Serena Williams in Philly: There Are Problems That Women Must Attack Together
The tennis superstar addressed more than 10,000 women at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women on Friday and made a passionate plea for why women must stick together and speak up.
About a month after the U.S. Open where all eyes were on Serena Williams, the tennis superstar — better known as the GOAT — stopped in Philadelphia. She addressed the more than 10,000 women gathered at the Convention Center for the 15th annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women. In conversation with Fortune feature writer Ellen McGirt, Serena Williams opened up about her rocky but rewarding path back to tennis since becoming a mom and her latest professional pursuits, including joining the board of Survey Monkey and signing on as a co-chair of one of the fashion world’s biggest events — the Met Gala.
When asked about what it means to push boundaries, Williams replied that there was no manual for being a Black tennis player. The room was silent. Women hung on to Williams’ every word as she dropped gem after gem about pushing past struggles and embracing success. Here’s more of what the champion had to say in Philly:
On Returning to Tennis
Williams made it clear that she didn’t expect to have an amazing year back. “To get to the finals of Wimbledon was really for me impossible. Less than a year before, I was in a hospital bed with a child. And then to do it again in the U.S. Final,” she said.
Williams, who is known for speaking up about women’s rights, particularly following her difficult experience giving birth, said she didn’t know that mothers weren’t being taken care of. “In this country that’s supposed to be so technology-advanced, why are we treating our mothers like this?” If it weren’t for an attentive doctor, Williams could have lost her life. “I was really fortunate because I had an opportunity for my voice to be heard. I had a wonderful female doctor who listened to me. There are so many women who were not being listened to. It’s really unacceptable.”
On Her Husband
The leader beamed on stage as she gushed about her husband, who has been very publicly supportive of her as a mom and her return to tennis:
My husband is an incredibly loving, genuine, amazing soul. He would do anything for me, for his family and for our daughter. I feel really lucky to have met him. We met by chance. I never thought that we would get married and have this life and have this amazing child. It happened. I feel blessed. The very first term I came back, he put up billboards that said G.M.O.A.T., greatest momma of all time.
But was especially important about his gesture was how the billboards addressed her worries about being a new mom:
[It] was so sweet because I always have these insecurities that I’m not good enough as a mom. It was five months or six months in. We all go through these different emotions that people don’t really feel comfortable talking about. I think we should. We should talk about the things that make us uncomfortable. He wanted to assure me I was doing a good job, and he did it when I was going back to my career, back to tennis.
On Speaking Out
By speaking up about her difficulty, Williams said she “wasn’t trying to be this vessel or person to speak out. I was being really authentic. The most important thing we can do is be ourselves and be honest with ourselves. It should all be natural.”
On Women Sticking Together
Women backing one another was a big theme of Williams’ message. “There are a lot of issues we have to attack together,” she said. And she didn’t hold back in calling women out on jealousy and envy: “The success of a fellow woman should be inspiration to the next.”
On Pushing Boundaries
As a black woman from Compton who’s now one of the most accomplished athletes in the world, Williams has plenty of advice to give about knocking down walls:
You gotta push boundaries that are difficult to push. If you think of it as a brick wall. It’s gonna be hard to push. But you gotta keep pushing at it. One day it’s gonna budge, and when you get that first budge, it’s really exciting because you know that it is meant to be pushed. We are here at this conference for a reason. There are so many great women together. [And] this is pushing an incredible boundary because I’ve traveled the world, and I’ve never seen anything like this.
Who knew Serena Williams went to fashion school? “I’ve been doing it for a really long time, designing the clothes I wear on the court,” Williams said about why she decided to launch her own fashion line. And, of course, she’s really good friends with Anna Wintour, who requested her participation at the Met Gala. Apparently Wintour sent her a text with the request one day that read, “I don’t know if you would want to do this. Just let me know. If not, it’s okay.” Williams said her jaw dropped when she looked at her phone. She’s already certain her outfit will definitely include a cape.
On Getting to the Next Level of Anything
Williams spoke firmly when she said, “There’s no way around hard work. Write down your goal and work toward it every day.” Whether she’s on the court or designing something, Williams admitted that there are days when she feels like she will lose. To snap out of it, she reminds herself that she has to be her best cheerleader.
Williams has had some heated conversations with Nike CEO Mark Parker on issues of diversity and inclusion — conversations that got uncomfortable and intense but got the company to think deeper about diversity and inclusion within. “I’ve seen a lot of change over there on a lot of levels. I’m glad they decided to change things,” Williams said. “Nike has done a good job with hearing my voice.”
On Getting Involved in Silicon Valley
Tech is also on the athlete’s radar. She now sits on Survey Monkey’s board to “change an industry that’s historically been unwelcoming,” she said. “There’s literally no inclusion there. It’s just “male, male, male, male, male. There are so many great ideas that come from women that are being passed up.” Williams is ready to use her platform to help more women be seen and heard. “I’m fortunate to have a platform where people can hear me,” she repeated.
On What She Hopes for the Future
When asked what kind of world she hopes her daughter will inherit, Williams kept it simple: She would like to her daughter to see women support each other, kindness, and people who act with “an attitude of humility.”