NEW YORK — Watch your back Mark.
In an insightful and entertaining conversation Wednesday afternoon among tennis star Serena Williams; Mark Parker, chief executive officer of Nike Inc., and Bob Safian, editor in chief of Fast Company, the three discussed ways in which Williams and Parker collaborate, how they handle competition, their mutual respect for each other, what inspires them, and their number-one positions in the world.
So when Safian said Parker has a job he can do for another decade and asked Williams where she sees herself in 10 years, she didn’t miss a beat: “That’s why Mark and I are so close. I’m going to be the ceo [of Nike].”
Williams revealed several things about herself and her desire to stay on top of the tennis world during the 30-minute conversation, which took place at NYU’s Skirball Center as part of the Fast Company Innovation Festival.
She said she never thought she’d still be playing tennis at 30 years old, and here she is at 34, still going strong. Although she thought she would take some time off after her disappointing U.S. Open defeat, she was back on the court three weeks later. But should her tennis career ever go away, she has not one, but several back-up plans.
Williams has been taking pre-med courses, but doesn’t want to become a doctor. She said she enjoys learning about the holistic side of medicine and wants to focus on nutrition, healing naturally and teaching holistic medicine to people. She also paints, is a fashion designer, and has shown during New York Fashion Week the past two seasons. “Tennis is a side job at this point,” she joked.
Safian asked Parker what attributes he likes about Williams, and what was it that attracted Nike to partner with her and create The Greatness Collection, which features three footwear silhouettes. “She’s awesome,” said the Nike ceo, noting that she’s not only the best in her sport, but of any sport for all time. “She is so dominant. She’s not just a tennis player, but a champion and so much more.”
Williams was asked why she wanted to partner with Nike, considering she probably had a lot of choices. “It’s a very simple answer: When you’re the best, you want to work with the best.” She said that ever since she was a young girl, it was her dream to be a part of the Nike brand.
Parker gave the impression that it’s not always an easy collaboration. “She’s incredibly demanding. I say that as a compliment,” he said. Williams explained that she’ll go to Parker’s office, which looks like “a wonderland of design and inspiration,” and he’ll ask her questions, such as what are you into, what do you like to wear on the red carpet and what do you like to wear on the tennis courts. Parker said it’s not exactly an interview, but is rather organic. “She has a million ideas and very strong opinions of what she likes and doesn’t like. I’m not sitting with a list of questions,” he said.
Williams said for several years, she liked roses and Parker put that into the design of a shoe.
As for his inspiration, Parker explained that at Nike, it’s important to be a sponge, to look around himself and observe, and take in everything.
Safian asked Williams and Parker what it’s like to be number one in the world, when everyone wants to get a piece of it. Williams said she likes being on top and wants to make it last as long as she can. “When I play an opponent, they play the match of their lives when they play me. I have to be one or two levels ahead,” she said.
Parker said he likes competition and finds it good and healthy, but he’s more motivated by the company’s own potential and that’s where he spends his time and energy. “I don’t take our success for granted,” he said. He said one needs time and space to really stretch, and sometimes the company fails and learns from its mistakes, and it gets some things right.
Williams believes that one can’t succeed unless one falls down a lot. “It creates character and builds determination.” She recalled her first match when she was 14 years old and lost in 50 minutes, “or less.”
“Look at me now, Anne Miller,” she said.
Williams was once asked whether she goes home and stares at her trophies. She said for a few hours she’s in the moment, but “if you’re always looking back, you won’t see what’s in front of you. I do want to be known as the greatest ever.”
She also enjoys being a role model for young women and isn’t jealous when others have success. “I have so much going for me. It would be a disservice to myself and that little black girl behind me, if I became greedy. I worked hard and am very happy with where I am. I think that success of another woman should be an inspiration to the next.”
An audience member asked Williams how she felt about losing in the U.S. Open to Roberta Vinci and failing to win the calendar-year Grand Slam.
“I didn’t win. The girl I played, played well. I don’t think I played the best I could. I think I played OK. She was on a whole new level. She played an outstanding match. I did the best I could. Unfortunately, I didn’t win. I won four in a row, I was going for five in a row. It was what it was. It was hard to put behind me, but I can’t wait to play her again.”