Athlete. Entrepreneur. Best-selling author. Olympic Gold medalist. Activist. Designer. Daughter. Sister. Champion. Each of these describes Venus Williams, but on their own they fail to capture the sum of her person.
Growing up in a tight-knit family and coached by her parents Richard and Oracene, Williams entered the pro ranks of the Women’s Tennis Association when she was 14 years old. Her attacking style and impressive physicality immediately caught the attention of the tennis industry. Soon, the whole world was watching Williams rack up 43 WTA Tour titles, three Olympic Gold medals, break the record for fastest serve ever recorded (129 mph) and compete in the longest finals match in Wimbledon history (two hours and 45 minutes).
A relentless work ethic was ingrained in Williams since birth. After four to five hours of practice a day, her father would hold family discussion about economics and social Darwinism, while her mother concentrated on fostering a curious nature and a powerful sense of self-worth in her daughters. Both parents expressed the value of thinking entrepreneurially.
Some high-level athletes implode from the dual stress of competition and fame, but with her bedrock upbringing Williams has only ever asked for more to be heaped upon her formidable shoulders.
In the early 2000s, when her domination of women’s tennis was just beginning to peak, she enrolled in an interior design program and became a Certified Interior Decorator. In 2002 she started V*Starr Interiors, a company that specializes in commercial and residential interior design. She followed that by obtaining an associated degree in fashion design and launching EleVen, her line of signature fashionable sportswear. Williams also recently enrolled in an online program at the University of Indiana East to pursue a degree in business.
In July of 2010, HarperCollins published “Come To Win: Business Leaders, Artists, Doctors, and Other Visionaries on How Sports Can Help You Top Your Profession” by Williams and co-author Kelly E. Carter. In the book, Williams interviews such luminaries as Sir Richard Branson, Condoleezza Rice, and Vera Wang about how their early experiences as competitive athletes helped forge their successful careers. A topic close to her heart, the book was a labor of love for Williams. That labor paid off when the book became a New York Times best seller.
The stakes are high for anyone in the public spotlight. Getting caught in some sort of TMZ-starlet publicity scandal is not a reality for Williams. Instead, Williams feels pressure to be a positive force, especially when it comes to her young female fans.
Williams had long-admired legendary tennis pioneer Billie Jean King, who had been vocal on the topic of unequal prize money between male and female players. In 2005, Williams met with Wimbledon officials to discuss the negative message they were sending to future and current female athletes by paying them less than the men. Wimbledon refused to budge. On the eve of Wimbledon in 2006, Williams published an essay in the New York Times, decrying the double standard. Her impassioned point of view quickly picked up momentum as well as powerful admirers who were willing to take up the cause. In 2007, Wimbledon announced parity in the prize money for its male and female champions.
Later that year, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) teamed up with Williams and bestowed her the title of “UNESCO Promoter of Gender Equality.” Williams continues to speak to groups about empowering women.
Williams has made strides in gender equality off the court as well. In 2009, she announced that she and her sister Serena had become limited partners in the NFLs Miami Dolphins. They are the first African-American women to obtain ownership of an NFL franchise.
The greatest opponent Williams would face made its presence known in the summer of 2011. For months she had battled a frustrating mix of symptoms that included fatigue, muscle aches, shortness of breath, and an inability to recover during a set. Doctors were convinced it was adult-onset asthma, but nothing they prescribed brought any relief. It was finally discovered that she suffers from Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease in which immune cells attack saliva and tear glands.
Living with the disease has brought about major changes in Williams’ lifestyle. Like any other opponent, though, Williams has attacked it in her usual aggressive style. She has become an advocate of a vegan/raw foods diet, which helps minimize the inflammation brought on by the condition. No more of her favorite cherry pies, as sugar is strictly verboten. Her training is now tempered with one or more rest days per week. As she returns to competitive tennis she is still learning how her body reacts and recovers.
What will life be like after tennis for Venus Williams? She claims that she will relax full-time, but anyone who knows her even a little bit knows that is ridiculous. Two thriving businesses, V*STARR and EleVen, will demand her time, and she is constantly driven to acquire new skills. The hard work and discipline that has been developed over a lifetime won’t simply fade away. There will always be new challenges. And there will be laughter, of course. There’s always plenty of laughter.