By S. Chris Edmonds
People know Venus Williams as a tennis champion and Olympian. However, they may not know her as an entrepreneur.
As it turns out, Venus is passionate about tennis and design. So while competing at the highest levels on the court—and winning her fair share of tournaments, Grand Slam championships, and gold medals—Venus founded her interior design firm, V Starr Interiors, in 2002. That same year she was ranked No. 1 in the Women’s Tennis Association.
Ten years later, Venus founded her activewear company, EleVen by Venus. Ever since, from apparel decisions to commercial interiors, Venus has been deeply involved in virtually every design. To stay engaged throughout both companies’ projects as she traveled the world for tennis, Venus did “remote work” long before it became a requirement during the pandemic. That both businesses are highly successful is a credit to Venus (who routinely juggles multiple full-time jobs!) and to the talented leaders and designers with whom she surrounds herself. Also critically important to her companies’ success: Intentionally creating uncompromising company cultures.
Venus Williams: Culture Change Champion
In the foreword she wrote for our new book, Good Comes First, Venus said:
“As a business owner, I’m ultimately responsible for results. I also feel responsible, at least in part, for the livelihoods and happiness of the people who work with me and for me.
In 2018, I read The Culture Engine by S. Chris Edmonds. I immediately understood that the cultures of my two companies—as successful as we had been—weren’t created intentionally. Just as important, I learned those cultures weren’t always positive or productive—and they weren’t always purposeful. After reading Chris’s book, what really struck me was that my company and my team didn’t fully understand our company’s values—and perhaps mine.
As the CEO of both companies, I realized I was solely responsible for building the company cultures I had imagined as an entrepreneur. I also realized I didn’t know everything about building a values-driven company culture. The fact was, I didn’t know how to articulate our values so every member of my teams would understand, and believe, so much that they would embrace and model those values. Not only when I was physically in the office, but always.”
In her writing, Venus articulated what many leaders struggle with today: Creating an uncompromising (purposeful, positive, and productive) company culture is not easy—but wholly necessary. Specifically, she knows that she and her business colleagues must co-create and sustain work cultures where everyone treats others with respect and validates others’ ideas, efforts, and contributions. Otherwise, consistently delivering top designs—and exceeding the expectations of her customers while living the values of the respective companies—would be incredibly difficult.
An Uncompromising Company Culture: Sustainability as a Core Value
For Venus and her leadership teams, one of the values each team member must live is sustainability. But, of course, this presents a challenge many companies are not yet ready to face: How can business teams work cooperatively in a fast-paced, demanding environment while also incorporating the best materials for the environment?
In a 2018 interview, V Starr Principal Sonya Haffey said:
“Every minute there’s a new product or way to save energy, recycle, or be cleaner and more renewable.”
Sonya and Venus both believe the best designs rise to the top not only when leaders and team members respect each other’s skills and contributions—but when every design and manufacturing process incorporates sustainable methods and materials. So the question is: “How can we refine our work culture to ensure that happens?”
Precedent shows we rarely ask business leaders to manage the health of their work cultures. Trained to focus almost exclusively on results, many leaders don’t know how. After all, refining a company culture is rarely taught in business schools; it isn’t a skill often passed down by predecessors and mentors.
So in 2019, Venus asked for help. Again from her foreword to Good Comes First:
“I took a big step with V Starr. I brought Chris in to help me create a positive and purposeful company culture where good consistently comes first—and respect is expected as much as results. I wanted to give my team that greater purpose—to be that company where you know why you’re there and what you’re working toward.
Chris helped our senior leaders immediately begin formalizing our company’s servant purpose, then brainstorming and defining our values. My team, including some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, completely embraced the process. They knew this change would make a better workplace for them.”
Venus saw the power in setting clear standards for both respect and results—and in leaders and team members modeling, celebrating, measuring, coaching, and mentoring their values and behaviors. She said:
“Within a few days, after seeing the clarity of our values and the benefits for my V Starr team members, I asked Chris to do the same work for my second company. Again, the process was straightforward. Soon, we had built the foundation for an intentional, purposeful company culture.”
And maybe, more importantly, Venus believes:
“Not only has this impacted our businesses considerably, but I also credit the good work we’ve done for helping us weather the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.”
Venus goes on to say:
“This is a scary time for many businesses. And not just because of the once-a-century pandemic. While political leaders too often draw self-serving lines in the sand, many of us business leaders deal with in-your-face issues like social unrest, blatant inequalities, climate change, and—yes—business failure amid economic upheaval. So many of us, for so long, have wondered how we will survive.
But there is light. There is a way out of these scary times. At my companies, that light—and some needed reassurance—came in the form of defining and living our values. Even during the scariest times, we leaned into the culture we created together. Now, we’re off and running. And we know we’re going in the right direction.”
You don’t have to be a tennis champion to know your work culture can be more respectful and more productive while also becoming increasingly sustainable. Take your business game to a new level by creating a work culture where good—good for employees, customers, stakeholders, and the planet—comes first.
That is how Venus Williams took her business game to a whole new level. And that is how she became not just a tennis champion, but a change champion as well.
Chris Edmonds is a speaker, author, and executive consultant who helps senior leaders create and sustain purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. After leading successful teams for 15 years, Edmonds started his company, The Purposeful Culture Group, in 1990. Over the years, he has worked for clients in industries including automotive, banking and financial services, government, hospitality, insurance, manufacturing, non-profit, retail, sales, pharmaceutical, software, and technology and has been named a “Top 100 Leadership Speaker” by Inc. Magazine.