AIB Featured Business Leader – Venus Williams
When you hear the name Venus Williams, you no doubt think of tennis. Williams, along with her younger sister Serena, have dominated tennis headlines since 1997. A former World No. 1, with four Olympic gold medals and 49 career singles titles, Venus is a big deal. But what you may not know is that she’s also an astute businesswoman.
Recognising early that even the most glittering sporting career is short-lived, Williams has concentrated on education and business alongside her sport. In 2005, she went back to formal education, and has split her time between tennis and business ever since. She is the CEO of her own interior design firm, V Starr Interiors, and owns a fashion label that specialises in active wear, EleVen. In 2009, the Williams sisters became part-owners of the popular Miami Dolphins, and just one year later, she co-authored ‘Come to Win’, a book on how sports can help people succeed in business. The book, which includes interviews with entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Vera Wang, reached #5 on the New York Best Sellers List. She is also a franchise owner for US company Jamba Juice.
Williams started her career young: born in 1980, she was playing in official tennis tournaments by 14 years old, but it wasn’t a smooth path to that point. Venus is one of five sisters in a family grew up in Compton, Los Angeles. Williams’ father, a former sharecropper from Louisiana, taught Venus and Serena to play on the local public courts using books and videos to instruct himself on tennis technique. By the time Williams was ten, she was playing in the US Tennis Association junior tour, but racial insults levelled at her and her sister made the pair drop out of the Association and remain self-taught. The tournament in 1994, when she beat No. 50 seeded Shaun Stafford, was a testament to the hard work and determination that has characterised her ever since.
By sixteen, she was playing then-No. 1 Steffi Graf, and at 17 she earned herself a position in the top 100 and won her first singles title. As a rising star in the field, she had already attracted notice from sponsors, the first of which was signed at just 15 with Reebok. Five years later she renewed it for $40 million, making it the most lucrative endorsement deal of its type on record.
Even in those early years, Williams didn’t want to be confined to just tennis. In 1999, she went back to school to study fashion design, her other enduring love. Her education proceeded with some pauses though, because it was in those years that her tennis career entered the stratosphere. In 2000, Williams won Olympic Gold in both singles and doubles women’s tennis and won the championships at both Wimbledon and the US Open. Her life didn’t slow down over the next few years either, with back-to-back Wimbledon and US Open titles in 2001, a world No.1 ranking by 2002, and a gruelling schedule on and off the court that resulted in a number of injuries in 2003. Also in 2003, her older sister Yetunde Price was tragically murdered, and Williams took time off to grieve her loss.
None of that stopped her from building on her new interior design business: V Starr Interiors (Venus’s middle name is Starr) was founded in 2002. Beginning as a small boutique firm, it benefited from Williams’ name recognition almost immediately. The company slowly built a portfolio of celebrity names, including homes of NFL and NBA players and model residences in Florida. Building on that cachet, she landed a number of large contracts with developers who wanted one company to handle multiple condos, and the company has continued to go from strength to strength.
“I wanted to play tennis and study and I also wanted to launch my first businesses while I was still playing, rather than wait until after my career was over,” says Williams of her overloaded schedule.
She graduated from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderale with an Associate Degree in Fashion Design in 2007, and in 2015 received a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Indiana University East. With a demanding tennis schedule, she benefited from distance courses and intensive summer sessions to help her complete. Her eventual goal is to obtain an MBA.
In 2009, Williams and her sister became part owners of the Miami Dolphins, becoming the first female African-Americans to own a stake in the NFL franchise. The team is worth $US1.3 billion. The following year, she harnessed her in depth knowledge of sport with her love of entrepreneurship to write her bestselling book, Come to Win. In 2012, she also relaunched her fashion label, EleVen, which had been previously forced off shelves in 2007 when the retailer Steve & Barrys went bankrupt.
All the while, Willliams continued to shine on the court, with a return to form after the setbacks of 2003 – 2005. In 2010 she was ranked no. 2 in the world once more. And then in 2013, she was once again devastated by injury, this time a back problem that saw her withdrawing from the season after a series of losses. Undaunted, she harnessed the determination that saw her come from nowhere at the tender age of 14, and rise up yet again. With yet another comeback in 2014, she continues to juggle her businesses, social causes and tennis career with composure. At 36 years old, she is significantly older than most professional tennis players, which she treats as just another challenge.
And whatever’s next, she’s sure to give it her all. Along with her two businesses, Williams has her sights set on giving people access to an equal start. She wants to see healthy food made available to lower income families so that everyone has the fuel they need to be the best person they can be, and she’s working towards a model to make that happen. She also works closely with UNESCO on promoting gender equality throughout the world. It’s a big task, but Williams isn’t daunted. As she explained to Forbes: “Everything I do I love. Plus I enjoy challenges and I hate being bored. My businesses are living, breathing things that are constantly changing and that forces me to stay current.”
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Forbes, Hamptons Magazine, Amazon, Indiana University East, ESPN and V Starr Interiors.
Image credit: AOL