By Jeff Haden
Unless you’ve been living totally off the grid for the past 22 years, you know Venus Williams: ranked the world’s No. 1 tennis player on three separate occasions; winner of 7 Grand Slam singles titles; winner of 14 Grand Slam doubles championships; 4-time Olympic gold medallist… I could go on and on. Her legacy as one of the all-time tennis greats is assured.
What you may not know is that Venus has quietly crafted a successful career as an entrepreneur, launching her active wear brand EleVen, a company that makes tennis clothing and performance women’s clothing for yoga, fitness, running, and dance.
EleVen is anything but a celebrity vanity project: Venus is heavily involved in design, planning, operations, marketing… she even personally packages some orders (and when she does, she includes a card that says “Packed by Venus.”)
That makes Venus Williams, like many successful entrepreneurs, what I call an “and.” Most people assume the path to success lies in focusing on just one thing. Venus has never felt she should focus only on tennis: she can be a tennis player and a student and a designer and an entrepreneur.
And that’s why, when we spoke, I didn’t focus on tennis – because as you’ll see, Venus is about a lot more than tennis. (And is just as delightful as you’d imagine.)
Q: I would think being you is an advantage and a disadvantage. You have instant name recognition, so that can get you into a lot of rooms… but there are plenty of athletes and celebrities who see a startup as a vanity project. Clearly, you’re serious about yours, so how do you get past the assumption you might be more figurehead than key player?
A: It’s interesting you bring that up. That is a fact. People know you. They know your name and they respect what you’ve done in athletics. But they don’t automatically think you can transfer that focus to a business.
In my case that’s definitely not true. I’ve been very focused on my career outside of tennis. I’ve gone to school for business, for design, for architecture… my business is real for me.
So you’re right: having people know who I am is an advantage because it can help me get in the door, but once you’re inside you have to prove you know what you’re doing. One thing I’ve done is surround myself with people who are as good as me or better. That alone speaks for itself.
Venus Williams style evolution: Serving fashion from the tennis court to the runway
After that, it’s all about building credibility. You have to bring your best every day. And you have to be there next year, and the next year, and five years later. You have to show that you’re committed. I am, so that’s easy.
Q: Say you’re in a meeting with your employees, or vendors, or retailers… you pick. What is your biggest strength in that setting?
A: I’m a collaborator. I know I don’t know everything. I don’t want to know everything. Like I said, I love to have people around me that are better than me. I want to know everyone’s input and figure out how to make an idea better as a team. That’s my strength.
Q: But during key moments don’t you struggle to not just take over? I know I’m generalizing, but when you’re on the court it’s just you… so it would be easy to default to “if it is to be, it’s up to me.”
A: I like not taking over. In tennis you’re all by yourself and no one can help you. You just have to do it. When you’re on a team, if you are the only person making a decision you miss out on amazing input and growth. Of course sometimes I have to make the final decision. I don’t mind doing that, but I like to make sure people are empowered to make their own decisions. I won’t micro-manage, but I will sometimes step in. Achieving that balance is hard, but it’s really important.
Q: You’ve been incredibly successful in tennis, yet you’ve been working toward building separate careers for years. You’re definitely an “and.”
A: To me, that’s normal. From an early age I had to figure out how to be amazing at what I did and do well in school at the same time.
In my home we weren’t allowed just to be athletes. We had to be students. And our dad taught us to be entrepreneurs. We would drive to a tennis tournament somewhere, and he would put in a cassette about buying foreclosure properties. We were 8 and 9 years old and we had to listen to how to make money on foreclosures.
Venus and Serena Williams Jozi lifestyle
Obviously, we didn’t understand much of it. That didn’t really matter, because our dad was trying to establish that mind set of multitasking, of being an entrepreneur, of charting your own path… so for me, trying to excel at multiple things is normal.
I also realized early on that even the longest athletic careers are actually really short. When you’re an athlete, you’re “done” early in life, so I decided to see that not as a limitation but an opportunity. So I’ve always been focused on having goals beyond tennis.
Q: I know nothing about the business of fashion. Is it all about creating a number of lines, or hitting some home runs with a few designs, or placing your lines with major retailers? What is your path to growth?
A: Let’s face it: If you want to grow, you have to hit a lot of home runs, but you have to know your strengths. In fashion you have core pieces everyone wants every season; no matter how many years you carry them in your line, people look for them. Yet we also change our collection every season, and that’s important too. And distribution is also key. But our path to success is knowing who we are and always staying true to that.
That goes back to what you asked about coming from another industry. A lot of celebrities put their name on something like a clothing line and suddenly they come out with 500 SKUs and no one understands how that could happen because there was no culture, no message… they just suddenly appeared.
We know who we are. We have a very clear point of view. Our focus is on being your best, bringing your best, living a healthy lifestyle, and enjoying the clothes you wear.
Who we are is very distinct. That has made us stand out. We don’t want to be someone else. We want to be EleVen.
Q: How do you manage your time? You’re just coming off the Wimbledon singles semi-finals and winning the doubles title, and a couple days later you’re talking to me. You’re trying to excel — truly excel — in a number of different fields.
A: I definitely have to stay focused on my priorities. The first thing I do in the morning is work out. If I want to get to work earlier, I get up earlier. And we have a great team. They know what I can do, when. And they excel at their roles. Knowing each other’s strengths and playing to those strengths has really been the key. But I’m also just made this way. For example, I can’t go to the movies. The thought of going to the movies drives me crazy because that would mean I would have to sit still.
Q: Is your drive compulsive or fun-driven?
A: I’m definitely fun-driven. At times I’m a little compulsive… or maybe somewhat on the obsessive side, rather than compulsive. I get into things because I love them.
If you live this sort of life, you have to be somewhat compulsive, but I take it easy on other people. I try not to drive anyone crazy besides myself.
Q: You’re extremely involved in EleVen. You have a design education, you’ve surrounded yourself with talented people, but there’s still plenty you’ve had to learn about running a business.
A: It’s the things they don’t teach you in business school. My expertise is in design, but knowledge about the operations side is really important. But sometimes that knowledge comes the hard way.
Here’s an example. Last year we thought we didn’t have all the in-house expertise we needed to support all of our production needs, so we decided to outsource some of that… and we should have been more hands-on and kept production in-house.
Perhaps I’m not a production expert, but since then I’ve learned a ton.
One of the things you have to do is really expose yourself to everything. I’m never going to be an IT expert, because IT will never make my heart beat fast, but I have to be able to speak that language.
Ultimately, you know you’ll make mistakes. The key is trying to minimize the impact — and learn from them.
Q: No matter what else you accomplish, your legacy in tennis is assured. So let’s flip that around. Say you’re 60 and looking back on your business life: What would you want to be able to say?
A: For me it’s about building. I love to see things grow. I love ideas. I love putting things together.
For me it’s setting a goal and actually achieving it. I like to dream big. As long as I’ve achieved my goals, I’ll be happy and proud. I would also like to have been seen as a flexible leader, someone who could adapt and change and grow and help the people around her succeed, too.
That’s the great thing about business. There isn’t just one winner. There’s room for everyone to win. I love that.