Celebrity Backers: MasterClass and Tonal have Serena Williams in their courts

In terms of their missions, two unicorns — MasterClass, a provider of online classes taught by experts in many fields, and Tonal, creator of a “smart” home-exercise machine — have little in common. But both companies share a valuable asset: retired tennis superstar Serena Williams.

One of MasterClass’s most well-known set of classes is a two-hour series on all facets of tennis taught by Williams, widely considered the greatest female player of all time. In a short video to promote her online lessons, Williams says, “This is as close to a private lesson with me as you can get.”

And on Tonal’s website, there’s a link to a video of Williams using a Tonal weight machine while telling viewers to “never be afraid of your strength.” This same pitch, which was geared to women, was made in an ad starring Williams that ran during the Super Bowl in February 2022.

But Williams isn’t just a pitchwoman for these companies: Serena Ventures, the VC firm she founded in 2014, was an early investor in both companies. The firm seeks to invest in e-commerce, fintech, health, sports & wellness, web3, educational technology, and climate technology sectors. The specific terms of her investments in both MasterClass and Tonal haven’t been publicly disclosed.

Serena is among a growing list of celebrities in the world of sports and entertainment that have entered into investments and working partnerships with startups.

MasterClass, whose last known valuation was $2.85 billion as of May 2021, and Tonal, whose last known valuation was $1.89 billion as of September 2022, are among the most prominent of her investments.

Williams’ involvement with San Francisco-based MasterClass goes back to 2015 when she, along with actor Dustin Hoffman and fiction writer James Patterson, were the only experts offering classes on the site. Today, the site gives customers access to lessons taught by over 180 thought leaders in over a dozen fields. Williams’ husband, Alex Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit and a prominent tech entrepreneur, teaches a MasterClass course on “building your startup.”

And in February 2022, at the time of the Super Bowl ad, San Francisco-based Tonal made early investor Williams an official brand ambassador. In the press release announcing Williams’ expanded relationship with the company, she said of Tonal, “It’s a different way to train that challenges me and makes me a lot stronger.”

As powerful as that kind of celebrity endorsement is, it carries even more weight because Williams, though her venture capital arm, has skin in the game.

About the Author

John Kimelman is a veteran journalist who has worked at Barron’s and CNBC covering such topics as investing and commercial banking. Mr. Kimelman has received compensation from Forge Global, Inc. for authoring this article. Read more from John.

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