Serena Williams serves up her business acumen to Forbes crowd in Detroit

Serena Williams woke up a 3 a.m. Monday morning. But instead of being in Detroit to speak at the Forbes Under 30 Summit at 1:30 EST, she was in London. The nearly 9-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean would not have allowed Williams enough time to arrive in Detroit to speak at her allotted time. And instead of cancelling, she pushed her speech back a few hours to accommodate attendees who paid as much as $700 per ticket to attend the conference.

The Forbes Under 30 Summit will bring thousands of young business professionals and entrepreneurs to Detroit’s historic Masonic Temple this week to hear more than 200 leading entertainment, sports, and business figures discuss how they hustled their way to the top.

Williams’ “Lunch with Serena Williams” speech, which was preceded by a performance by the Detroit Youth Choir, lasted about 45 minutes, and touched on an array of topics, including her illustrious tennis career, motherhood, her new journey of becoming a venture capitalist, and much more.

The world already knows Williams’ tennis accolades. She has 23 Grand Slam singles titles, which is the most by any man or woman in the Open Era; holds the Open Era record for most titles won at the Australian Open and the U.S. Open; and has won four Olympic gold medals, along with a long list of other accomplishments. In June, Williams became the first athlete to land on Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women with a projected net worth of $225 million, ranking her 80th overall. She also graced the cover of the edition.

But what many did not know about Williams is that she is a savvy investor. In fact, the 38-year-old has been focusing on companies founded by women and minorities for the last five years. Back in April, the tennis legend publicly shared the details of her venture-capital investment firm, called Serena Ventures, which has quietly invested in more than 30 companies already, which 60 percent are minority led.

“I’ve always felt that I’ve invested in myself and my career. My whole life has been about investing in my career,” Williams said to a packed theatre in Detroit. “But as the world is changing, I thought to myself, ‘why am I not on the level of those companies or why have I not had the opportunity to support or invest in these companies?’ So I asked questions, trying to learn more about these companies and the industry, and began investing.”

Serena Ventures was created to give opportunities to a diverse set of founders, particularly women and people of color. Investments have gone into early-stage companies that value individual empowerment, creativity, and opportunity. The investment firm also works to mentor young founders and emerging entrepreneurs.

Female-started companies received only 3 percent of the combined invested capital for the second quarter of 2019. It is much less for women entrepreneurs that look like Williams, which inspired her work. Some of the companies Williams has invested in include a wedding gown brand called Floravere; and aesthetics bar specializing in cosmetic microtreatments called Alchemy 43; and the tampon subscription service LOLA. All three businesses were founded by women.

“When I heard that number, I immediately knew that I needed to support these types of companies,” Williams said. “It also helps bring awareness to these companies and it was important to me to take the lead on this. We try to invest in companies that fill a need in the world.”

In 2018, Williams became a fashion designer, launching “Serena,” her first independent clothing line, adding another notch onto her belt of successes. Fashion is not new to Williams. In 1999, she enrolled at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in Florida for fashion design and has collaborated on projects with Nike and the Home Shopping Network.

The fashion line is inspired by femininity and strength and takes into account all budget lines, where prices range from $15 to $215.

“I grew up sewing and some of the first tennis tournaments that my sister and I played in, my mom made our outfits because we didn’t have the sponsors yet,” said Williams. “She taught us how to sew and I would practice on my dolls. I always joked that somewhere in between winning Wimbledon and U.S. Opens, I was in school doing fashions projects. That’s where my love for fashion started and I wanted to continue that.

“My brand represents women that want to look and feel good, and not feel unapologetic for it.”

Williams has not played since losing in the U.S. Open final in September and will enter her 25 season as a professional tennis player in 2020. She is still one of the best players in the world and does not plan on retiring anytime soon.

“However long Roger Federer plays, I’ll play,” she laughed.

COVER PHOTO CREDIT: Jessica Golich

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