In 2007, she launched her activewear business, EleVen, as an exclusive line with the retailer Steve & Barry's. Unbeknownst to Williams, however, the licensor had over-extended itself; Steve & Barry's went bankrupt the following year, which forced Williams to temporarily shutter her label. In retrospect, she admits, this was a "huge lesson" on the value of self-reliance.
"It was extremely stressful. It was hard to sleep," Williams recalled, speaking Monday in conversation with American Express president Susan Sobbott at the "Pushing Boundaries in Business and Life" event in New York City. The discussion, held at women's co-working space The Wing, focused on the unique challenges that female leaders face in today's competitive business climate.
"It was a messy lesson," Williams said, referring again to the bankruptcy. "My partner ended up not being able to continue in the middle of production. It was not necessarily my fault, but that's life. Ultimately, the business came out bigger and stronger."
Williams pointed out that the loss of her key partner was, in some ways, a blessing in disguise. "It was an even bigger opportunity because I got to do things exactly how I wanted to, and when you have a partner that's not always possible," she said. After the demise of Steve & Barry's, Williams bought out her manufacturing partner and assumed sole ownership of the company. She also brought on her chief operating officer, Ilana Rosen.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Williams seems to have overcorrected. EleVen is on track to quintuple sales this year alone, having tripled revenue in 2016, the company previously told Inc. Recently, Williams expanded distribution and took the brand international through a partnership with the Lagos, Nigeria-based creative talent agency, Temple Management Company. In August, she launched her signature Epiphany collection in time for the U.S. Open, featuring tanks, skorts, and cap-sleeve and short-sleeve tops in colors including toast, tangerine, and black. Meanwhile, she's also shepherding a second business, the Jupiter, Florida-based interior design firm VStarr, all while training for her next series of tennis matches in 2018.
Her secret for weathering challenges? Focusing on the what, and not the how. "I don't think about how I'm going to survive--I just remind myself that I'm going to," Williams continued, erupting in nervous laughter. "If you think too much about how you're going to do it, it gets too scary."