Business Lessons from a Legend
Updated: Sep 6
What if you could choose a public figure to be your personal business consultant? Who would you choose?
One person we would recommend is the iconic and legendary, Billie Jean King.
Billie Jean’s accomplishments and accolades are numerous and include achievements both on and off the court. The following list just skims the surface:
Won a total of 39 Grand Slam titles.
The first female athlete in any sport to earn more than $100,000 in prize money in a single season.
Successfully lobbied for equal prize money for men and women at the US Open. (It took another 34 years for all four major tournaments to offer equal prize money.)
Founded the Women’s Tennis Association.
Lobbied for the passing of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding.
Co-founded the inclusive World Team Tennis league, the first professional sports league featuring men and women on the same team making equal contributions to the game.
Named one of the Greatest Athletes of the Century by Sports Illustrated.
Appointed Global Mentor for Gender Equality by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
First female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
While most known for her athletic championships and social justice advocacy, Billie Jean was also a successful business woman. Along with her then husband, Larry King, she owned and managed multiple businesses, including four tournaments, the magazine, womenSports, and numerous tennis camps.
BJK credits her experience in sports with her business success:
“Sports teach you how to assert yourself and create sustained bonds even in competitive environments; you learn how to weather setbacks and conflict, handle pressure, and push through to get the outcome you want, whether it’s with teammates or by yourself. Those are vital skills in business.”
Upon reading her autobiography, “All In”, a few things stand out about King’s approach to business:
She is guided by her values. King’s entire life has been devoted to achieving equality for all. She fought for parity in prize money between men and women, created opportunities for under-resourced youth to have access to the game of tennis, promoted women’s sports in the media, and fought for the passage of Title IV. Her steadfast dedication to this value was the north star that guided all of her decisions, including how she managed her businesses and spent their profits.
She confronts barriers with a problem solving approach. Throughout her career, King worked to change the game of tennis so that it could be a profitable career path for women. When the establishment refused to pay women players on par with men, she didn’t give up. Instead, she joined 8 other female tennis players in accepting $1 contracts with tennis promoter Gladys Heldman. This prompted the birth of women’s professional tennis including the Virginia Slims Tour and the Women’s Tennis Association.
She collaborates with partners who complement her strengths. In business, King was often the visionary who guided her business endeavors towards lofty goals and high ideals. She understands, however, that both a high-level and on-the ground view are necessary to achieving goals. King’s success in business can be attributed in part to her collaboration with others who could translate her vision into tangible results.
Of her partnership with wife, Ilana Koss, she writes,
“I bring emotion, energy, and vision; Ilana is an ideas person, too, but she’s more results oriented, and excels at selling concepts and finding ways to finish the job, close the deal. She tempers my runaway enthusiasm, and she says I raise her ability to be more open-minded, more forgiving.”
She doesn’t take things personally. Billie Jean King knows the value of relationships in achieving business success. Those who know her, speak of her amazing ability to not take things personally, hold grudges, or let personality differences detract her from her goals. She writes, “being able to forgive, forget, and keep moving has helped me throughout my life.”
How would Billie Jean King advise you in your business?
Do your business practices align with your values?
Do you use a problem solving approach when confronted with challenges?
Do you surround yourself with people who compliment your strengths?
Are you allowing personal issues to block you from your goals?
Billie Jean King continues to live her values and contribute to making the world a more equitable place, in sports, business, and beyond. We can continue to learn from her valuable contributions.