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Serena Williams and “The Champion Mindset”

  |   Leadership

Serena Williams is the CEO of Serena Ventures, a four-year 14-billion-dollar venture firm (16 unicorns) — with a focus on funding female entrepreneurs. No less than 78% of her funding is towards women and people of color. Her defining moment was when she heard Caryn Seidman Becker, CEO of security company Clear, mention that less than 2% of VC funding goes towards women (that number is around 3% now). She wanted to change that and that led her to start her own venture firm. Serena is no novice to investment, starting as an angel investor almost a decade ago (she wrote one of the first checks for MasterClass), but investing with a strong focus on benefiting women is what makes her firm unique — even though she admits she wants to invest in everyone and that her goal is to ensure better returns across the board. The whole world recognizes her as a sports icon, but her discipline and focus is what makes her a champion — not just in tennis but also in business and fashion!

So, what exactly is “The Champion Mindset”? Here are some of my key takeaways from her session at SAPPHIRE Orlando:

1. Clarity of goal: Serena said that from a very young age, she wanted to be the №1 player. Even though her goal was bold and audacious, she never for once questioned her ability to get there. And she backed it up with extreme hard work and sincerity. She admits that she never takes a day off even now (and wants to change that). Even though she has a weekly appointment for a foot massage, she has only had it twice!

2. Show up every day with passion and intensity: It may sound simple, but it is incredibly hard to follow. It demands an intense work ethic and often requires you to forgo something that you consider less important. The mindset is the same — a champion is someone who spends thousands of hours on their craft — whether on the tennis court or on running a business.

3. Learn from other people’s mistakes: Serena said she watched her elder sister Venus play, carefully learnt from her mistakes, and so avoided making them herself. There are many ways to learn, but nothing teaches you like failure. On the contrary, success is a lousy teacher. Another important element of growing in your craft is to have mentors to lean on and this is very important in every field.

4. Grow every day and don’t blend in: Everyone is unique, and we are all works in progress. We should all grow throughout our life. She believes that hard work never goes waste. Serena mentioned that she often worried that while she was sleeping, someone in Russia was practicing (because of the time zone difference) and would eventually beat her in her game. So, she just wanted to out-work everyone else. Serena was also aware that she looked and played different but then it was better to be her authentic self than trying to blend in!

5. Have multiple interests: The fact that Serena has multiple interests helped her have a life and career even after tennis. She was ultra-keen on becoming a VC and was passionate about fashion long before she retired (she went to fashion school between Wimbledon and the US Open!). Even though the decision to retire was very hard, it was made easier by the knowledge that she had other passions to follow.

The loudest cheers at her SAPPHIRE talk was when she mentioned that her happiest moment was winning the 2017 Australian Open while she was two months pregnant (it was also the saddest because she had to beat her sister in the finals). No one knew that she was pregnant, and she was aware that she would never win a 3-set match. So, she strategically played to win every match in 2 sets!

Walking away from tennis was the hardest part for Serena because she could have played for a few more years as she had no injuries. But she wanted to prioritize her family over her career and made the hard decision. Eventually, success on the court and off it calls for sacrifice! Her essay in Vogue magazine is a must read.

As I was taking my taxi ride to Orlando airport, I mentioned the Serena Williams conversation to Milton, my taxi driver, and he said, “I am sad she did not win the 24th Grand Slam to beat Margaret Court.” That’s the impact of a champion: it generates emotion amongst people long after the person has moved on!

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