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Detroit — Serena Williams' life has been dedicated to a famed tennis career but she recently turned her focus to another lifelong love: fashion.

The six-time US Open champion learned to sew as a child and grew up creating outfits for her dolls. Later, she earned a fashion degree.

Williams, CEO of Serena Ventures, shared details of her business ventures and the joy of caring for her 2-year-old daughter as the featured speaker Monday at Forbes Under 30 Summit at the Masonic Temple in Detroit.

"Somewhere between winning Wimbledon and the US Open, I was in fashion school," said Williams, who created the fashion brand, Serena, which celebrates positive body image and female empowerment. "It's definitely something that's authentic and real, and that I've literally been doing my whole life."

The tennis player also is being recognized by Forbes for the venture capital firm she launched in recent years with the goal of investing in companies that embrace diversity.

Williams told a crowd packed inside the Masonic Theatre on Monday evening that she doesn't have a specific investment theme or model but found it troubling that less than 2% of seed money for small businesses had been going to women, and even less to those who are minorities. 

She wanted to raise awareness about it and take the lead on changing that statistic, she said.

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The Detroit Youth Choir opened for tennis star Serena Williams, who spoke at the event. David Guralnick, The Detroit News

"That was really important to me to do that. We often try to invest in companies that aren't about being the biggest company in the world," said Williams, who was inspired to help fund underrepresented women and minority-led businesses. "I love investing and I felt like I've always invested in myself and my career."

Williams' clothing brand launched in May and debuted in September at New York's Fashion Week. She said it "represents people who want to look good and feel good and not feel apologetic for it."

"For me, it's about being pure to who you are. I don't want to be a brand that's fake. I am a real person," she said.

Williams took the stage at the close of the second day of Forbes' three-day summit. The event kicked off Sunday, bringing together leaders in the entertainment, sports and business sector to discuss their successes.

The program is expected to attract more than 7,000 people from about 70 countries. This year is the first of a three-year run for the summit in Detroit, organizers said.

Williams also spoke of her dedication to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, and how it's changed her outlook.

"Just looking at her in her crib, is the best feeling in the world," she said. "With me, I definitely put my family first. I just work my day around her. I want her to know that I was there for her."

Williams, who has won 23 career Grand Slams and earned the second-most singles titles on record, said she's not planning to retire any time soon. 

"I love what I do, and when I'm out there I feel like I'm the best at what I do," she said. "I know what it takes to work hard. When I wake up and I'm not feeling that way is when I know I need to do something different."

Williams said she's faced challenges as a mother, businesswoman and in her tennis career. Williams said she's failed many times, but said that the key is never giving up.

"I wasn't the best player, I wasn't the most talented, I'm not the tallest girl," she said. "You don't have to be the smartest, you don't have to have the most funds, you don't have to have the most open doors. It's about the attitude that I'm going to be the hardest worker and I'm not going to let anything stop me, and I'm not going to give up."

Williams' speech was preceded by a performance by Detroit Youth Choir, which was the runner-up act on "America's Got Talent." The group prepared for her entrance with tennis rackets in hand, singing Katy Perry's "Roar."

Quicken Loans CEO Jay Farner introduced Williams, applauding the tennis champion's accomplishments on and off the court, saying she's a woman who is "breaking down boundaries."

"She has such a huge voice and she can do so much," Farner said. 

Williams' return to tennis in the summer led her to two Grand Slam finals and her HBO sports documentary series, "Being Serena," was nominated for a 2019 Peabody and 2018 MTV movie and TV award, according to Forbes.

She also told the crowd she's drawn inspiration from anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, that she'd love to expand her family, and when asked what she'd want for a final meal, joked that she never got to taste the popular Popeyes fried chicken sandwich.

Earlier Monday, AOL co-founder Steve Case joined with Farner to unveil plans for a $150 million round of funding to seed 100 startup entrepreneurs.

The announcement came at the end of a session titled "Building Companies Outside of Silicon Valley" early Monday. 

"We've been so impressed with what we've seen around the country so far," Case told a crowd gathered in the Jack White Theatre. "We decided to create a new fund."

Case, who is now the CEO of Washington-based venture capital firm Revolution, opened the panel talk by touting his Rise of the Rest, a seed-funding initiative that Case launched five years ago.

The national tour, he said, is part of an effort to highlight factors that make it easier for startups to launch and create jobs in places like Detroit, not just in Silicon Valley.

Case has said investors on the coasts should be aware that there are opportunities for investment in startups in the middle of the country.

A lot of the momentum in Detroit, Case said, has been tied to Mayor Mike Duggan, Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert and groups like the Kresge Foundation.

"The reason Detroit is on its way back is largely because of a great entrepreneur Dan Gilbert," said Case, noting Gilbert's effort to relocate Quicken Loans headquarters to downtown Detroit from the suburbs.

The newest funding commitment comes two years after Revolution launched its first $150 million for Rise of the Rest. Since late 2017, Rise to Rest has helped back 130 companies in nearly 70 cities across 32 states. 

cferretti@detroitnews.com 

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