There was, at this year’s annual Advertising Week New York conference, the usual lineup of outstanding panels on the hottest trends in advertising and marketing. Three of the most exciting of those featured legends Serena Williams and Iman as well as television phenomenon and LGBT activist Laverne Cox. On separate panels, the three women discussed their businesses as well as the goals and positive impacts of those projects.
Serena Williams appeared in conversation with Guru Gowrappan, CEO of Verizon Media, and Julia Boorstin, entertainment & media correspondent at CNBC. The 23 time tennis Grand Slam winner revealed that she has always known that she would become a businesswoman. “My whole life,” she said, “I knew that I want to transition into business and have different opportunities out there.”
Williams also went into detail about her venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, her various positions on a number of advisory boards such as Verizon Media and the clothing site Poshmark, and about her fashion line, called simply, S.
Williams’ clothing line was featured in the latest New York Fashion Week. She admitted to being gobsmacked when she got the call inviting her to show her line. Describing the initial reaction she exclaimed, “I was like, ‘Oh, this is a dream come true!’” Switched immediately back to business mode though, she recalled her next thought was, “‘How do I get to the next level?’”
Carrying the lessons learned in tennis into her business life, Williams also told the audience that she was laser-focused on making all women feel included with her clothing line. “Tennis when I first started,” she explained, “was such an exclusive sport. I was able to make it, along with my sister, more inclusive. Bringing that to my brand is so important to me.”
Legendary supermodel, lifelong humanitarian, and CEO of and founder of Iman Cosmetics, Iman was once a refugee; her comfortable life as the daughter of a doctor and diplomat upended when she was a teen and her family had to flee Somalia. It’s probably one of the reasons why she has such a long history of partnering with charities that do work on behalf of women and girls.
As the newly minted and its first-ever Global Advocate, the supermodel appeared on a panel with Michelle Nunn, president, and CEO of CARE, a non-profit that provides food, water, sexual and reproductive support, and education in crisis areas around the world.
According to the organization’s website, “Iman will work alongside CARE to expand and amplify the organization’s work.” Iman explained that this will mean focusing on how best to tell the human stories of the women and girls at the center of ongoing international conflicts and crisis situations. Sharing her own recollections of her own painful refugee experience she said, “I had to fend for myself. I had to go out into the world.” She also reminded the audience that refugee status is not an opportunistic position, but about survival. “No one,” she intoned, “wants to be a refugee. It is really the last resort. A refugee is someone who cannot stay at home.”
Partly through documentaries she’ll post on the care.org site, Iman explained, she plans to highlight stories of the whole journey that refugees take: what forces pushed them to flee from their countries of origin, what experiences they encountered on their journeys to refugee camps or the countries where they ultimately settled, and what type of lives they forged for themselves and their families in their adopted countries. She cited Minneapolis Rep. Ilhan Omar as one of the latter.
“We are trying to tell the stories behind the dehumanizing of what we have seen, the stories behind the dreamers, the stories behind those women and girls.” She closed by saying, “People feel these people are nameless and faceless, but they’re not.”
Actress, LGBTQ activist, and Smirnoff spokesperson Cox joined vice president, brand marketing for Smirnoff, Jay Sethi, on a panel where they discussed whether or not a brand could truly be inclusive. Cox shared that until very recently, she didn’t feel as if she was accepted by the LGBT community, even during Pride Month celebrations. She said, “I didn’t feel that Pride was even for me as a Black trans woman.” She expressed her optimism about the direction in which brands like Smirnoff are going. “To [now] see trans people everywhere, representing brands, I thought was incredible. It shows the world that these brands think our dollars are valuable. It’s a huge sign of progress.”
Pointing to Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty show as a “really wonderful” model of a project that had good representation, Cox talked about everyday strategies for moving representation forward. “We have to,” she said, “keep asking ourselves ‘who’s not in the room? who is not represented?’. It’s an intersectional conversation that has to happen around race, ability and other things.”
Referencing the clutch she wore on the most recent Emmy night embossed with wording referring to the current Supreme Court Title VII case, Cox said, “I believe that is the most significant LGBTQ civil rights case probably in my lifetime. I think it’s more important than marriage equality, because if the Supreme Court decides that it is legal to fire someone for being LGBTQ from their job, and has huge implications for other laws.”