For most of us, the name Maria Sharapova conjures up power swings and one Grand Slam title after another. But there's another side to the tennis pro, one far from the klieg lights that accompany any sports star of her caliber: She is an entrepreneur, through and through, as comfortable in the C-suite as she is on the courts.
If you have a sweet tooth, this likely rings a bell: The tennis champ started her own candy line, charmingly named Sugarpova, in 2012. She's since taken that company global, available in 22 companies, and doubled down on her business side by investing in everything from sunscreen (Supergoop) to apps (Charly). Now, she's paying it back, in a very major way.
Last year, Sharapova teamed up with the National Association of Women Business Owners to launch her own mentorship initiative, Maria Sharapova Women's Entrepreneur Program, which nurtures seven female entrepreneurs for its inaugural cohort. She offers them more than just a name and a platform—they get real world feedback, advice on scaling their businesses, networking opportunities, workshops... And that's layered on the top-tier resources NAWBO already supplies. "It's about women helping women," she explains. "I want to bring their voices to the podium."
The Maria Sharapova Women's Entrepreneur Program with NAWBO is…
A way of paying forward all that I’ve learned in business to female entrepreneurs who are just getting started. At its core, the program is all about women helping women and my team and I, in conjunction with NAWBO, have formed a business mentorship incubator for the seven women selected to participate. It's been fantastic!
What was the inspiration behind it?
I was thinking about entrepreneurship and how to empower women. And in talking to many friends in different industries, I realized that women have incredible ideas but not necessarily the tools to showcase them. I have a platform to help others and wanted to contribute; I wanted to bring their voices to the podium. So I teamed up with NAWBO, which was pretty much the perfect partner—it's the core organization for female leaders moving their way up in the workforce.
What does the program involve?
The participants have calls every four weeks, workshops once a month with the NAWBO leaders. In November, we all got together for an entrepreneurship event I did with Entrepreneur Magazine.
What has the mentoring process been like?
It’s been such a worthwhile endeavor for everyone involved—from the peer-to-peer support, Mastermind and educational components to my in-person and virtual interactions with the mentees. It’s a year-long program, and I’m really so pleased with how everything has been going so far.
Can you tell us about the finalists?
There are seven women—we call them “The Spectacular Seven”—who are all active members of NAWBO and were chosen from our nationwide search last year to be part of the inaugural NAWBO/Sharapova Entrepreneur Program. They are business owners from all different backgrounds, locations and beginnings—yet all of them have some important qualities in common. Each and every one of them are committed to growing and scaling their businesses, not only for themselves, but for their employees, families, communities and beyond. (I told you they were Spectacular ;)
You’re most proud of…
Seeing them helping each other. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the way they’ve supported and encouraged each other.
Your pro tip to the would-be entrepreneur?
You don’t always have to know everything about your particular field. When I started Sugarpova, I didn’t know anything about the candy industry and, while that was incredibly intimidating and challenging, I was able to come in with a fresh perspective. It opened us to different things. Yes, there’s a wild and scary factor, but there’s also something very refreshing about it. I always encourage people to ask questions—don’t be shy about questioning things you don’t know.
What are some of the challenges female entrepreneurs face?
A common thread amongst the businesswomen in our program has been the challenge of scaling their businesses and growing in a sustainable way. We’re also seeing the challenges women face by not making their voices heard when they need help, whether that be financial, strategic guidance, etc.
And how do you overcome the above?
I cannot underscore enough the importance of asking questions, and seeking help when guidance is needed. It’s very important for female entrepreneurs to recognize that they may not know it all, and to speak up when they cannot do it all themselves. And know that it is OK to ask for help, seek out experts, outsource where they need to. Yes, maintain control of the overall brand vision. But be open-minded to advice, guidance and external resources to help bring the business to the next level.
What inspired you to launch Sugarpova in the first place?
It was a very natural evolution for me, having starting as an athlete…
I wanted to take ownership of what I was doing. I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to learn and grow from my mistakes—kind of what tennis taught me, but bring it into the corporate world. Having worked with some incredible brands throughout my career, I felt like I got an MBA on the job.
We have to ask... why candy?
It has a personal meaning for me that goes back to my childhood: I would get a treat every time I had a great practice.