Serena Williams Breaks Diversity Barriers Through Venture Capital

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Serena Williams, who made waves in the tennis world, is shaking up the venture capital industry. Her early-stage venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, invests in startups with diverse teams. Williams drives herself to improve diversity in the startup world and has over 50 portfolio companies that total $33 billion in assets under management.

Launched in 2014, over 60% of the companies Serena Ventures has invested in have diverse founders. Serena Ventures primarily invests in early-stage startups. Williams uses her vast network to offer startup founders unique mentorship opportunities and encourage collaboration among the companies in her portfolio.

Lack of Diversity in Traditional Venture Capital Firms

Alison Rapaport Stillman, a general partner at Serena Ventures, noted that traditional venture capital firms avoid investing in products and services they are unfamiliar with. This can disproportionally affect the opportunities available for women- and minority- founded startups and prevent them from getting the funding they need to get their ideas off the ground.

Stillman said, “We think it’s important to look beyond where traditional venture is focusing because there are a ton of opportunities that they’re not funding products and services for.” As a general partner, Stillman is in charge of sourcing new investment opportunities and portfolio management.

Serena Williams Ventures
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Initially, Serena Ventures focused primarily on investing in women. It has since expanded its criteria to provide funding for women, Black, and Hispanic founders. Minority women founders are especially interesting to Williams due to the unique challenges they face.

With male-founded startups, investors tend to take an optimistic view of their ambitions to redefine and capture new markets. With female-founded startups, on the other hand, there is greater focus on potential risks and losses. The potential for women to build successful, large-scale startups is routinely underestimated.

Williams says, “Black female founders exist at the intersection of these challenges, making it exponentially more difficult for them to get the funding they need. My firm, Serena Ventures, invests in early-stage entrepreneurs who often pitch us with just a vision. When thinking through what role I wanted to play as an investor, funding early-stage ventures was a no brainer. I look to support the dreamers and the visionaries of the future, while giving them the opportunity to capitalize on their genius.”

About Serena Ventures

The startups in the portfolio of Serena Ventures span the e-commerce, food, fashion, and health and wellness industries. Some of the companies in her firm’s portfolio include MasterClass, Daily Harvest, Coin Tracker, and Little Spoon.

Females lead Serena Ventures’ team, which helps with diverse deal flow. Founders who identify with the investment team are more comfortable sharing their personal ambitions and visions for their startups.

“For me success is when you don’t have to have the quota,” says Stillman. “You just naturally wake up and you say, like, ‘wow, 75% of my founders are women.’”

The Williams Family of Skilled Entrepreneurs

In addition to her venture capital activities, Williams is a skilled entrepreneur. She created a successful line of clothing, handbags, and jewelry. Her husband, Alexis Ohanian, shares her entrepreneurial spirit. As co-founder of Redditt, Ohanian invests primarily in tech startups. Williams and Ohanian married in 2017.

Serena Williams Promoting Diversity and Philanthropy

Outside of early-stage startup funding, Serena Ventures has engaged in broader community initiatives to promote diversity in the talent pipeline. Serena Ventures recently partnered with MaC Venture Capital and actor Michael B. Jordan to create a diversity-based startup pitch competition. The startup pitch founders must be students or alumni of historically black colleges or universities. Winners are awarded up to $1 million in structured safe investments.

Beyond supporting diversity in business, Williams has devoted her time and money to many philanthropic causes. In 2018, Williams opened the Yetunde Price Resource Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping trauma victims. She named the center affter her oldest half-sister, whom a drive-by shooter senselessly killed in 2003.

When Williams discusses the diverse startup founders she invests in, she reflects upon the obstacles she faced throughout her tennis career. She said, “My life story is one of breaking barriers and championing inclusion, on and off the court. Coming up in a predominantly white male sport, I have been underestimated and underpaid throughout my career. Now, as a venture capitalist investing in early-stage startups, I see myself in the Black female founders who are often counted out right from the start. The Black female founder begins her fundraising journey already down a match point.”