In 2011, Venus Williams was exhausted. The Grand Slam-winning tennis champion found herself out of breath and constantly tired. She was forced to pull out of the U.S. Open Tennis Championship, and for the first time since 1996 she was no longer ranked among the top 100 professional women tennis players in the world. It was then that a doctor diagnosed her with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune condition that causes dry eye and dry mouth, as well as fatigue. Suddenly, everything made sense.
After taking time off from the pro tennis circuit, Williams began overhauling her lifestyle. She wanted to keep competing at the highest level of her sport. To do that, she had to keep her symptoms in check. Her first move was changing to a vegan diet. It worked: She entered the 2012 season ranked number 124 and finished 100 spots higher at number 24.
Now, almost a decade later, she is launching Happy Viking, a plant-based protein company, created in partnership with Dyla Brands, the maker of Stur Drink Mixes and Forto coffee. The first product is a protein shake made from the recipe she has relied on to sustain her when she exercises. The shake—available on the Happy Viking website and on Amazon today—contains 20 grams of protein (made from pea and brown rice), as well as amino acids for protein synthesis and nutrient absorption and prebiotic fiber to help with digestion. The shake is available in two flavors made from all-natural ingredients: vanilla and chocolate.
“[After my diagnosis] there were times I just couldn’t play. That’s where my journey started,” Williams says. “I learned so much about the food system and how it can affect your body and your health. As an athlete if I’m not at optimal performance, someone else will be.”
Happy Viking is not Williams’s first business endeavor. She has spent years quietly building up a small business empire. The famously fashionable tennis pro has a 13-year-old clothing and skincare line, EleVen by Venus Williams, as well as V Starr Interiors, a commercial and residential interior design firm in West Palm Beach, Florida.
To accomplish all this, Williams does what she is known for on the court: She plays to her strengths. She says that building strong teams and delegating tasks to colleagues so she can focus on what she is good at has helped her run her businesses. Williams says that she loves to focus on the creative aspects of her work and the design elements, delegating other areas to her employees.
Another key skill: multitasking, which she honed studying online for a BA in business administration from Indiana University East while also competing on the tennis circuit; she completed her degree in 2015. That’s not to say it was a cakewalk: “I made the mistake of taking accounting over the summer, which is when there are a lot of tennis tournaments,” she says. “My eyes literally got so dry and my vision got blurry because I was studying and training so much.” Eventually, she dropped the class and took it a semester later.
The pandemic has been a reflective period for Williams, who says that down the line she wants to give back to her community. “I love teaching tennis,” she says. “I actually love teaching beginners. So if I can help young people use their skills or become confident and healthy . . . that’s what’s next for me.”
Until then, Williams has some advice for anyone who feels overwhelmed—by lockdowns or any aspect of life. “I have a good rule for when I feel overwhelmed or I’m panicking,” she reveals. “If something goes wrong, I have 10 minutes to feel it and then I shut it down.”
Here are Williams’s favorite picks from her businesses:
Williams has relied on the recipe for her Happy Viking protein shake to help her post-workout recovery for the past 10 years after getting diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome and going changing to a vegan diet.
Williams launched clean mineral sunscreen EleVen in May. The reef-safe formula dries to a sheer matte finish and works on all skin tones: Williams’s sunscreen doesn’t leave any white residue and is designed to prevent skin from looking ashy.
Asked to pick a favorite item from her clothing line, Williams says she loves the Wonder Woman collection. “She’s a fictional character that embodies who we strive to be. She is powerful, and has good values. She is always questioning herself to make sure her actions live up to her [own] standards.” Some of her favorite items include the Wonder Woman Stay Fit Legging, the Peak Windbreaker, and the Grind Catsuit.