A'21: Venus Williams shares her recipe for success

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Design entrepreneur and tennis star Venus Williams sees parallels in her wins both on and off the court.

As Billie Jean King said, pressure is a privilege. Venus Williams carried that mindset through her early years of tennis training and competition, benefitting, she says, from a childhood where her parents emphasized not only her physical training, but her mental training, as well. In addition to being a celebrated athlete—Williams has four Olympic gold medals and seven Grand Slam singles titles, among other accolades—she is also the president and founder of V-Starr, an award-winning South Florida-based interior design company specializing in hospitality, multi-family and luxury residential, and commercial design.

“Pressure is a privilege, but if you don’t frame it in that right mindset, pressure can take you down,” Williams told conference host Roman Mars on the fourth and final day of AIA’s 2021 Conference on Architecture.

As Mars pointed out, rather than simply reducing herself to being a “tennis machine”, Williams has prioritized other goals and interests, as well. She credits the inspiration behind this to her father, Richard Williams, who owed his own security business while she and her sister Serena were growing up.

“My dad had this dream. [He] grew up in the ‘40s in Louisiana as an African American man, so you can imagine, that was a very challenging time and there were not a lot of opportunities. His dream was for his daughters to have those opportunities, and he would always tell us, ‘Be an entrepreneur. Work for yourself.’ Think outside the box, think for yourself, and create your own opportunities.”

The power of diversification

As was the case with many design businesses, Williams’ firm was hit particularly hard during the pandemic.

“So, during that time, that’s when you know you’ve really got all the chips in,” she said. “How do you survive; how do you recover? And those are questions that I think the industry is asking right now. What happens when this next variant comes? What happens when the next superbug comes? What happens when the world crashes again, for whatever reason? How do you prepare for that? So being an entrepreneur is that risk, but there’s no greater satisfaction and pride than actually succeeding at it.”

Williams credits her business’s resilience during the pandemic to its diversification. V-Starr was founded in 2002 as primarily a residential design firm, but when the housing bubble burst, it branched out to hospitality and commercial design.

“A year and a half ago, when everything got a little too crazy for us, we were diverse and that really helped us to get through,” she said. Having a specialty is a good business practice, but there’s also “a wonderful joy in getting outside of your box and spreading your wings and learning something new and challenging yourself in different ways,” she said. “Of course, you always want to have that core competency that you do well and you don’t want opening another sector of your business to run you into the ground, either, so there’s a balance.”

Being coachable

Williams emphasized that a big part of her own success both on and off the tennis court came from her willingness to be coached – that is, a willingness to take instruction and improve. “The greatest people in the world have the greatest coaches,” she said, citing Michael Jordan and his coach Phil Jackson.

As a business leader, that quality translates to evaluating yourself, evaluating your organization, and creating moments for feedback.

“It’s hard to hear that criticism. I hate watching the matches I lose, it hurts to the core,” she said. “[But] as hard as it is to face that, it’s important to do so.” Possessing the humility that allows you to be coached is equally as important, as is finding the right coach for you.

“In a coach, I think you’re looking for someone that suits your personality. It’s got to click. Those can be fellow colleagues, mentors, executive coaches, all those different things. It doesn’t have to be a formal setting, but I would definitely say that a good match is someone you can learn from, and it doesn’t have to be permanent because perhaps there’s other people to learn from, too. You can have a set of coaches,” she said.

Equity in all arenas

In addition to her domination on the tennis court, Williams is also known for being a strong advocate for women’s equality. When she won her first Wimbledon tournament in 2000, she realized she would be taking home less prize money than her male counterparts. “I grew up, trained forever, got on tour, and then got there and realized, ‘Wow, it’s not equal,’” Williams told Mars. Her advocacy for equal pay for male and female tennis players eventually prompted all four Grand Slam tournaments to eliminate their pay gaps. “I had never imagined I could be a part of something so monumental,” she said.

She plans on growing her advocacy work even more in the future. “I’m definitely a lot more interested now in giving back,” she said. Sharing the example of how something as simple as a lack of access to clean water can impact a student’s ability to get an education, she emphasized that even the smallest changes can have big impacts. “While I’ve traditionally been [involved] in equality for women, equality on all levels is so important. Those are things that I’d like to spend my time on. Now, my dream has shifted toward other people.”

Confronting challenge while finding balance

At one point in the conversation Mars probed Williams on her competitive nature. “The idea of loving challenge and hating to lose is a driving force for a lot of people, but you can always overdo it,” he said. “You can hate to lose so much that it stymies you. How do you balance the idea of hating to fail, but also recognizing that you have to overcome it for the next time?”

Williams pointed out that by not allowing yourself to give everything, you hold yourself back from finding out what you’re capable of achieving. “It’s scary failing, it’s horrible, it’s heartbreaking. But also, [it’s about] letting yourself know that there’s going to be a few failures in there on your way to greatness,” she said.

Sports, as Mars pointed out, are a great exercise in confronting a conflict and then letting it go. Williams shared that she has felt that there are times when she has been unfairly represented in the press after a match, and that it has taken mental training to tell herself, “Frankly, I don’t care what you think. My parents taught us that it’s something you have to keep telling yourself.”

Williams also sees a common thread when it comes to design work. “In design, we’re judged on what we design. Our last best designs, did people approve of it, is someone going to hire you because you did a great job or not – and that’s a challenge, balancing that,” she said. “That’s why we’ve got to be able to be coached, but we’ve also just got to be able to let go. It’s a wonderful thing.”

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