At 21, Maria Sharapova was in a hospital bed. She’d just gotten through a major shoulder surgery, and with three grand slam tennis titles behind her (now she’s at five), she was getting antsy.
“It was the first time I didn’t do something every day,” she says. ”I realized it’s been great to be a part of associations and be a
brand ambassador…but at the end of the day I was a small part of these corporations. I wasn’t making decisions.”
And then a creeping memory came into her mind. Sharapova moved with her father from Russia to the U.S. when she was 7 years old, and she couldn’t shake the image of seeing a “selection of gummies. We never had that kind of candy in Russia.”
And Sugarpova was born.
Starting with $500,000, the highest-paid female athlete for 11 years (Serena Williams took the crown this year) is still owns 100% of the company four years later. She introduced a line of chocolates in May
“Everyone in some shape for form loves giving themselves a break, whether it’s your grandma’s baking from childhood or chocolate,” Sharapova says onstage at FORBES’ third annual Under 30 Summit in Boston.
So she approached the business like she approaches the court — prepared.
Sharapova already had a backlog of business experience from her dealings with Cole Haan, Avon and Evian, but she took executive programs at Harvard Business School, shadowed NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and attended meetings at Nike for a behind-the-scenes look.
The gummy brand introduced its first line of chocolates in May, and Sharapova says truffles are next on the menu.
But as much as she loves the hands-on decisions like what foil to package their sweets in, she’s also itching to get back on the court.
Sharapova shocked the tennis world in March when she announced she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open in January. She said she had been taking the drug Meldonium for a decade for her health, and unbeknownst to her it was added to the WTA Tour’s banned list of substances on January 1.
Her possible two-year suspension, though, was reduced by nine months, which puts her back in the game next April. “To be able to compete again and play and do something I’ve loved since I was a young girl was a great feelings,” she says.
But balancing a superstar sports career with a growing business isn’t so simple. For Sharapova, it all comes down to priorities. She takes care to give Sugarpova a personal feel — making that sweet experience something more than a plastic wrap you throw away once you’ve indulged. And she faces the business challenges every founder does, like keeping a product premium but have a price point that’s accessible.
For the time being, though, all of that still comes second to her first love.
“Even when I’m rusty…and get back on the court, walking, and you see the paint and the white lines, it’s what I know, and know best, and love to do,” Sharapova says. “When I wake, up it’s the first thing I want to do.”