American Express OPEN Forum

Venus Williams Opens Up About Life as an Entrepreneur

August 26, 2016

Venus Williams is much more than a tennis legend. In addition to going pro at the age of 14, winning countless championship titles and five Olympic medals (including a silver for mixed doubles in Rio), she has been trained in fashion design and interior design and has used her skills and education to launch two successful companies: interior design company V*Starr Interiors and casual athletic wear company EleVen by Venus.

I caught up with Williams shortly before the 2016 US Open Tennis Championships to hear about her path as a business owner and her advice to budding entrepreneurs.

 

Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Absolutely. That is what our dad taught us. He told us to work for ourselves and get an education. We'd be on our way to tennis tournaments and he'd have us listen to [business] tapes on the way. It was a mindset that was taught. I felt like I had to be an entrepreneur to make my parents proud. It was just how I was raised.

 

How'd you decide to go into design, and what challenges did you face launching V*Starr Interiors?

I love design; that is where I feel happy. I've done it for 14 years now and honestly have enjoyed every moment.

My challenges were similar to many other small-business owners. I wondered how to run an interior design business and often asked myself if I was doing it right. I've realized that a lot of it comes down to finding the right team. You can't do it all. Hiring is a huge part of the equation. You have to have a good team and then empower them to grow with the business.

 

What kind of hiccups have you faced growing both businesses?

Things definitely haven't always gone to plan. I remember there was a moment with V*Starr when I wanted to do commercial design and we didn't have a portfolio yet. We could get meetings, but people wouldn't believe that I had design talent. They'd say, “I see you on the court, but can you really do design?"

With EleVen, I lost a partner a few times and had to adjust. I didn't panic, though; I knew I'd come out better and stronger. For me, it is about doing your best in a situation, getting sleep and trying not to worry about tomorrow. You have to compartmentalize, which isn't always easy. Finding balance helps create longevity in business.

 

How has being a professional athlete prepared you to be an entrepreneur?

Being a professional athlete makes you not afraid of hard work. It's funny, you kind of apply disciplines from the court without knowing you're doing it. You understand how to deal with a loss. You realize that you aren't always going to be successful. I encourage everyone to play sports. You may not go pro, but the lessons learned are worth the effort.

How do you manage to run two companies at once?

V*Starr and EleVen are in the same office. The desks are across from each other. I used to split my time, which was really difficult, but when we had a moment to centralize, we jumped on it. I also have an amazing team.

 

What does a normal day look like for you? It's hard to imagine how you balance everything when it seems like tennis alone could be your full-time life.

[Laughs] Tennis is my full-time life! But I make it work. I wake up in the morning and do four to five hours’ worth of training. After that, I go to my office and have marketing or business development meetings. From there, I visit my dad, go to a dance class and then go to school.

Wait, you're in school, too?

Yep, I'm working toward a graduate degree right now. I'd rather not name the school because I like being anonymous, but I've figured out how to go to school two to three times per week.

 

How do you manage your business when you travel for tennis matches?

My job is to know what’s happening. Most of the time—I'd say 99 percent of the time—I will get asked a question and say yes immediately. The other 1 percent, I may offer a different point of view.

People [in my companies] run in their lanes. My lane is design, marketing and business development. We have an amazing COO—everyone loves her. It is really nice to have time to focus on the areas of the business that interest me most.

When I'm gone, I feel like I'm missing my babies growing up. It is a nice feeling to come home and be with them.

 

What is the best business advice you've received?

I need to call out to Serena on this one. When she was 17 years old, she told me, “Since you have to show up, why not compete?" I feel like we often hold ourselves back from competing because of a fear of failure. Some entrepreneurs will fail and some will succeed, but it is important to look at failure as a teacher.

 

So many people aspire to start a business but worry that they don't have enough time. You are the embodiment of someone who makes it work. What advice can you offer to people who worry about the juggling act?

Focus on time management. We all have more time than we think we do. When I was studying accounting, I was working so hard that one of my eyes would start to get blurry. But then I would take on schoolwork in 30-minute increments. I would tell myself that every bit counted.

Sometimes you have to make every minute count—a half hour, 10 minutes. Making the most of the time you have and not wasting any of it can help you reach your full potential.

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Katie Morell specializes in feature writing, breaking news and corporate communications.