that was wrong. I'm like, ‘Okay, well, I know I have great ideas. I think they have great ideas. I know a lot of my friends have done good ideas.’ The world is a melting pot and this has to be changed, so that's kind of how it started. If you look at our portfolio, it's super diverse.”

She also said with a laugh, “We invest in white men as well. Because, you know, I’m actually married to a white man, so it's all about having diversity and just enjoying every single pot. You just can't pick from one pot. It's just mixing that all together. And that's really important for me.”

Touching on her home life with co-founder of Reddit Alexis Ohanian, Williams also considered what it means to be a working mother and how it has given her an advantage.

“I feel like his work-life balance is way different,” she said. “I'm like, ‘Are you going to come home for dinner tonight?' And he's like, 'Well, I'm at the office.’ I definitely have my priorities different, but he doesn't have that pressure. I think as a mom I just feel different. One of my favorite quotes is, 'Pressure is a privilege.' I'm privileged and happy that I have that pressure.”