At the entrance of the Starrett-Lehigh building on Manhattan’s West Side—a fashion hub and frequent photo shoot venue—it dawns on me that in the case of Venus Williams, congratulations are very much in order. But where to begin?
Should I congratulate her on her brilliant match against Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open? Or on becoming an aunt to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. (sister Serena’s newborn with Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian)? Or on her multiple, successful forays into entrepreneurship? As Williams’s recent milestones tick across my mind, her entourage arrives at the building’s imposing entrance. Murmurs slowly build as those around us realize that yes, that is Venus Williams walking by you right now—I myself even stand a little taller, ready to welcome the fifth-highest-ranking player in the WTA singles into the building.
But once we’re on the 16th floor, inside a studio where unparalleled views of the Meatpacking District await, Williams isn’t so much a distant, iconic figure—instead, like the rest of us, she’s just here to do the job. She’s immediately welcomed into a room of colleagues and champions alike—everyone, including her go-to beauty team, is ready to see her win, whether it be during this photo shoot for DuJour’s December cover or for her many other power moves (which, I’ll come to find out, are all part of a master plan). And although everyone’s attentiveness remains high in her presence, the quiet powerhouse displays a down-to-earth vibe throughout the rest of the morning. It’s almost like the living legend that is Venus Williams is really just one of us.
Although to me (and to everyone else in the room trying to pretend otherwise) she’s not. Not even close.
There’s a crucial difference between a celebrity and a legend. And at 37, Venus Williams is already definitively the latter. At the age of 14, Williams slammed her way into professional tennis at the Bank of the West Classic, aspiring to emulate the hard work and perseverance of idols like Althea Gibson and Billie Jean King. She did just that, going on to win seven Grand Slam singles titles, and becoming an international icon for young women in her own right. Today, she is tied for the record for most Olympic medals won by a tennis player (male or female), and continues to carve out her due place in history. But we aren’t here just to talk about tennis; Williams is just as much a force of nature in the style department, and has used her aesthetic touch to build two businesses from the ground up: clothing line EleVen by Venus Williams and interior design firm V Starr Interiors.
Besides my lavishing praise on every article of clothing Venus is wearing—a sports jacket paired with trainers and leather leggings, mind you—and a morning well-spent bonding with her New York team, not much talking gets done on the day of the shoot. So ahead of the 2017 Hong Kong Open, I catch Williams for a call on her way to the airport. After competing in Hong Kong, she will go onto the WTA Finals in Singapore, where she’ll advance to the finals. That’s not to mention the Australian Open, which is right around the corner in January 2018. And through it all, she serves as founder and CEO to two businesses. How does she do it?
“There’s no normal day,” she says. “But I think if I wanted normal, then maybe I wouldn’t have become a tennis player because nothing is normal about it.” Again, Williams isn’t a mere mortal; she is a legend. A legend, mind you, with exceptional taste. “I enjoy all of it,” she says. “That’s what helps me to balance it all—you find joy, and you figure out how to make it work.”
V Starr Interiors, based out of South Florida, tackles both residential and commercial spaces with a fresh Floridian aesthetic. “Our philosophy is not complicated: we do it right and we do it on time,” reads V Starr’s website, where you can view all the firm’s recent projects, including the new suites, and outdoor decks for Chicago’s Midtown Athletic Club.
EleVen, which launched in 2012 and is set to premiere three new athletic and ready-to-wear collections in January 2018, echoes a similar ethos of greatness: “We believe in motivating people to aspire to their greatest potential,” reads its mission statement. While both companies boast impressive portfolios and reflect confident business savvy, Williams’s tennis chops still define her public image – despite the fact that she has dreamed of entrepreneurship almost as long as she’s been playing professionally.
“I think it all started probably at about 18 when I got this letter in the mail, soliciting me to go to a design school in Tampa,” she says of her introduction to the field, at a time when she was already ranked top five internationally as a professional player. “That really kind of got me to think about what I wanted to study and do afterwards.” Williams eventually earned a degree in fashion design from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 2007 as well as a bachelors of science in business administration from Indiana University East. If that weren’t enough, she’s also currently working on a masters in interior architecture. “When you’re doing commercial design, most states require a license,” she says. “My goal was always to be a licensed interior designer, that was always my end goal.”
Both in sport and design, Williams has many goals, although there’s one in particular that stands out from the rest: winning. Like she recently told Fast Company: “If you’re not first, you’re last,” and “If you don’t do it, someone else will.’” Williams doesn’t downplay her success as luck or mere happenstance; she acknowledges her own excellence. So when I ask her how ridiculous a question like what her goals might be is, she reciprocates the humor in it all. “My goal is to see someone else win it! I don’t wanna win!” she jokes before taking a more serious tone. “There’s never another goal, never another goal, especially for me. I’ve won before, I know what it takes, and I know what it’s like,” But, she adds, she also knows when to accept defeat. “I don’t dwell on the past either,” she says. “The past is the past—I’m [just] looking for the next [win].”
Williams credits mother Oracene and father and coach Richard with her superior sportsmanship. “I would not have been playing tennis, or be the person I am without my dad or without my parents. I’m extremely grateful for them. They molded me,” Williams says. Famously, Richard began coaching her and Serena with no prior experience in the sport (he recently became the first inductee of the American Tennis Association’s Hall of Fame for his contributions). But he also made sure they had a backup plan, teaching the sisters the ins and outs of finances to widen their horizons. This, Williams tells me, is where her penchant for entrepreneurship first began. “[At that time] you need someone to push you in the right direction, you need someone to be your motivation,” she says.
Also ingrained in Williams is a passion for equality, for which she and Serena have advocated on and off the court, speaking out about issues like equal pay and simply demonstrating supremacy in competition. Yet it’s when I mention her role as a female icon that Williams surprisingly demurs for the first time. “I feel like I had a lot of amazing role models ahead of me who achieved more in times that were much more trying,” she says, referring to tennis player Althea Gibson, who was the first black athlete to compete in the 1950s when the sport was (still) segregated, and Billie Jean King, who founded the Women’s Tennis Association and beat Bobby Riggs during their infamous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, a trending topic thanks to a 2017 film by the same name. These women, along with those who followed, continue to inspire Venus amid her undeniable impact on the landscape. After all, Williams was the first women’s Wimbledon champion to earn as much as the men’s champion Roger Federer in 2007 after advocating for equal pay. “The only way to face things is head-on,” Williams says of her political philosophy. “You have to find a bridge and encourage people to do the right thing.”
Ultimately, Williams is more of an ambassador than a mover and a shaker – which has clearly served her well in business. While it’s commonplace these days to see celebrities to parlay their success into merch, fragrances and more, the success of V Starr and EleVen demonstrate a range of talent that is truly unique to Williams. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t feel the pressure of her own track record. “I’m so used to pressure in my life that I don’t think I could live without it,” Williams says. “Pressure is a privilege, and I’m okay with that.”
While pressure may be a privilege, it’s not one that Williams is showing any signs of feeling—in a return to her nonchalant fashion, as if one should expect anything else, the true formula to Venus Williams’s success remains the same. “You have to put in the work,” she says, “and once that work is put in, then there you go. It’s the same thing that happens in sports. You don’t just start in the main draw of Wimbledon, you work your way there. [I don’t want] to be put in a box,” she says. “I love being great at tennis, but just because you’re an athlete doesn’t mean you’re not a well-rounded person who is perfectly capable of achieving other things.”