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How Nike And Serena Williams Team Up To Beat The Competition

At Fast Company‘s Innovation Festival, Nike CEO Mark Parker and Serena Williams shared the secrets of their creative collaboration.

Funny story: Serena Williams is playing at the Australian Open earlier this year–a tournament she would go on to win, of course–and Mark Parker, CEO of Nike, is texting her.

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“I said ‘What are you doing between matches?” Parker recounts. “She said, ‘I’m taking some pre-med courses.’”

The anecdote gives us a rare peek inside the world of professional tennis. In fact, Williams has more down time between matches during tournaments than she does during the rest of the year, so she takes advantage of these moments to pursue her hobbies. But it’s also a glimpse into the constant, conversational collaboration between Williams and Nike Williams and Parker shared onstage today at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival.

“When I [first] stepped into Mark’s office–which was a huge inspiration in itself–it was like a wonderland of design inspiration. I was like, ‘This is really really cool!’” Williams says. “He asked, ‘What do you like? What do you wear on red carpets and the court?’ [He] was trying to find my favorite things.”

“And it became such a wonderful collaboration to work with an artist who doodles in the shower,” she continued. (Yes, Parker, despite being CEO of Nike, draws new shoes in the steamy windows of his shower.)

Over time, Parker and his team picked up on the little details of Williams’s personality–like that she especially loves roses–so Nike incorporated that detail into her line. “It does get very personal in terms of what the athletes are into,” Parker said. “It needs to. Good design is going deep. You’re really going beneath the surface, pulling bits of inspiration that can inform the design…both functionally and aesthetically. The insights come from personal relationships, I think.”

Related: Serena Williams Confronts The Person Who Stole Her Phone

But Parker admits that it may be another aspect of these athletic collaborations, and Williams’s personality in particular, that helps Nike get a leg up on the competition: She’s a fierce competitor, and it’s infectious across the company.

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“You’re as good as your last, not quarter, but week,” Parker says. “For me, that’s what gets me up and keeps me motivated.”

“When you’re on the top, you want to stay there,” Williams says. “That’s something that we just really have in common. Every day I see all these new sports brands in movies, paying all this money to be seen and just looking at [Nike] is inspiring to me. I’m with this company.”

“That’s why Mark and I are so close,” she adds a few beats later, tacitly sizing up his own title. “Because I’m going to be the CEO.” And with that proclamation, the room erupts in cheers.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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