Serena Williams has beaten tennis. She’s the most decorated currently-active player in the sport,
Lately, however, Serena has been making headlines for reasons beyond her stellar play on the court. She and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, 34, were engaged in December 2016 (Williams won the 2017 Australian Open earlier this year, winning seven matches while she was about eight weeks pregnant; she’s since announced a hiatus from the sport until 2018), and the tennis superstar has been gradually moving towards her husband-to-be’s world: Silicon Valley.
In May, Williams was named to the board of web-based polling company SurveyMonkey, where she immediately pledged to work to help make Silicon Valley more diverse. The timing of Serena’s appointment was impeccable, as the issue of racial and gender diversity is something of an uncomfortable dark cloud that’s been even more noticeably hanging over the Valley of late.
Despite efforts from tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook to diversify their respective workforces over the past several years, the process has been painfully slow, and marked with a surprising amount of pushback – such as the now-infamous “Google Manifesto”, which saw a software engineer at the tech titan circulate an internal memo questioning the company’s commitment to hiring more women, suggesting that, biologically speaking, women aren’t as well-suited to coding and programming work as men are. The memo went viral, and the engineer was fired by Google, but the situation brought to light the fact that gender equality is not Silicon Valley’s strong suit.
“I feel like diversity is something I speak to,” Williams told The Associated Press around the time of her appointment earlier this year. “Change is always happening, change is always building. What is important to me is to be at the forefront of the change and to make it easier for the next person that comes behind me.”
SurveyMonkey data supplied to AP about its roughly 650 employees found that only 27% of tech jobs are filled by women, and only 14% of the company’s total payroll consists of African-Americans, Latinos or people identifying themselves with at least two races. According to SurveyMonkey CEO Zander Lurie, adding Serena Williams to the company’s board was a step to correct the issue.
“My focus is to bring in change agents around the table who can open our eyes,” he said.
Williams’ link to SurveyMonkey came through her friendship with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, another member of the SurveyMonkey board; Sandberg’s late husband Dave Goldberg was the company’s CEO before his death in 2015. Williams met Laurie at a dinner party hosted by Sandberg, where they discussed ways they could work together.
“I have been really interested in getting involved in Silicon Valley for years, so I have been kind of in the wading waters,” Williams told AP. As an investor, Serena and her sister Venus are minority shareholders in the Miami Dolphins, making them the first black women to be co-owners of an NFL franchise, and Serena has also joined actress Gwyneth Paltrow as an investor in Daily Harvest, a plant-based smoothie business.
As for Ohanian, the tech star says he’s following his fiancée’s lead, adding that her work ethic puts his own to shame – and inspires him to do even more.
“I felt like a door had been opened to a person who made me want to be my best self,” Ohanian told Vanity Fair earlier this year in a cover story about Serena and the couple’s relationship. “I find myself just wanting to be better by simply being around her because of the standard she holds.”
And as much as Serena Williams is a big deal in the sports world, Ohanian is no slouch in the tech world himself – in 2005, he and partner Steve Huffman co-founded Reddit, and a year later the social-news site was acquired by old-media publishing giant Condé Nast, making Ohanian, then 23, a multi-millionaire. Since then, he’s launched a social venture (Breadpig), helped found a travel-search site (Hipmunk), and founded an investment company (Das Kapital Capital), which has stakes in 25 startups. He also created and hosted a show, Small Empires, about tech startups, and became a best-selling author with his 2013 book, Without Their Permission. In 2015, he returned to Reddit full-time with Huffman to be executive chairman for the company, which was independent once more.
Ohanian has also dabbled in politics, leading opposition efforts to the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, the recent controversial efforts by the U.S. Congress to regulate content online. (He earned the nickname “Mayor of the Internet” after his battles with American lawmakers over proposed bills aimed at cracking down on copyright breaches on the web.)
That drive to improve things, to leave the world a better place than they found it, is something Ohanian and Williams have in common. Last year, Serena and Venus opened a community centre in their hometown of Compton, California, to help locals affected by gun violence. The Yetunde Price Resource Center is named for the Williams’ sister, who died a victim of gang violence in Compton in 2003.
“I’d like to acknowledge the many realities black women face every day,” Williams wrote in a column in Fortune this July, tackling the issue of gender-based pay disparity head-on. “To recognize that women of color have to work – on average – eight months longer to earn the same as their male counterparts do in one year. To bring attention to the fact that black women earn 17% less than their white female counterparts and that black women are paid 63% of the dollar men are paid. Even black women who have earned graduate degrees get paid less at every level. This is as true in inner cities as it is in Silicon Valley.”
As Williams, who gave birth to a baby girl on September 1, enters motherhood and the next stage of her life and career, she appears to be combining all the different aspects of herself – athlete, entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist – into an even more impressive version of the Serena Williams we’ve previously known. And she’s looking to shake things up in Silicon Valley.
Justin Anderson | The Edge Blog