(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)
As one of the world’s greatest tennis players, Williams tied Stefi Graf’s record earlier this year with 22 Grand Slam singles titles. Among active male and female players, Williams holds the most major singles, doubles and mixed double titles with a record 38 major titles: 22 in singles, 14 in women’s doubles and two in mixed doubles.
Now the Olympian philanthropist is focused on winning the U.S. Open title after an unexpected upset at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she had hoped to defend her 2012 gold medal victory in London. Williams and her older sister Venus Williams also lost the first round in doubles – another upset because the duo had a 15-0 Olympic record and three gold medals in doubles.
The Williams sisters grew up in Compton, CA, where poverty and gang violence is common. Their father Richard Williams coached the young girls at some of the city’s roughest public parks where gang members hung around the courts.
“I’m a black woman, and I’m in a sport that wasn’t really meant for black people.”
The Williams family eventually moved to Florida in search of better training opportunities for the girls. In 1992, Richard Williams shared his hopes that his girls would one day win at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and inspire other Compton children and gang members that “they could do it.”
The sisters have broken barriers as female, African American athletes from a poor community who have exceled in a sport that is not known for its diversity. White athletes, especially men, typically have more recognition, money and star power. Additionally, sports like tennis and golf are often perceived as exclusive due to the cost of equipment, court and tee fees. This financial disparity is consistently identified as a significant barrier that impedes multicultural players from getting into the sport, according to the United States Tennis Association.
Powerful and Personal Philanthropy
Off the court, the 34-year-old tennis star has focused her philanthropy on equal access to education and helping individuals and communities impacted by violence.
An opportunity arose when she first visited Africa in 2006 as part of a UNICEF health campaign, and in 2011, Williams became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Over the years, she has participated in multiple education initiatives that build schools in Africa and improve global education opportunities for disadvantaged children.
The Michigan native has supported several UNICEF campaigns, including the World’s Largest Lesson, an initiative launched in 2015 to teach children in more than 100 countries about the Sustainable Development Goals; the 1 in 11 campaign that focuses on extending educational opportunities to marginalized children since 1 out of 11 children globally are not in school; and the Schools for Africa program, which raises awareness about UNICEF’s mission to provide quality education for the most vulnerable children.
Through the Serena Williams Fund (SWF), Williams has also partnered with Hewlett Packard to build a school in Kenya as well other local organizations in Africa to open schools in Uganda, Zimbabwe and Jamaica.
Williams has made it a priority to fight for equity in education. “Now, sometimes in Africa they send only the boys to school,” Williams wrote in her Wired guest editorial. “So we had a strict rule that our schools had to be at least 40 percent girls. It was impossible to get 50-50 boys to girls, and we really had to fight for 60-40. But we got it… And hopefully my next school will be 50-50.”
SWF also gives education grants to Serena Williams Scholars through a partnership with Beyond the Burroughs National Scholarship Fund, which gives scholarships to students “who have the drive to succeed but even with loans and other grants still fall short of reaching their dream to attend college.”
Another SWF priority – and perhaps the most personal one – is supporting victims and families of gun violence through The Caliber Foundation. Williams has a personal stake in ending senseless violence since it is a “cause close to her heart.” In 2003, Williams’ older half-sister Yetunde Price was shot and killed in Los Angeles.
Making Her Mark
Williams was the Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. She was #55 on Forbes Magazine’s Power Women list in 2010. In 2016, Forbes named her #40 on its World’s Highest-Paid Athletes list with $8.9 million salary/winnings and $20 million in endorsements, up from #47 in 2015. For the last 12 months, she has also been the world’s highest-paid female athlete. Over her career, she has earned $78 million.
The elite athlete continues to be a trailblazer. In Wired Magazine, Williams shared her hopes for seeing “more women and people of different colors and nationalities” in sports as well as the Silicon Valley. She added, “I’m a black woman, and I’m in a sport that wasn’t really meant for black people.”
Beyond philanthropy, Williams is leveraging this celebrity and influence to address issues she cares about. She has spoken out against racism and pay disparity for minority athletes, and along with other African American athletes, she has vocally supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
For Williams, philanthropy is personal. She is focused on giving back in ways that address the inequities she experienced first-hand. If her passion for philanthropy is anything like her focused drive and talent in tennis, she will leave a great footprint and an even better blueprint for future generations.