When you think of tennis, who comes to mind? It is not often that an athlete transcends the sport they play, but if anyone can claim that achievement, it is Serena Williams.
On March 10 the Silk Speaker Series hosted Williams, the tennis icon and former world No. 1 in women’s singles. More than 4,000 USF community members registered to see one of the all-time greats, who finished up her Australian open run only two weeks ago, discuss her life off the court.
To many, Williams represents much more than high-level athleticism. When asked about whether she believes she has opened up opportunities for those underrepresented in sports, Williams said, “I don’t really think about that — whether I’ve opened up opportunities — I just think about making things easier for the next people.”
Kellie Samson, head of University media relations, said that Williams’ appearance had “been in the works for a while. As you might guess, booking a speaker of this magnitude takes some time, but thankfully doing so in a virtual environment is somewhat easier because virtual events do not require travel plans or venue logistics.” Samson also said that with such high levels of public interest, “we would have been hard pressed to host an event on campus with this kind of interest.”
One of USF’s own tennis players, sophomore Azaria Hayes, opened the event by describing Williams as a tennis superstar, venture capitalist, fashion designer, business woman, and powerful voice for women and mothers not to mention Hayes’ “personal role model.” The talk itself was hosted by Jennifer Azzi, former USF women’s basketball head coach and Olympic gold medalist. The conversation centered around Williams’ passions and personal interests.
Williams said that being an athlete gave her an advantage as a businesswoman. “I would have never thought these skills that I’ve learned in tennis would be able to go into something else,” she said. “The tenacity, the situations you’re put in, having to make a split decision, having to be decisive, it all really kind of correlates with one another.”
Williams also has her own clothing line, “S by Serena.” Williams expressed her delight in building a brand that is not about revenue and instead puts the customer’s needs and social engagement at the heart of its philosophy. This translates into Williams’s prioritization of inclusivity, which has helped her company extend to customers of all sizes and races, differences that Azzi mentioned are often ignored by the traditionally narrow fashion industry.
Williams’ venture capital firm, “Serena Ventures,” has allowed the athlete to tackle an area lacking in representation by investing in others’ ideas and products. Williams’s focus on women and people of color in the investment world stems from statistics she discovered: women only receive two percent of venture capitalist money, while people of color receive even less.
Williams said that when it comes to investments, she is not drawn to people’s successes, but rather, their setbacks. “We wanna see what they did in the past that didn’t work; if you think about someone who has succeeded and hadn’t had the opportunity to understand failure, what happens now?” Williams asked. “If we see they haven’t learned and they’re doing the same thing, this is probably an entrepreneur we wouldn’t want to invest in,” Williams said.
Azzi agreed. “Failure is a part of the process,” she said.
When it comes to confidence, Azzi pointed out how Williams’ poise comes from preparation. Williams related her experience practicing her tennis skills to the increased confidence that comes from studying for a test, as many students can relate to the nervousness that comes from cramming for an exam.
“I think it’s important to always prepare in general,” Williams said. “‘My dad always said, ‘If you fail to prepare you are preparing to fail.’ That kind of goes across the board no matter what you wanna do, no matter what path you wanna go down. It’s all about preparation and planning.” This parting sentiment was well-received in the live stream chat, where viewers showered Williams in a wave of virtual applause.