INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—A lot of players have no idea what they'll do once they're done chasing ranking points on tour, but Venus Williams isn't one of them.
That's because she's already running two businesses—three if you count her tennis career, still going strong since turning pro in 1994. The 38-year-old is the owner of the fashion brand EleVen, which makes clothing for tennis, yoga, fitness and dance, and of V Starr Interiors, an interior design company.
Many people look up to Venus as a tennis icon, but she's also a trailblazer in the field of entrepreneurship. Getting her first business off the ground meant entering unfamiliar territory that she had to embrace while still in the throes of a packed playing schedule.
"For me, it was very exciting," Williams told TENNIS.com. "I think it's a moment of excitement—obviously there are moments when you don't know what you're doing. I think that's what makes it so amazing when you succeed."
Williams was one of many stars at Monday night's Citi Taste of Tennis event in Indian Wells. The events are created by the mother-daughter owned company, AYS. Williams is a big fan of the founders, Penny and Judi Lerner, who are their own self-made success story.
Judi Lerner had experience working tennis tournaments, and when her daughter lost her job, she suggested they go into business together. They're celebrating their 20th anniversary this year.
"We did it together just from sheer will," Penny Lerner told TENNIS.com. "When we started with the Taste of Tennis concept many people in tennis said, no way, it'll never work. Every single person from the top down said, 'No, tennis is not the platform.'"
Undeterred, the Lerners pushed ahead, drawing heavily on their love for food, friendships with chefs and networking skills.
"The first one was in New York at the W Hotel. We had 250 people and 13 chefs. They were pretty much 150 of my personal friends—mine and Judi's," says Lerner. "Andre Agassi showed up, and he stayed. From that it became what it is."
Citi Taste of Tennis has thrived, becoming a must-see event at four big stops on the calendar: Indian Wells, Miami, D.C. and New York. Last year, Citi Bank became the title sponsor.
"It's pretty incredible to work with such a large company that has such a strong understanding of women in business and how to help us grow," says Lerner. "They took a chance on us."
The first steps in launching a business can be daunting, as Williams learned firsthand. Having a support team and having the courage to put your ideas out there is critical.
"You try your best and you have to learn from your mistakes and you know that no matter what sometimes you're not going to get it right," says Williams. "It's just about learning and adjusting as quick as you can. The sky is the limit. Just believe in yourself and live your dream. That's the most important thing."
There's a lot that has to happen before getting to see the creative final products, be it Williams' latest EleVen dress or pulling off a Citi Taste of Tennis party.
"My advice is keep focused, stay educated, learn about the back of the business. I think that's something we didn't know about," says Lerner. "It's not just about what you think is good, it's what the team makes that's good.
"A lot of women in business feel like, well, I'll just do it by myself. You have to step back and let your staff do it—you're not going to be there forever. If you want to grow your business you have to step away and let it grow."
Lerner has learned the ropes and gotten to grow alongside her mother Judi, making their team atmosphere a unique one.
"We cry with tissue boxes in the office and then we celebrate with shots after work when it goes well," says Lerner. "My mom is kind and honest. She's kinder than me and more honest than me. Now we're at the point where we only work with people that are kind and honest."
Williams is also very particular about who she chooses to surround herself with.
"I really look for people that are better than me because I want to learn," says Williams. "I look for people that are easy going, but love to work hard, and love what they do and bring that passion and really want to be a part of a team. Also, people that know how to laugh, because otherwise there's no point."
Teamwork is a big part of succeeding in business. Williams isn't walking any path alone, unless it's serving out a match. She has a team surrounding her on tour, more teams helping her grow her businesses, and she isn't afraid to seek out help, while becoming the kind of established figure many want to ask advice from themselves.
"In the very beginning I didn't even know that I should have mentors," says Williams. "I think that's what a young entrepreneurs should take advantage of, those people that do have that knowledge. There's so many people willing to share it."