Abingdon Welch: Pilot, Adventurer, Entrepreneur & Designer: Just Don't Call Her 'Mr'!

Abingdon Welch, Founder & CEO of The Abingdon Co.At the age of 22, Abingdon Welch earned her pilot’s license in just 34 days. Now 28, the young pilot has carried her adventurous spirit to the corporate world as well, founding and leading The Abingdon Co, a company which specializes in exquisite luxury watches for female adventurers such as herself.

She also serves as the driving force behind The Abingdon Crew, a group of high-flying and talented female pilots. 

Born in England but raised in Burbank, CA, Abingdon’s passion for aviation began at the age of 14. Her fascination grew as she progressed through college and her service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. By the time she hit 22, she couldn’t wait any longer and she finally earned her private pilots license.

She still flies, all the time in fact. When she isn’t working on acquiring her seaplane license or teaching at the “I Fly Elite” flight school out in Las Vegas, you can catch her Friday nights on the Discovery channel’s reality show “Flying Wild Alaska”. 

With only 7%t of pilots being women, Abingdon is determined to educate girls about the possibilities of a career in aviation, and to challenge stereotypes.

Abingdon once spoke to a class of third graders about being a pilot. She was dressed in her uniform with her hair in a bun when she talked to the children about the industry.

Some time later, she received thank you notes from the class that read, “Thank you, Mr. Pilot”. It was then that Abingdon decided to start challenging the gender role assumptions that shadow the industry.

Since then, Abingdon has started a scholarship program focused on encouraging young women to challenge stereotypes that could hinder their opportunities. The "It's About Time" scholarship program invites young women to learn about aviation, awarding the recipient of the scholarship an invitation to the International Women in Aviation Conference with all expenses covered.

The Abingdon Co. is based out of Oregon and offers 3 models: the “Jackie”, the “Amelia” and the “Elise”. The watches feature multiple times zones, flight calculations and conversion capabilities (foreign exchange, imperial to metric units) and date function.

We spoke to Abingdon about the transition from pilot to entrepreneur; about working in the male-dominated industry of aviation; and how it felt to pay back all her investors.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for The Abingdon Co., and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

AW:

When I was taking pilot lessons, I really wanted a pilot’s watch, but they only made them for men. Well, I thought to myself, enough of that! I want a girl’s version! 

TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?

AW: We just celebrated our 5 year anniversary, and are still the only brand which designs aviator and travel watches specifically by and for women. 

TNW: What is your business model?

AW: To provide high quality realistically priced timepieces and travel accessories while promoting women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and aerospace.

TNW: How did you find the transition from pilot to entrepreneur?

AW:

I actually found it to be very easy. Many pilots made their money as entrepreneurs so I was already surrounded by a wealth of knowledge.

I began The Abingdon Co. when I was flight training. Thus, I had a great amount of free time since I was essentially a full time flight student. I found a need for something that didn't exist. I had no fear. I asked questions from my pilot/entrepreneur friends and they supported me. When people ask me for advice on how to start their business, I just say, do it. 

TNW: Tell our community about your scholarship program, "It's About Time".

AW: The 2013 It's About Time Scholarship is overseen by The Abingdon Co. each year and awards a full registration to the Women In Aviation Conference (held March 14-16 in Nashville, TN), including round trip airfare and room and board during the conference. Applicants are not required to be pilots or in the aviation industry. The goal is to invite someone to see all of the different avenues of aviation from engineering to aerobatics to maintenance and airlines. The criteria is simple: tell or show why you deserve to go. The applicant chooses the format for their application. The one with the most passion goes. I was never a good essay writer and dreaded writing essays for scholarships, I always felt I would have had a better chance if I could make a video, write a song, or create something that showed why I was worthy of the scholarship. I wanted to make that possible for people applying for this scholarship. We are accepting applications until January 31st.

TNW: What do you enjoy about working in a male dominated industry such as aviation? What where the difficulties, or frustrating aspects?

I enjoy the friends I have met and the people I work with.

Lady pilots only make up 7% of the aviation industry so when I step out of a plane at an airport, the line guys are usually always waiting for the pilot to get out next - they never expect it to be me.

Initially, I was frustrated with that, but then I began to have fun with it. Breaking stereotypes everyday, I tell them! 

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

AW: My top three qualities I look for in a team member are, self-motivated, thinking outside the box, and fearless. If you have those qualities, you will fit right in. 

Abingdon sporting one of her creationsTNW: Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?

AW: I actually sold the first watch before launching the company. One of my investors met a girl at a party who bought one on the spot!

TNW: Who are your customers and partners now?

AW: The main customers are women who travel for business. Our partners include companies in the aviation industry, racing industry, and extreme sport industry. 

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

AW: We thrive on organic marketing. Word of mouth is always the most successful. If the product is top grade, people will share it with other people. 

TNW: What is next for your company?

AW: As for products? More watches of course! And we are launching a jewellery line as well as a travel accessory line including sunglasses, bags and all sorts of things you need when moving. 

TNW: Have you come across any other exciting startups recently and what is it about them that appeals to you?

AW: I always hear of these great startups, but honestly, I am working 80+ hours a week. I don’t have time to read about these other companies! 

Abingdon designs her watches for female adventurers like herselfTNW: What are the advantages of gender diversity in a startup? Are there any disadvantages?

AW: Everybody can offer a different perspetive, and gender diversity allows that. 

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?

AW: If you don’t learn from both your successes and your failures, then you are wasting the experience.

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

AW: Be confident in who you are. The fact that you even have an idea in the first place says that you can make it real.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

AW: Richard Branson is one of my favs – so unconventional, I love him!

TNW: What does your day look like?

AW:

Wake up around 6am, work until 8-9am, have breakfast, work until dinner, take a break with my love, then work until I pass out. I may be a work-a-holic. 

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake?

AW: I’m even dreaming about it! There’s always something to get done in a start-up.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

AW: Balancing people, the product, and the finances involves looking months into the future. If you aren’t on top of the future outlook of your company, it’ll fall before you know it. 

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?

AW:

Reaching the 5 year anniversary this November 3, 2012 and having all of the investors paid back has been a very rewarding time. With the company out of debt and looking ahead, there’s no limit to its success!

TNW: Do you have plans to expand internationally? Which countries and when?

AW: We are already in Africa, Europe, and Asia. And we are always looking to expand. If anyone wants to help translate our website into another language, let me know! 

TNW: Do you envision an exit, how and when?

AW: Yes, I have too many other projects I want to start – but when the time is right, I will exit. Not before. The Abingdon Co. is my first successful company and I want to make sure it is always in good hands.

TNW: Briefly describe your history in raising investment for your company.

AW: I raised the start-up money by asking friends and family. They were to invest a certain amount and gain 10% each year for five years with a full payback at the end of 5 years. 

TNW: Do you believe it is better to find customers then funding or vice versa?

AW: Customers are always better. 

TNW: What have you learned the hard way through the fund raising process that you wish someone had told you at the beginning?

AW: If you owe 1 million to the bank, you are in trouble. If you owe 1 billion to the bank, the bank is in trouble. 

TNW: Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing?

AW: Yes, the lifestyle of a woman is different now than 50 years ago. We are more independent minded and are raised to be self-reliant. That breeds an entrepreneurial mind. 

TNW: What do you think could be done to increase the number of women entrepreneurs?

AW: Tell a woman she can do it!

TNW: What qualities do you think women entrepreneurs need for sourcing angel investment/raising venture capital? 

AW: One rule: Be smart enough to be dumb enough to ask.

TNW: How would you describe your leadership style today?

AW:

I like to give people autonomy. I don’t want to move their hands for them, I want them to initiate on their own.

TNW: How has your leadership style changed over the years, and why?

AW: I would hope my leadership style has improved! I used to be a very bad leader and I’m not saying I’m the greatest now, but I constantly read books about leadership and try to implement those concepts with the people I work with.

TNW: What is one lesson about leadership you learned from a boss or mentor?

AW: You will never motivate someone by tearing them down.

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?

AW: It sounds silly, but dress like a leader. Not too revealing, strong colors, and always pressed.

It says a lot about a female boss who walks into a room, function, or a meeting looking like she controls the room.

TNW: What is the best career or management decision you have made?

AW: Keeping my mind open to learn from everyone I work with – from the bad bosses I had the displeasure of dealing with on a day to day basis to the great mentors I’ve had the pleasure of learning from.

TNW: What is one career or management decision you would like to go back and change?

AW: I wish I had started entrepreneurship sooner!

TNW: What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way, but wish someone had told you at the beginning?

AW: How to manage employees has never been my strongest suit, to this day, I am always looking to improve that skill – and yes, it is definitely a skill.

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