World-renowned tennis star Serena Williams has long since used her platform as an athlete to advocate for Black communities when it comes to diversity and inclusion. So much so that she cemented a partnership with her longtime sponsor Nike back in 2019 to create the Serena Williams Design Crew (SWDC) — a six-month plus apprenticeship program for aspiring diverse designers.
Now two years later, the inaugural cohort from the design collective is unveiling the very first collection created by several up-and-coming movers, makers, and doers that celebrates every part of Williams that is an athlete, style icon, and voice for change. The program not only shares Williams’ story through woven details, but it also marks a milestone for the tennis champion and Nike in their joint mission to build up a talent pipeline made up of the next generation of culturally diverse designers.
“For me, I just really wanted to see more people that look like me in the Nike design world and Nike loved that idea,” Williams tells AfroTech exclusively. “They really realized fast that often the best ideas come from unexpected places and our individual differences bring new perspectives, so that’s definitely able to breed new innovations. This is the ultimate program that gives [designers] an opportunity to work at Nike and [the brand] is so committed to building a diverse pipeline of talent. There’s nothing that’s been done like it to design with and for me at Nike.”
The SWDC apprenticeship program is a multi-year effort that brings together a talented group of designers every year from a major U.S. city to collaborate with Nike. In its first year, the design ensemble recruited talent from New York and then Chicago the following year to work as apprentices. Since then, seven of the original ten participants have been converted into full-time Nike employees, and the next cohort of apprentices — who were inducted in May 2021 — will enter the program with a goal to begin their careers as designers at Nike and beyond.
Each year, the program’s apprentices work together to produce a Serena-inspired collection made up of footwear, apparel and accessories. For the first collection, which also draws inspiration from the 90s, it bridges the gap between sports and culture in a way that represents Williams’ life and legacy.
With every design chosen, the SWDC created the assembly of pieces with Serena Williams in mind, showcasing Nike’s approach to how it caters to its roster of athletes and the products that are made for them. Additionally, it highlights the way that the brand partners with said athletes to create deeper, more meaningful relationships that go beyond sports and empower communities through genuine actions. Moreover, the program itself demonstrates Nike’s desire to align with Williams’ values as a Black woman athlete and champion diversity in overlooked spaces.
“We have been on an amazing journey connected to our diversity, equity and inclusion work for a number of years now,” Jarvis Sam — Vice President of Global Diversity & Inclusion at Nike — tells us. “Where I think for a lot of companies [it was an] impetuous [decision] jumping into [their initiatives] following the murder of George Floyd, for Nike it’s been a catalyst effort. It’s been [us saying] how can we amplify our connection with this work productively. And so the SWDC is a big driver for things like representation and engagement for us.”
According to Sam, Nike is a firm believer that design helps inspire and breed innovation in industries like the sports world. Athletes these days hold power with their voices and platforms in a way that gives birth to movements that speak to real human experiences. So, for stars like Williams, who have the power to impact both on and off the court — this design apprenticeship program is a step toward sparking real change.
“For Serena, she has the strongest desire to see the design space [flourish] – one where she has both educational and commercial experience from her direct lines – and wanted to see that fully reflected from a brand that she not only cares about, but has been so deeply connected and partnered with for years,” Sam says. “This truly was an engaged moment where the athlete’s voice represented not just a commitment in name, but one where we could actually see great power with various connection points with her to ultimately yield the success of the program.”
Williams — who’s been known to invest in a number of companies geared toward helping Black and brown folks — recognizes the power her platform has and is intentional with the way that she uses it to uplift others. By creating this program, she’s been able to help provide numerous career opportunities to accelerate the paths of hopeful individuals looking to break into the design industry in a major way.
“I’ve always used my platform very authentically and I think this was a perfect way to [employ] it, where I was able to talk to the biggest and best at Nike to say let’s create this [program] so we can bring more people into design,” Serena Williams says. “You also have to give credit to a company like Nike that is willing to say, ‘you know what, you’re right. This sounds like a great idea, so let’s make [this industry] better.'”
Working with Nike can open the door wide open for some and signal the start of a journey for others, so through the SWDC, it is Williams and Nike’s hope that the program breaks glass ceilings for those who have previously struggled to make their way into this space.
“This isn’t just a one time thing, this is something that we’re always going to be aware of to bring diversity into Nike and the design world in particular,” Willams says. “Nike is investing in the power of people and so that’s super important and exciting to be a part of.”
The first SWDC collection will be available on Nike.com, at Nike stores and select retailers on Sept. 1.