The significance of gender diversity in the workplace is no secret and nowhere is the gender divide more apparent than in the tech sector.
This has long-term implications for the tech sector as studies show that the more diverse perspectives there are in the room, the better the ideas, outcomes and ultimately the bottom line.
The recent Women in STEM Decadal Plan found only 27 per cent of girls in Australia are likely to undertake science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in school – the lowest of all Asia-Pacific countries.
“The future of work will be dominated by STEM, but there is a huge shortage of these skills in Australia, with many organisations looking overseas to hire top tech talent,” says Rachel Gately, Co-Founder of Australian advanced machine learning company, Trellis Data. “The IT industry has long been dominated by men, but with digital technologies becoming more prevalent, there’s never been a better time for women to consider a job in the tech sector.”
If you’re thinking about a career in tech, here are six things you need to consider:
The technology sector often tops lists for high salaries and job opportunities – Seek’s latest data found ICT had the jobs with the highest pay in Australia. With COVID-19 forcing organisations to embrace digital, technology jobs are now in a stronger position compared to many other industries. The Federal Government is also investing over one billion dollars in the nation’s technology and innovation capabilities, so not only is there good money but job security is also assured. With strong demand for tech talent, there is more scope for women to build a career and progress quickly.
There’s been a significant shift in work culture in recent years, with parents sharing responsibilities and employees expecting better work-life balance. Businesses now offer greater support for women, allowing them to work from home, part-time, or even providing on-site childcare.
Workplace flexibility has also accelerated over the last 12 months due to the pandemic. This means there is greater opportunity for women to not just enter the tech industry, but to reach senior positions.
According to Gately, “Providing work-life balance is no longer a perk for employers but a must-have. We encourage staff to work the hours that they’re most productive. Some leave work early to coach their kids in sport or pick-up kids from school. Others start late because they prefer to work later. Having women in leadership ensures this attitude towards flexibility is ingrained in company culture.”
Technology needs women
Despite a growing number of jobs in STEM, only a quarter of graduates in technology in the developed world are female – even though more women have degrees than men. So, there is a huge window for women to bridge the gender divide. Science has also found that women have higher intuitiveness and empathy than men, which are traits often missing when developing tech products – female led innovation creates tech with more people in mind. In fact, women are found to be better at connecting tech with business outcomes – according to Fortune, women-led companies have historically performed three times better than those with male CEOs.
Never get bored
We know that technology moves fast. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report found 65 per cent of children starting primary school now, will have jobs that don’t exist yet. This digital future means there is always something new to learn, and scope to get creative to find new solutions. “A career in tech means you’ll never be bored,” says Gately. “We’re always looking for fresh ideas, so my staff have creative freedom to invent and discover new things in technology and machine learning – we specifically set aside time for this each week. It helps foster an environment where people can constantly learn and where everyone has a voice.”
Change the world
Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the internet of things aren’t just transforming businesses but also being used to improve lives. In Russia, Impulse Neiry is using world-first neural interfaces to detect neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s several years in advance, and NASA technology is being used to conserve endangered whale sharks. Tech companies such as Google are also now leading investments in clean energy. There are so many ways to help people, animals and the planet using tech, and women have the potential to be a part of it.
Empower other women
According to a Microsoft survey, girls in the US consider tech careers at age 11 but lose interest soon after, with many blaming a lack of female mentors and gender diversity. With more women taking on STEM roles, we have the power to challenge the status quo and increase the voices of women in the industry. By considering a career in tech, you can empower more young girls to get involved. As a woman in tech, you have the opportunity to present in public forums, share your story with others and raise your profile in the industry.
Melanie Perkins’ $3.2 billion design platform, Canva, is one of the world’s most valuable female-led start-ups. CNBC Make It’s Karen Gilchrist met with the 32-year-old Australian entrepreneur in Sydney to find out how she’s taking on tech giants Microsoft and Adobe. —–
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In an investment industry known for big egos, overconfident analysts and “activists” who routinely tell CEOs how to run their companies, investor Nancy Zevenbergen and her team of four portfolio managers differentiate themselves by simply listening.
Zevenbergen, 61, founder of $5.7 billion (assets) Zevenbergen Capital Investments, believes the crucial job of an investor in today’s economy is to uncover the next great entrepreneur or technological innovation early on. The style is about “optimism and a view toward what the future might be,” she says. According to Zevenbergen, her task is to be curious and “understand the ‘crazy’ visions of new leaders and become investors alongside them.” If she likes a company, her Seattle-based firm will load up and watch from the sidelines, tracking the business patiently and holding their shares so long as growth doesn’t stall. Rarely do they worry too much about valuation.
This humble approach to investing has yielded results that make Zevenbergen among the best investors in the world. She has stuck by mercurial Elon Musk and owned Tesla for about a decade; Tesla’s stock is up 730% this year, and is the top performing stock of the ten years. She discovered Ottawa, Canada-based ecommerce company Shopify and its founder CEO Tobi Lütke in late 2016 when it was trading below $50; it now trades for $1,170.
Last September, Zillow chief executive Rich Barton decided the real estate platform would begin buying homes, leading to complaints from skeptics who sent its shares cratering 20% to below $30. Zevenbergen’s team liked Barton’s experimentation and built a large position. Fifteen months later, Zillow now trades for $140.
With stock-picks like these, Zevenbergen’s Innovative Growth Fund (SCATX) and Genea Fund (ZVGNX) are up a staggering 126% and 154%, respectively, in 2020. Of over 1,000 peer funds tracked by Morningstar, the two mutual funds rank in the top percentile.
Zevenbergen created her firm from her living room in the late 1980s with just $500,000 in assets while she nursed a young child. Her flagship strategy has beaten the S&P 500 Index by around four percentage points annually since 1987, but 2020 was a watershed. Assets more than doubled soaring towards $6 billion, based on performance and inflows to her mutual funds.
Zevenbergen is not the only woman fund manager who has crushed competition in 2020. Forbes found at least a half a dozen firms led by women-led funds that have blown away their peers and drawn in tens of billions of dollars in assets collectively since the start of January.
Cathie Wood, founder of Ark Investments, had the best year of anyone. In 2014, Wood, 65, created Ark with the idea of packaging stock-picking into tax-efficient exchange traded funds, and focusing exclusively on breakthrough innovations in genomics, robotics, financial technology, autonomous driving, digital services, and artificial intelligence.
Six years later, Ark manages nearly $44 billion in assets, up from just $300 million at the end of 2016. This year, Ark funds have pulled in over $10 billion in new assets, led by extraordinary returns. Her flagship Ark Innovation Fund (ARKK) has seen assets soar to $17 billion, fueled by a 154% gain in 2020 and a 46% average annual return over the past five years. Her $6 billion Ark Genomic revolution ETF is up even more this year. “I wanted individual investors to catch the wave,” says Wood of today’s enormous technological change. Her funds were designed for those “willing to step out and away from fixed income and into some of the most exciting stocks in history.”
Ark publishes its financial models, trading logs, and research to the investing public, and the firm’s analysts are happy to engage in discussion on Twitter, opening themselves to criticism and mockery. Wood’s $4,000 a share valuation of Tesla a year ago drew many scoffs on Wall Street. But her heady valuation was spot on. Short sellers have been burned by Tesla’s rise, while female investors like Zevenbergen and Wood have been patient bulls. On Friday, Tesla was added to the S&P 500 Index.
Female investing success in 2020 extends well beyond soaring growth stocks. Women-run funds are leading the way in everything from small cap stocks, to emerging market debt portfolios, dividend paying companies, and sustainable investments.
Amy Zhang, portfolio manager of the Alger Small Cap Focus Fund (AOFIX) and Mid Cap Focus Fund (AFOIX) was hired in 2015 to expand Alger’s presence in niche small and mid-cap stocks. When Zhang arrived at Alger, the Small Cap Focus Fund had just $16 million in assets. Now, after a 54% return in 2020 and a 30% annual average return over the past five years, Zhang’s Small Cap Focus Fund has $7.5 billion in assets.
Top holdings include refrigerated logistics upstart CryoPort and fast casual restaurant Wingstop. Her Mid Cap Focus Fund, launched in mid-2018, has attracted over $500 million in assets as it has soared by 84% in 2020, bolstered by casino operator Penn National Gaming and power equipment manufacturer Generac.
Long before sustainable investments became a prolific buzzword, Karina Funk, an MIT-educated engineer at Baltimore-based mutual fund giant Brown Advisory, was a pioneer in bringing sustainable investments mainstream. Funk, 48, a vegetarian who watches her carbon footprint by biking to work, launched the Brown Advisory Sustainable Growth Fund in June 2012, alongside David Powell, with a goal to back about 35 companies with products improving social and environmental sustainability, or efficient operating footprints.
Its focus on companies like Ball Corp. and American Tower has made it one of the best funds on the planet during down markets. Even in 2020, the fund has gained 38% despite its defensive posture, thanks to savvy picks like life sciences conglomerate Danaher and Etsy, which has empowered many small businesses during the pandemic. Funk can be a tough customer. She exited Facebook in the fall of 2018 due to data privacy concerns.
“Sustainability is a means, not an end in and of itself,” she told Forbesas part of a profile three years ago, when the fund’s assets were just $1.1 billion. “Our end goal is performance. We achieve that by finding fundamentally strong companies using sustainability strategies to get even better.” The fund’s assets have since soared to $4.6 billion.
Other female-led funds that have done well include Capital Group’s $128 billion American Funds New Perspective (ANWPX), led by a team of managers including Joanna Jonsson and Noriko Chen, and the $36 billion in assets JPMorgan Equity Income Fund (HLIEX), led by Clare Hart. The New Perspectives fund has beaten its benchmark by four percentage points annually over the past decade, while Hart’s Equity Income Fund has returned an annualized 11.65%, two percentage points annually above its benchmark, according to data from Morningstar.
Rebecca Irwin, Natasha Kuhikin and Kathleen McCarragher of the $1.3 billion in assets PGIM Jennison Focused Growth Fund (SPFAX) have returned 68% in 2020 and 25% over the past five years, ranking in the top decile of peer funds. At Alger, Ankur Crawford, co-manager of the Alger Spectra Fund (ASPIX) and Alger Capital Appreciation (ACCAX) has seen returns surpass 40% this year.
In fixed income, Tina Vandersteel of the $4.4 billion in assets GMO Emerging Country Debt Fund (GMCDX) has been able to outperform emerging market bond indices despite underweighting China and many Gulf-states due to her skepticism of the veracity of their economic data.
The bull market of 2020 is also creating new opportunities for female fund managers to shine. Two years ago, Julie Biel of Los Angeles-based Kayne Anderson Rudnick, was a rising star at the $30 billion (assets) firm and excited about the looming public offering of software company DocuSign. Known for investing in established businesses, Kayne had never participated in an IPO. Biel was late in her pregnancy as the IPO progressed and trying to win an allocation. She needed a doctor’s note to fly to the Bay Area to meet with DocuSign’s management. Kayne eventually won a large block of shares, quickly becoming one of its largest outside investors.
Biel also began to manage the firm’s KAR Small Mid- Sustainable Growth strategy around that time and made DocuSign the fund’s top holding. Its shares have risen 225% in 2020. This year, Biel’s fund has returned 42% through November. In December, Kayne decided to launch a mutual fund version, launching the strategy, called the Virtus KAR Small-Mid Cap Growth Fund (VIKSK), with Biel in charge.
Like Zevebergen and Wood, Biel is starting small and manages just $60 million. But the investment industry rewards performance above all, hinting at much larger things to come. Entering 2021, Biel’s portfolio is loaded with hidden gems like Ollie’s Bargain Outlet and MarketAxess that could grow for years to come. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Send me a secure tip.
I’m a staff writer and associate editor at Forbes, where I cover finance and investing. My beat includes hedge funds, private equity, fintech, mutual funds, mergers, and banks. I’m a graduate of Middlebury College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and I’ve worked at TheStreet and Businessweek. Before becoming a financial scribe, I was a member of the fateful 2008 analyst class at Lehman Brothers. Email thoughts and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter at @antoinegara
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I recently launched an intimate dinner series called The Whisper Network covering taboo topics facing women’s advancement in the workforce. Many of these topics aren’t addressed because women don’t feel comfortable raising them or might be nervous about repercussions if they are openly talked about in larger forums. As women we tend to have a stronger reliance on one-on-one bonds and smaller, more intimate networks vs. men in order to discuss more controversial subjects such as how much money we might make or not make, how we were passed over for a promotion by a male peer or worse, “the mean girl.”
As we sat around the table, everyone had a story about a mean girl they dealt with in their careers. Certainly, in more male dominated industries, the mean girl, sometimes referred to as the “queen bee” is not just a theory, but a reality. Further, this isn’t just about the women at the top, but also encompasses female peers. With all the focus and momentum on raising each other up as women and building support networks, it should have surprised me that the mean girl continues to present as such a big issue but it didn’t. I hear quite often that while there are so many women walking the walk, there are still many that just talk the talk.
Jennifer DaSilva, President of Berlin Cameron and Founder of Girl Brands Do It Better, wrote an article earlier this year talking about women and the power of community and stated “Among all the women I talk to, the overall sentiment is that the energy of women helping other women is at an all-time high. We’re in a moment where women are less competitive and more willing to help each other succeed. We’re all starting to understand that lifting each other up doesn’t mean you put yourself down.” While I completely agree and as someone who launched a business focused on developing women, I think we need to add to that sentiment: that lifting each other up doesn’t mean you have to put yourself or others down.
Competition is healthy until it’s not. DaSilva also stated in the article that “while women are still supporting each other, [in a recent study] 55% of respondents still feel there’s work to be done. This can especially be said in the corporate world, where a lack of female representation can lead to competition and a lack of camaraderie.” How do we continue to advance and support each other with a little healthy competition in our networks, if we continue to face or be the mean girl at the table?
As a woman, there is heavy competition with men but there seems to be even more competition with some women, mainly because there are fewer of us. This competition is not just at the senior levels of organizations. We live in a culture that perpetuates women’s feelings of insecurity. It’s one the reasons we are banding together to support one another and creating real change. We are also human and filled with insecurities around career advancement, success, financial wealth and power. Company cultures often mirror grade-school school culture, dividing their employees into different groups: top talent, high performers, needs improvement, etc. This can further fuel unhealthy competition, meanness and exclusive behavior.
How we do leave the mean girl at the door but also work with her? It’s hard to escape the mean girl at the office, out with new clients, at women’s events and in other professional environments. “Mean girls exist in business networking events too,” shared Cindy Ashton, CEO of Minerva Enterprises. “They stand in their circle, staring at the other women, making comments on what they are wearing and criticizing what they do. It lowers our self-esteem and confidence. We need to catch ourselves when we get ‘catty’ and reframe – ‘what would it take for me to truly get to know this other woman and collaborate?’” Roll out the welcome mat instead of pulling it out from underneath their feet.
After much deliberation in our dinner, we unanimously decided to call out the mean girl and make them aware of their behavior. At a time when we are calling out certain men for their lack of support, why don’t we call out the women who don’t have our backs and perpetuate the culture we are fighting so hard against? I’m not advocating for confrontation, but I am talking about communication. If we don’t bring awareness to this challenge, those cracks in our networks get larger and success for all vs. just for one decreases.
Focusing on positive reinforcement and how we can work together is just as important as building community with like-minded women and male allies. Share in our successes and in our struggles. We need to team up to help move forward by sharing what we know, how we can support and empower each other, and how we build real community. As women we need to lend our voice and support at the table for other women, become their true advocates for new opportunities, be open and make connections as well as follow through. Walk the walk.
To circle back to DaSilva’s article, Kristy Wallace, CEO of Ellevate Network states “a community is a group of people who are active participants in your success.” Supportive communities celebrate each other and their wins, large and small. This definition of community leaves no room for the mean girl and it’s time to leave her behind. Leading by example is critical and we need to exemplify the qualities we wish to see in others. When we think of the next generation of female CEOs, politicians, activists, entrepreneurs and more, what do we want those women to see when they look up? We don’t want to embrace a future with negativity and bullying. Creating an even playing field that is collaborative and supportive is something I am striving for.
I am the Founder and CEO of Luminary in NYC, the premier collaboration space for women who are passionate about professional development and expanding their networks. Luminary is the ultimate career advocate providing our membership community with unparalleled programming and access to industry leaders and pioneering entrepreneurs. A long-time advocate for empowering women and girls, I serve on the National Board for Girls Inc. I have over twenty years of leadership experience in financial services. Previously, I was the Executive Vice President and Global Head of Multinational Corporate Banking for HSBC managing roughly $2 billion in revenue and teams in 55 countries. Prior to that, I was a Managing Director and Head of Multinational Corporate Banking at J.P. Morgan in EMEA. I’m committed to leveraging my corporate experience to support and encourage women and push for gender parity in the workplace.
Justin McCurry doesn’t like much on his schedule. At most, he sets one thing to do a day. On Monday, that might be volunteering. On Wednesday, it’s likely grocery shopping. On Friday, there’s a good chance he’ll be playing tennis with his wife.
The rest of the time? It’s up to him. Pursuing a hobby, playing video games, doing yard work. It’s not the typical schedule for a 39 year-old with three kids. But that’s what McCurry has done since officially retiring as a transportation engineer in 2013.
In about a decade, he and his wife, Kaisorn, saw their portfolio balloon from a few thousand dollars to $1.3 million, yet neither of them had a job that paid close to six figures. And what’s particularly unusual about McCurry’s journey: He never had a passive income stream – other than his investment portfolio – that helped buffer his paycheck, boosting his ability to save. Instead, he did it all through cutting back and finding intelligent ways to squeeze savings, without sacrificing his lifestyle.
“I realized I had more paycheck than expenses,” said McCurry. “I just knew that saving money was probably a good thing,” as he tried to figure out what to do with the leftover funds each month.
When bloggers and FIRE (financially independent, retire early) voices talk about stepping away from the day job in their 30s and 40s, it’s also often coupled with side gigs that bring in dough, such as real estate or businesses that they built. It serves as a much-welcomed security blanket when managing a retirement that could stretch 50 years or more. For McCurry, though, it wasn’t about passive income streams or growing a sizable real estate portfolio. From 2004 to 2013, he and his wife lived on one income while essentially stashing away the other.
In the meantime, they had three kids, bought a house and have traveled the world.
Don’t Get Overwhelmed by the Size of It All
When McCurry first started saving, he looked at how long he would need to retire, and came up with a number that would let him step away from the job 20 years later. Even though he never was a big spender, the number seemed daunting.
“Knowing I would have to chug away for a decade or two,” said McCurry, “it’s almost like a pie in the sky.”
It made it difficult for him to see the benefits at first because that number was so large and the timeframe so long. This isn’t much different than when people set out for retirement on 40-year timeframes.
Researchers have found that the more someone connects with their future-self, meaning can view their future self with the same empathy and concern as their current self, the more they will save.
This ability to connect with the future self may be easier on this shortened timeframe. But it’s not guaranteed.
For McCurry, it became easier to handle as he continued to refine his plan, saving more than he and his wife ever expected they could. Then, after a few years, he started seeing the impact of compound interest.
He would place around $60,000 in the portfolio in a year, while the investments would return $100,000. McCurry soon realized that his 20-year plan had shrunk in half.
Cut Your Taxes
One of the most important ways McCurry saved was on taxes. At one point, he took the family’s joint income of $150,000, and managed to realize a tax hit of just $150.
His wife maxed out her 401k as well, while also doing the same in a health savings account and a flexible spending account. He then used a series of deductions, from the standard one to exemptions to child credits to reduce that income line to $28,950, leaving just a $150 tax liability.
McCurry took the approach that the tax breaks providing a discount to his savings. At the time, he would invest around $60,000 a year in tax-advantaged accounts. With that money, he locked in about $15,000 in tax breaks. That $60,000 investment, in actuality, only cost him around $45,000 if you count the tax break.
“It’s a little easier to save $45,000 versus $60,000,” McCurry said.
Design For the Worst Case Scenarios
One reason that McCurry’s timeframe shifted from 20 years to 10, despite lacking an additional income source, was simply because of the amount of buying he did when times looked bleak in 2007 through 2009.
He’s not like many in the FIRE world, constantly checking the portfolio, feeling the joy as the dollars increased, bringing him one step closer to quitting the day job. Instead, he mostly checks the accounts once a quarter, figuring out where he stands and if he needs any adjustments to his contributions.
“The last quarter in 2007, I noticed huge drops in our net worth,” remembered McCurry.
It didn’t deter him.
“I put as much as I could into the stock market each month, knowing I’m buying these shares at half or a third from where they were,” he added. “It was a buying opportunity of a lifetime.”
When the stocks began to turn in 2009, then his net worth went into hyper-drive. Since stepping away with $1.3 million, he’s now worth over $2.1 million, largely due to the fact that he now earns a little income from his blog, RootofGood.com (which means he doesn’t have to tap as much investment income) and the performance of his investments through a decade-long bull run.
But McCurry is savvy enough to realize the market will pull back at some point.
That’s where he taps his engineering muscle. As an engineer, you always prepare for the worst-case scenario. If what you’re building works under that scenario, then it will work, theoretically, in all other cases. When he looks at his portfolio, if the market drops 40%, then it would reach the levels he started with when he first retired.
He might spend a little less, but with a 3.25% rate of withdrawal from his investments, his family would be “totally fine,” he said.
n Serena Williams’ calendar—which is to calendars what Jackson Pollock paintings are to art—Saturdays are designated family time. The Saturday I’m with her in Rome (she was in New York earlier in the week and will be in Paris the following one) carries extra significance. Exactly four years ago, in exactly that Eternal City, she met her husband, Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of online community Reddit.
The two celebrate, in part, with the kind of outing anyone who’s not the most famous woman athlete in the world takes for granted: a stroll in a hotel garden with their joint venture, 22-month-old Olympia, in tow. It’s more romantic than it sounds: The Rome Cavalieri goes so far as to call its 15-acre garden a “private park,” littered with marble and bronze, lions and unicorns.
The regal surroundings befit a historic figure of American sport, who has 23 Grand Slam titles and has blown away any number of barriers and stereotypes. And the unicorns? Between Reddit and his $500 million fund, Initialized Capital, Ohanian does his part. But it turns out that Williams has quietly been playing that game, too. She’s now the first athlete ever to hit Forbes’ annual list of the World’s Richest Self-Made Women, with an estimated fortune of $225 million, the vast majority of it having come via her brain and brand rather than her backhand. And over the past five years, she’s been quietly dropping money into 34 startups. In April, Williams formally announced that Serena Ventures is open for business, to fund others and launch companies herself.
Athletes are richer than ever, thanks to the explosion in TV rights fees for live sporting events, which trickle down to players. The 50 highest-paid athletes in the world made $2.6 billion last year, versus $1 billion 15 years ago. And Williams is hardly the first to put newfound disposable income to active work—in the NBA alone, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have all launched media companies, and Durant, Andre Iguodala and Carmelo Anthony are active venture capital investors. But she is one of the few specifically gearing investments around a single north star: herself.
“I want to be a part of it,” she says, sitting at the hotel. “I want to be in the infrastructure. I want to be the brand, instead of just being the face.” Given her longtime background in style and design, that means overweighting on fashion lines, jewelry and beauty products. Yes, she’ll keep competing at tennis—her resilient comeback last year after giving birth burnished her as a cultural icon who transcends sports. And sure, she’ll happily continue to rake in easy endorsement money from the likes of Nike and JPMorgan Chase—her $29 million total income over the past 12 months is the highest of her career.
But like a ground stroke with torque, Williams bets she can eventually dwarf those figures by leveraging some of her own cash with her name and fame.
The story of how sisters Serena and Venus Williams reached the top of the tennis world is the stuff of Hollywood legend: a black father with limited tennis experience homeschools his two daughters and teaches them on the streets of Compton, California, to penetrate and then dominate a lily-white sport. “You’d see different people walking down the street with AK-47s and think, Time to get in the house,” she remembers of those early years. “When you hear gunshots, you get low.”
Their father’s insistence that his precocious daughters avoid the private tennis academy machine and well-oiled junior tournament circuit left a mark on the younger one, especially after she won her first Grand Slam title at age 17. “It really shaped me for the rest of my career both on and off the court in terms of taking a chance and how to be different and how to stand out,” Williams says of his strategy. When everyone zigs, she zags.
So at Serena Ventures, she focuses on companies founded by women and minorities. Yes, there’s a social purpose to that decision. But as with her tennis upbringing, she’s also finding opportunity by avoiding the herd. Just 2.3% of the total venture capital invested last year in the U.S. went to women-led startups—and even when including firms with both a male and female founder, you’re just at 10%. The numbers are worse for black and Hispanic founders. Yet some 60% of Williams’ investments so far have gone to companies led by women or people of color. “What better way to preach that message?” asks Williams.
The only way to find enough of those companies right now is to nurture them early, something that Williams got hooked on after investing and losing (eventually) $250,000 in a startup in the years before Serena Ventures. “I learned you can’t overspend, but I also learned that I love seed investing,” she says. Of the 34 companies she’s backed through Serena Ventures, more than three quarters are early-stage.
“It’s fun to get in there. I don’t gamble. I don’t jump off buildings,” says Williams. “I’m the most non-taking-a-chance kind of a person, but I felt like seed was where we wanted to be.”
Given the exponential riskiness involved in pre- and early-revenue companies, Williams has built a team of Silicon Valley mentors around her, much as Patrick Mouratoglou has guided Williams on the court and WME’s Jill Smoller has handled her endorsements—almost a quarter-billion worth—for nearly two decades. There’s Chris Lyons, from Andreessen Horowitz, who is an informal advisor and friend. “She is more passionate than 99% of the people in this space,” says Lyons. “She’s reaching out to me regularly asking what we think of companies.”
There’s Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, a longtime friend, with whom she serves on the board of SurveyMonkey. “I always ask her advice in a lot of different areas,” Williams says. (The tennis star is also on the board of the social shopping platform Poshmark.)
But one mentor stands above the rest—the one she married. “I’ve been really leaning on Alexis,” she says. Williams had never heard of Reddit when the pair met in 2015 and Ohanian knew little about tennis. But they bonded over ambition. “She is determined to be great at everything she does,” says Ohanian, who Forbes estimates is worth $70 million on his own.
What Serena Williams Wants To Hear In Pitch Meetings| 32:11
His venture firm’s targets are traditionally more tech-focused—big scores include Instacart and Patreon. But in living through Ohanian’s deals, Williams has learned. Initialized and Serena Ventures have even co-invested on a few, including Gobble, which does weekly dinner-kit deliveries, and Wave, which offers no-fee transfers on money sent to Africa by phone. “I’d like to call us a more modern business family,” says Williams.
The rate of Williams’ investments has ramped up in lockstep with the onboarding of a portfolio manager. Alison Rapaport, 29, was fresh out of Harvard Business School with an M.B.A. after a five-year stint in JPMorgan’s asset management group, when she got connected with Williams through Andreessen’s Lyons. Williams told Rapaport to come to the interview with three investment ideas, along with the numbers and rationale behind them. Rapaport did her homework on the investment ideas—and diligence on her potential new boss, who earlier in the week posted on Instagram how much she liked Taco Sunday. Rapaport arrived at Williams’ home outside San Francisco for a Sunday meeting at noon armed with investment ideas and two bags of takeout, make-your-own tacos, and she handled Ohanian’s rapid-fire follow-up emails with aplomb. “I knew this was our girl,” Williams says.
Serena Williams slides around the red clay of the Tennis Club Parioli in Rome a few days ahead of the Italian Open, practicing to an eclectic mix of musical genres whose only commonality is that they’re sung by powerful women, from Rihanna to Adele to Pink. As word spreads around the club that the world’s most famous tennis player is hitting balls in their midst, a crowd predictably gathers, the youngest among them squealing “Serena!”, the oldest snapping and sharing pictures.
Williams is by far the most famous female athlete in the U.S.—and only Tom Brady and Tiger Woods finish a tick ahead among all athletes in terms of awareness. And that fame carries almost no brand downside—her appeal rates above average across all demographics, from Millennials to blue collar to high income, says Henry Schafer, who tracks Q Scores, which measure the likeability of a celebrity.
After 20 years in the spotlight, Williams knows how to handle the star power. At the end of the two-hour session, she gracefully obliges several with autographs and selfies. But more important: She has figured out at Serena Ventures how to harness it.
The past decade has given rise to the celebrity VC investor, spurred by the success of people like the actor Ashton Kutcher and the musician Nas, who both have their own funds. The recent IPOs for Uber and Lyft included scores of musicians and Hollywood A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jay-Z and Olivia Munn, who got in early and cashed in big. Overall, Ohanian is skeptical of the trend. “The advice I generally give to founders is don’t take money from celebrities,” he says. “The only exception is when they are really going to add value. Because in most cases, they are not really familiar with this world and if you are doing it to feed your ego, it’s a bad idea.”
So Williams tries to put money in deals where her fame and brand and platform grow the pie. As one of the better product endorsers of this century, it’s something she’s honed in ways that most musicians and actors (who turn up their noses at most product deals) have not. She counts nearly 30 million followers across social media—her posts of herself wearing Nike’s swoosh generated more than $2 million in promotional value for the brand over the past 12 months, according to Hookit, which tracks celebrity influence on social media. “Serena is a once-in-a-generation voice, reaching a global audience that extends well beyond tennis,” says Hookit CEO Scott Tilton.
And that voice is amplified exponentially when dealing with an early-stage brand, rather than one like Nike. She shared a pair of videos in an Instagram story of her entourage eating Daily Harvest meals ahead of her hosting duties for the Met Gala. She collaborated with Neighborhood Goods, which brings a pop-up approach to retailing, for her clothing line. “Using her platform to talk about our mission was the biggest support we’ve had besides her capital,” says Georgina Gooley, cofounder of Billie, which makes razors priced to eliminate the “pink tax” that makes female-targeted products cost more than similar versions for men.
The dating and networking app Bumble added Williams as an endorser for 2019, including a Super Bowl ad. The pair also partnered in a pitch competition in which two winners with female founders were chosen for funding from Serena and Bumble. Three executives of companies in the Serena Ventures portfolio—Daily Harvest, the woman-centric co-working space The Wing, and Lola, a natural tampon brand —networked at the first-ever Bumble Fund Summit in April. “She is facilitating a place for people to connect with one another,” says Jordana Kier, Lola’s founder.
That kind of investor-as-rainmaker power translates into another benefit: deal flow. For more mature deals, traditional venture firms need to take large ownership stakes to hit return targets. Williams, though, is happy to ride along. “Firms know Serena is a hugely valuable strategic investor,” says Ohanian. “I think it is the best of all opportunities, and she can essentially cherry-pick from the top VC firms on deals that are interesting that come her way and at the same time she still has her own deal flow from folks who want her to invest.”
nother benefit of early-stage investing: Even with 34 checks written, she has still sunk only an estimated $6 million into these companies. As venture investing goes, given her net worth, it’s still low-risk stuff. And the returns so far seem promising; Serena Ventures says they currently value the portfolio at more than $10 million and double the initial investment. Nearly half of the companies have had follow-up rounds of venture investment since Williams invested, and Serena Ventures even seems poised to score its first exit after Unilever announced plans to buy supplement firm Olly Nutrition in April. Five of her investments are up at least fivefold. Top performers include Billie, Daily Harvest, MasterClass and The Wing.
But Serena Williams wouldn’t be one of the all-time great competitors without also needing to invest more in herself. While she’s known as a fashion icon, she has cashed in only via others’ platforms, whether endorsements or partnerships. Now that’s changing. Smoller, her longtime endorsement agent, recalls a recent meeting at Nike. “I was talking, and Serena interrupted me and started asking all these questions about their distribution channels, KPIs and growth strategies,” he says. “I looked around and saw their faces. . . . She’s at a level where she wants to understand the process and methods, which I think a lot of people don’t expect.” In May last year, Serena Ventures launched a self-funded, direct-to-consumer clothing line, S by Serena. She kept waiting for someone to fund a company for her to design clothing, she says, but “I was thinking of this the wrong way. I had to invest in myself.”
The line includes dresses, jackets, tops, denim and more mostly priced under $200. She’s excited about an S by Serena show for New York Fashion Week in September. The line got a boost in October when Williams’ close friend Meghan Markle was spotted wearing the collection’s “Boss” blazer, which quickly sold out on the website. Williams returned the favor when she hosted a baby shower for the Duchess of Sussex in February. Williams plans to launch an S by Serena jewelry line this year and one of beauty products in 2020.
With all this commerce, Williams says she’ll continue to abbreviate her on-the-court schedule, prioritizing the Grand Slam events that burnish her brand. While a dinosaur in the tennis world at 37, she still figures she has two or maybe even three years left. “I am in no rush to get out of this sport,” she says. But in Serena Ventures, she’s laid the foundation to keep playing the game her entire life. “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.”
I am a senior editor at Forbes and focus mainly on the business of sports and our annual franchise valuations. I also spend a lot of my time digging into what athletes earn on and off the field of play. I’ve profiled a bunch of athletes that go by one name: LeBron, Shaq, Danica and others. I also head up our biennial B-School rankings and our annual features on the Best Places for Business (metros, states and countries).