Serena Williams Has A Plan To Ace Venture Investing

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Written by Ann Brown
serena williams
Via Giphy

Tennis champ Serena Williams is shaking up the venture capital space, so much so she’s become the first athlete ever to hit Forbes’ annual list of the World’s Richest Self-Made Women.

Williams has an estimated fortune of $225 million, “the vast majority of it having come via her brain and brand rather than her backhand,” Forbes reported. “And over the past five years, she’s been quietly dropping money into 34 startups.”

Williams may have 23 Glam Slam titles under her tennis belt but now she is winning in another court. In April, she launched Serena Ventures to fund others and launch companies herself. Sure other athletes have gotten involved in investing in startups, but “she is one of the few specifically gearing investments around a single north star: herself,” Forbes reported.

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Williams wants more than to merely rake in endorsements from the likes of Nike and JPMorgan Chase — her $29 million total income during the past 12 months is the highest of her career.

“I want to be a part of it,” she said. “I want to be in the infrastructure. I want to be the brand, instead of just being the face.”

Her investments in 34 startups over the past five years have doubled the value of her portfolio to more than $10 million.

And her choice of companies to invest in has been unique.

“So at Serena Ventures, she focuses on companies founded by women and minorities. Yes, there’s a social purpose to that decision. But as with her tennis upbringing, she’s also finding opportunity by avoiding the herd. Just 2.3% of the total venture capital invested last year in the U.S. went to women-led startups—and even when including firms with both a male and female founder, you’re just at 10 percent. The numbers are worse for black and Hispanic founders. Yet some 60 percent of Williams’ investments so far have gone to companies led by women or people of color,” Forbes reported.

Investing has been a learning process for Williams. “I learned you can’t overspend, but I also learned that I love seed investing,” she said. She limits her risk, more than three quarters of the 34 companies she has invested in are early-stage.

“It’s fun to get in there. I don’t gamble. I don’t jump off buildings,” Williams said. “I’m the most non-taking-a-chance kind of a person, but I felt like seed was where we wanted to be.”

Williams does reach out for advice from people such as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg is a longtime friend and both she and Williams serve on the board of SurveyMonkey. Williams also seeks advice from her husband, Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of online community Reddit.

Willaims and Ohanian — Forbes estimates he is worth $70 million on his own — have even co-invested on a few startups including Gobble, which does weekly dinner-kit deliveries, and Wave, which offers no-fee transfers on money sent to Africa by phone.

“I’d like to call us a more modern business family,” Williams said.

Recently, Williams and the dating and networking app Bumble partnered in a pitch competition in which two winners with female founders were selected for funding.

And in May 2018, Serena Ventures launched a self-funded, direct-to-consumer clothing line, S by Serena.

“The line includes dresses, jackets, tops, denim and more, mostly priced under $200. She’s excited about an S by Serena show for New York Fashion Week in September. The line got a boost in October when Williams’ close friend Meghan Markle was spotted wearing the collection’s Boss blazer, which quickly sold out on the website,” Forbes reported.

For S by Serena, Williams had been looking for someone else to fund a company for her to design clothing, but she said, “I was thinking of this the wrong way. I had to invest in myself.”