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Serena Williams Shifts Baseline to VC Court Aiming to empower people of color, especially women, Washington-based Serena Ventures has thus far funded over 15 Unicorns, including MasterClass, Tonal, Impossible Foods, Noom and Esusu, among others

By Soumya Duggal

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Serena Williams

Serena Jameka Williams, a giant in the world of professional tennis, is retiring, nay, 'evolving away' from the sport she has identified with throughout her life towards other interests, one of them being venture capital.

Penning a poignant essay—"The Hardest Thing"— in the Vogue magazine, Williams talks about the anguish behind giving up all-consuming tennis in favour of those pursuits which have a better work-life balance and allow more family time. "In my own life, the balance has been slowly shifting toward Serena Ventures... Every morning, I'm so excited to walk downstairs to my office and jump onto Zooms and start reviewing decks of companies we're considering investing in," she says.

Serena Ventures, a Washington-based venture capital firm, was launched in 2014. This year, it raised a $111 million inaugural fund to invest in "founders with diverse points of view", as per Williams. Besides the four-time Olympic gold medallist, the VC firm has got on board investors such as Alison Rapaport Stillman, a Harvard graduate and CFA chartholder, Pavan Sethi, one of the founders of web3 social network Cent, and Ashele Woods, previously a fellow at the prestigious Kemper Scholars Program.

"We're a small but growing firm of six people scattered between Florida, where I mainly live, Texas, and California... I really fell in love with early stage, whether it's pre-seed funding, where you're investing in just an idea, or seed, where the idea has already been turned into a product," says Williams in her Vogue essay. She further states that she signed one of the very first cheques for MasterClass, one of the 16 Unicorns funded by Serena Ventures that include Tonal, Impossible Foods, Noom and Esusu, among others. Moreover, 78 per cent of the firm's current portfolio is comprised of women and people of colour because, in Williams' words, "That's who we are."

"On the other hand, my husband is white, and it's important to me to be inclusive of everyone. Serena Ventures has been an all-female business until recently, when we brought in our first guy—a diversity hire!" says the tennis star. In the course of her thoughtful and thematically varied essay, Williams also recounts attending a conference organized by JPMorgan Chase a few years ago, where Clear CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker happened to mention that less than 2 per cent of VC money goes into the pockets of women entrepreneurs. Sceptical of the statistic, Serena sought a confirmation from Caryn, which she received, however jarring its implication was.

"I kind of understood then and there that someone who looks like me needs to start writing the big cheques. Sometimes, like attracts like. Men are writing those big cheques to one another, and in order for us to change that, more people who look like me need to be in that position, giving money back to themselves. I'm so grateful to women like Caryn as well as Sheryl Sandberg and others who have mentored me. It's important to have women like that who believe in you and who push you to think bigger and do bigger," explains Williams.

Drawing inspiration from such experiences, Serena Ventures states that cheque-writers should be change agents, who invest in products and ideas that "unlock value for investors, doors for founders and opportunities for everyone to live better". An athlete, businesswoman, philanthropist and mother, Serena Williams is at the helm of things at her VC firm as its managing partner. She claims to approach business like she does a match on the tennis court—which is to say that with 23 Grand Slam titles to her credit, Williams plays to win.

Soumya Duggal

Former Feature Writer

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