Tennis legend Serena Williams captivated a star-studded, capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night, soundly defeating Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic in her last professional tournament at the U.S. Open. Williams’ significant 6-3 victory showcased her signature serve, powerful athleticism and graceful endurance.
I, for one, am glad I kept my 9-year-old daughter up on a school night to experience the celebration and empowerment of her legacy.
This win sends Williams into the second round against No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia. The match-up will no doubt crush viewership records as we hold our breath anticipating her next feat while at the same time mourning the end of an era for the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
But as the sports icon mentioned in her post-match interview with Gayle King Monday – and in her recent essay for Vogue announcing her departure from tennis – an “evolution” is at hand.
“I have my VC company, Serena Ventures, we invest in a lot of people,” Williams told King on center court Monday night. “I really want to spend more time at home and work on my spiritual life. It’s like Serena 2.0. It’s still gonna be crazy and intense.”
And women around the world – including myself – are very much here for it.
In fact, I have a prediction. It’s backed by a lot of data and an urgent global issue. Despite what happens on the court this week, Serena Williams’ greatest impact and legacy will be through her next chapter as a venture capitalist. As hard as it is to believe, watching her trailblaze in tennis isn’t her ultimate act. I predict she will significantly close the gap for women and people of color in startup equity and investments.
Appalled by the fact that only 2 percent of all venture capital funding goes to companies led by women, Williams chose to (quietly) get in the game a few years ago. She launched early-stage venture capital firm Serena Ventures in 2014 and has invested in over 60 companies where three-quarters of its portfolio company founders are from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
Serena Ventures announced that it had raised an inaugural fund of $111 million in March, including funding 16 startups that are now unicorns (Impossible Foods, Nude Barre, Masterclass). This pivot to focus on Serena Ventures is vital to the women’s financial empowerment movement and it’s just the beginning of her actualized potential as we see how her next act will supersede her first.
The values behind Williams’ business strategy
As she spoke about her painful decision to evolve away from playing tennis professionally after the U.S. Open, Williams referred to the sport as something she “was always meant to do,” her identity. When we feel as though we’ve lost our identity, whether it’s through a job loss or huge life change, it can trigger a personal crisis. Williams has repeatedly expressed the pain in this career decision, yet her evolution defines her identity in a deeply meaningful way.
Research shows that there is one aspect of our identity that does stay consistent over time. It’s how we remain aligned and tied to our values. How we choose to express these values and their relative importance is the path to transcending a singular work identity so we can express ourselves in different contexts.
The core of Serena Ventures' business strategy and mission to, “empower founders to change the world through a champion mindset and unparalleled network,” is tightly aligned to her identity, which represents a capacity to drive change significantly beyond tennis. Williams has a tremendous track record of performance and driving business decisions based on values such as ambition, family, equity, self-expression and wealth.
Ambition and self-expression
Now, at a time where girls and women see a significant absence of women's voices in entertainment and media – only one-third of characters on TV and in movies are female – Williams’ can steer her influence and visibility as a vehicle for representation. Through her platform and star power, she can further propel women and diverse leaders to pursue their goals authentically.
Women drive 85 percent of consumer household spending in the U.S., including decisions around household budgeting and spending for the family. Yet, they don’t control the more consequential money decisions to the same degree as men because of wealth inequities and biased social norms. Williams’ diversity strategy will disrupt the famously male-dominated industry in venture capital by powering up companies with a mission to serve women (and therefore families), positioning them into the center of influential decision-making.
Companies with diverse leadership are more successful. When leadership teams have more women at the table, those companies are more profitable, less risky and more innovative. When you give a woman a loan, she is more likely to repay it and reinvest 90 percent of her income into her family and community — more than twice the percentage that men do.
Startups with at least one female co-founder perform 63 percent better than those which do not. Leading early seed rounds in companies run by women and women of color – like retail fraud detection and protection firm Lillii RNB Inc. launched by Barbara Jones-Brown – align to Williams’ values of amplifying equity through funding underrepresented founders.
The gender wage gap, which directly informs the wealth gap, has hardly changed over the last decade. Women on average earn $0.83 cents to every dollar a man makes, with a far wider disparity for women of color. When women have more wealth, we have seen laws, company benefits, education and climate policies evolve with their increased power and influence.
Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, launched her first podcast episode interviewing Williams, to set the tone for her pursuit to breakdown archetypes with negative connotations toward women.
The complicated truth is that while Markle and Williams – both friends – are courageous examples of women tackling their professional pursuits on their own terms, many are often forced to make difficult decisions, choosing either their talents or personal desires.
With Williams turning her attention, values and network into disrupting financial inequities, we are on the cusp of a new era of women’s wealth. But while her influence is indisputable, movements aren’t defined solely by their leader. They manifest in those who pick up the torch and follow. We must be ready to follow.
UPDATE: Serena Williams eliminated No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit (7-6) in the U.S. Open’s second round Wednesday night. Williams will advance to play at least one more singles match on Friday against 29-year-old Australian Ajla Tomljanovic.