She’s got 23 Grand Slam titles, and, according to Forbes, an estimated fortune of $225 million ($29 million in the past year alone, the highest annual income of her career)—and she didn’t make most of it on the court. Serena Williams is the first athlete to make it onto the magazine’s annual list of the World’s Richest Self-Made Women and is also rightfully its cover star.
Serena, No. 80 on Forbes’ newly expanded list of 80 dynamic (and ridiculously wealthy) “ceiling crashers” joins fellow black phenoms Oprah (No. 10), Sheila Johnson (No. 31), Rihanna (No. 37—now named the world’s wealthiest female musician with an estimated $600 million fortune), Beyoncé (No. 51), and Janice Bryant Howroyd and family (No. 53). Suffice to say, we’ve had our issues with some of Forbes’ other iterations of this list; namely, the cover star of last year’s Women Billionaires issue, “self-made” mogul Kylie Jenner, who resides at No. 23 on this list. (Billionaire? Probably. Self-made? Definitely not.)
But this time, Forbes got it right, as Serena’s particular brand of “started from the bottom, now we’re here” business savvy is on par with her athletic prowess. Not content to simply rely on her very lucrative endorsement deals with brands like Nike, JPMorgan Chase, Pampers and Lincoln, the tennis star has also become an avid and strategic investor, with stakes in 34 startups, now under the umbrella of the recently launched Serena Ventures.
“I want to be a part of it,” she tells Forbes. “I want to be in the infrastructure. I want to be the brand, instead of just being the face.”
One of her savviest moves? Investing in companies founded by women and minorities, which comprise 60 percent of her investments, to date. These are startup segments largely ignored by most investors; in fact, Forbes reports only 2.3 percent of total U.S. venture capital invested last year went to women-led startups, with similarly dismal numbers for black and Hispanic founders.
But where many venture capitalists see risk, Serena sees potential rewards, getting in on most of her investments—predominantly focused on e-commerce, food, fashion and health—at the seed level. Poshmark, Bumble, women’s co-working space The Wing, and direct-to-consumer women’s razor brand Billie are all part of her portfolio, in addition to as-yet-unknown shops on the rise.
“It’s fun to get in there. I don’t gamble. I don’t jump off buildings,” she said. “I’m the most non-taking-a-chance kind of a person, but I felt like seed was where we wanted to be.”
And then, there’s her own clothing line, Serena, which is due to move into jewelry soon, with beauty due to launch in 2020. Serena tells Forbes that the decision to strike out on her own instead of inking another branding deal was nothing short of revelatory.
“I was thinking of this the wrong way,” she said. “I had to invest in myself.”
And though Serena’s success is arguably largely self-made, she readily admits to having mentors, including Facebook COO, Lean In guru and friend Sheryl Sandberg (No. 12 on this year’s list) and especially husband and tech investor Alexis Ohanian, himself worth $70 million, according to Forbes’ estimations.
“I’ve been really leaning on Alexis,” Serena says. “I’d like to call us a more modern business family.”
“She is determined to be great at everything she does,” says Ohanian, in turn.
And while Serena’s showing at the recent French Open may not have turned out the way she’d hoped, she maintains the same approach to her business as her storied serves.
“I want to create a brand that has longevity, kind of like my career,” she says. “It’s not fancy, it’s not here, it’s not out, it’s not trendy, it’s a staple, like my tennis game.”