Past as Prologue: Where Serena Williams's Philanthropy Comes From

We've been writing a bit lately about the rise in giving by philanthropists of color, looking at the top new African-American and Latino donors who've been emerging.

But one figure we haven't yet covered is tennis star Serena Williams.

Like so many top figures today in entertainment and sports, Williams has amassed significant wealth, with Forbes estimating her net worth at $150 million. And like many, she's turned to giving in a serious way. 

Related: See IP's Glitzy Giving guide to celebrity philanthropists

A quick look into her life will give you a good sense of her philanthropic priorities. She’s the most successful athlete in the history of her sport—one that she notes “wasn’t really meant for black people,” given its history. She grew up in Compton, California and trained in some of that very poor city’s roughest public parks with gang members hanging around the courts. (Her family later moved to Florida to provide her and her sister with better training opportunities). Her older half-sister Yetunde Price was shot and killed in Los Angeles in 2003. As part of a UNICEF trip to Africa in 2006, Williams witnessed firsthand how challenging it is for young girls to gain access to even basic education in many parts of the continent.

Like her on-court persona, Serena is serving up strong philanthropic efforts (through her Serena William Fund or “SWF”) to address persistent problems like gun violence, educational inequity, and poverty that have personally impacted her family. When it comes to gun violence, Williams has not been shy about her support for the Black Lives Matter movement and its push to stem the tide of police brutality against black Americans. She has also invested in the work of the Caliber Foundation, in support of families and victims affected by gun violence.

SWF has partnered with UNICEF on a number of campaigns focused on education in Africa, including an initiative in 2015 (“World’s Largest Lesson”) to teach children in more than 100 countries about the Sustainable Development Goals, and the “1 in 11 Campaign” that extendeds educational opportunities to the 1 in 11 marginalized children globally who are not in school. Williams’ foundation has also supported the Schools for Africa program, which raises awareness about UNICEF’s work to provide high-quality education for the most vulnerable children on the continent. The tennis star’s philanthropic work has even extended to building schools in places like Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Jamaica through a partnership with tech giant Hewlett Packard.

Of particular interest for Williams are the gender equity implications of her philanthropic efforts. The schools she’s started in Africa have imposed a strict rule in which the student populations need to be at least 40 percent girls. It’s difficult to achieve such numbers given the context, but Williams is pushing hard to achieve a 50-50 gender balance in future schools despite the challenging culture context.

Williams has even dipped her philanthropic toes into the college affordability debate by partnering with NFL veteran Tutan Reyes—whose own life was transformed by a college scholarship—to support his Beyond the Boroughs National Scholarship Fund. The program provides four-year scholarships (up to $20,000) to primarily first-generation college students with high potential who need the financial support to attend a postsecondary institution.

Like many philanthropists, Serena Williams prioritizes issues that she has a personal connection with in terms of how she makes her investments. She undoubtedly sees herself in the shoes of the young people impacted by gun violence and educational injustice and she’s eager to lend a helping hand through the work of her foundation. When it comes to her philanthropy, she’s tackling tough issues and she’s playing for keeps.