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Balancing Act: How Venus Williams Makes A Lasting Impact On And Off The Court

Venus Williams first stepped foot on Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1997. It was during the breakthrough season for the 17-year-old who advanced to the US Open finals as an unseeded newcomer.

Williams’ storied professional tennis career speaks for itself – 49 singles titles, a four-time US Open champion (singles 2000, 2001 and doubles 1999, 2009), and a gender equality fight that brought equal prize money to Wimbledon. 20 years later, she is still wowing tennis fans – and not solely because of her athletic talent.

Beyond the court, Williams leads the athletic apparel line, EleVen by Venus Williams, and the design firm, V Starr Interiors, companies that she founded to nurture her entrepreneurial side and passions for fashion and interior design.

For the second consecutive year, fans pouring into Flushing Meadows will get their first glimpse of Williams as they enter the US Open American Express Fan Experience, which provides virtual tennis activations and hospitality. Williams collaborated with American Express to create the social content series Ace the Open with Venus Williams, and through V Starr Interiors, she provided design direction on elements within the Card Member Club.

“At American Express, we are dedicated to providing memorable experiences for our Card Members, and the US Open continues to serve as the perfect platform for us to engage tennis fans in new and exciting ways through premium access and benefits,” Deborah Curtis, Vice President, Global Experiential Marketing and Partnerships, American Express, said in a released statement.

“We’re thrilled to continue our partnership with Venus Williams – a Card Member, champion and entrepreneur. From delivering a newly designed Card Member Club influenced by Venus herself to a multi-sensory tennis activation, we think that we are delivering services that will truly elevate the US Open experience.”

For Williams, when asked what fans can look forward to when entering the fan experience, she stated that they will see a modern, clean design aesthetic. Adding, “I would love if they can look forward to seeing me with a trophy in the finals [laughing]. I have to do some work towards that; I think it would be the most awesome ending.”

As the ninth ranked player in the world, Williams’ quest to win another women’s singles championship is not far-fetched. After two runner up finishes this season (Australian Open and Wimbledon), Williams is poised to make another run at the world’s top ranking, a distinction she last held in 2002, becoming the first African American woman to hold the top spot in the Open Era. And with five of the top eight women eliminated before the third round in this year’s US Open, the tournament field is wide open.

I spoke with Williams, ranked tenth on FORBES’ 2017 highest-paid tennis players list,  by phone before the start of the US Open. She discussed her partnership with American Express, her entrepreneur adventures, and how she is tackling her 20th US Open appearance.

Glass: How is your partnership with American Express highlighting your off the court experiences?

Venus Williams: The partnership with American Express highlights the things I’ve done off the court especially with interior design and fashion design. It is fun to show what I do off the court and to encourage other business owners. I am able to share the lessons I’ve learned in tennis, how I apply them on the court, and how it has made me better.

Glass: I read that from tennis you’ve learned the lesson of discipline and that you can always achieve more than you thought you could. What is something else that you’ve learned from tennis that you’ve taken to your businesses – V Starr Interiors and EleVen?

Williams: Definitely persistence. It is one of the things you learn as an athlete – even as you learn how to hit the ball – it is persistence. You have to continue to learn and have to continue to change. What could be working in the middle of a match can change, and you have to continue to change your game plan, and that is in business too.

Glass: You’ve said being an entrepreneur is a “choose your own adventure.” What is the boldest adventure that you have been on so far as an entrepreneur?

Williams: Being an entrepreneur is an adventure that does not end. The boldest part is when something is not working because you make plans and do your best and then it does not work. So that in and of itself is the boldest part – reinventing your whole strategy.

Glass: In the past, you discussed that in your businesses you create a culture and give work that is meaningful, honest, and transparent. How would you describe Venus Williams as the boss? What is your leadership style?

Williams: I am just a lot of fun. That’s my whole personality coming through. I am very energetic, but I am also laid back. I am also very empowering, and I like to see people be leaders. And I also like to lead by example. There is nothing that I am going to ask you to do that I have not done. I won’t ask anyone to work any harder because I have worked harder.

Glass: You are one of the hardest working professional athletes out there – 19 US Open appearances and you are four-time champion. At this stage in your career with all that you have accomplished on the court as well as fighting for gender equality, are you your toughest opponent at this stage of your career? What are you still going after?

Williams: I am going after the win. Trust me, it never gets old. It is very addictive, and there is always a euphoria. There is something about knowing that you are putting in the work and then getting the result. Sometimes you put in the work and you don’t get it – you have to reevaluate. I love that pressure. I love the challenge. I will always need that in my life.

Mark Ein And The Washington Kastles Lead World Team Tennis To New Heights

What is your life philosophy?

For tennis legend, Billie Jean King, she believes that men and women can compete together on an equal playing field towards a common goal.

While the gap between men’s and women’s professional sports is gradually becoming narrower and narrower, for three weeks during the midsummer King’s philosophy comes to life.

In 1974, she co-founded the World Team Tennis (WTT) Pro Leaguewhere men and women play professional tennis on the same team and contribute equally to the outcome.

In a sport where fans traditionally root for a home county or hometown player, WTT gives sports fans the opportunity to cheer for their hometown team.

2012 marks the 37th season of WTT, and in Washington DC, sports fans have spent the last four seasons supporting the Washington Kastles. Founded in 2008 by owner, Mark Ein, the Kastles are the defending WTT champions and first team in 36 seasons to complete a season undefeated. Currently, the team is riding a 22-0 win streak and does not show any signs of relinquishing its reign on the leader board.

Ein is no stranger to success on and off the court. He is an investor, entrepreneur and philanthropist who is the Co-Chairman and Principal Shareholder of Kastle Systems, LLC, the country’s leading provider of commercial office building managed security systems. Additionally, he is the Vice-Chairman of Two Harbors Investment Corporation, a NYSE-listed (TWO) residential mortgage REIT.

Over the course of Ein’s 20 year career, he has led $650 million of private equity, venture capital and public company investments. Not to mention, several of his investments have included XM Satellite Radio, Nextel and now WTT.

In 2007, Ein and King met at the US Open, and she told him that she has always wanted to have a team in Washington but never found the right person to partner with. Ultimately, his decision to invest in WTT was the intersection of his passion for tennis and sports, and his desire to create a hub of fun activities for the Washington DC community.

Today King calls Ein a “great ambassador for tennis” and applauds his creativity, as well as his financial and emotional investment in WTT.

WTT Business Model

Each WTT team is comprised of world-class tennis players. The league has featured virtually every major champion of the Open era including Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick, Kim Clijsters, Steffi Graf, and Andre Agassi. The Kastles’ marquee players include Serena and Venus Williams who will play select matches during the season. The remainder of the team, which happens to include 2012 Olympians, Leander Paes and Anastasia Rodionova, will play the full 14 matches and compete for the WTT King Trophy.

Ein recognizes that the length of the WTT season is an unfamiliar model in professional sports, but sees the opportunity for professional tennis to flourish in Washington.

“On one hand it is arguably the shortest professional sports season around. On the other hand, it is the longest tennis event around,” said Ein during an interview with Forbes.com. “If you compare it to other pro sports teams it is very short. If you compare it to a tennis calendar, it is actually the longest.”

The length of the season has not kept fans from visiting the new Kastles Stadium at The Wharf, which is part of a 10-year $2 billion redevelopment project for DC’s Southwest Waterfront. For Ein, rather than bringing people to the tennis, his goal was to bring tennis to the people.

“If you put it right downtown all of the tennis people will come because they love the sport. But when you look around our stadium, less than half the fans are traditional tennis people,” said Ein. “On a business side [team tennis] just appeals to so many different broad groups. It has really been core to our popularity.”

The Washington Kastles’ Future and Growth 

As the Kastles enter its 5th season, Ein is pleased with how successful the franchise has become. Last season the team sold out just about every match with 93% of the seats filled, and it led the league in ticket sales, attendance, and sponsorship revenues by the largest margin.

“Our revenues are comparable to any major sports teams’ to a number of nights, and a number of seats basis,” said Ein.

Ein is not planning to end his investment in sports with WTT, and he is pleased with how his front-office team has learned to effectively market and build support for a sports start-up.

“I think we’ve built a team that has become good at starting, running and growing sports properties and we are looking for ways to grow the business,” said Ein. “The single most important thing is setting the right culture, the right values, and the right mission and being totally consistent to that from the very beginning. At the end of the day, I am most proud of building a team that rallies around a mission, a set of goals, and a set of values and never waivers from it.”

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