FEMALE FOUNDERS: THE FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO THRIVE AND SUCCEED AS A WOMAN FOUNDER
Jan 12, 2023
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Female Founders: Abingdon Mullin Of The Abingdon Co. On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
“At the beginning, act as though every decision has a $0 budget.” This will force you to get really creative. Don’t have money for a printer and paper to sign a contract? What will you do? I guess you’ll have to look at free online tools where you can sign documents using a trackpad or stylus. Yes, they exist. Can’t buy marketing software like Photoshop or Premiere to edit photos and videos? Better use the freebies like Canva and YouTube editor… When you are starting, every penny counts. And with technology today, there are countless free options available to solve almost every cost that comes your way.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Abingdon Mullin. Abingdon Mullin is a woman of all trades — a CEO, pilot, and scuba diver. Abingdon empowers women and creates purpose-built watches for women who do more so they can climb, drive, fly, ride and discover.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your "backstory"? What let you to this particular career path?
I was born in England and raised in California. I have a serious spirit for adventure and excitement, especially when it has to do with flying. I fell in love with aviation when I was 14 years old and held on to the dream of flight through college. I then became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. By 22 years old, I couldn’t wait any longer and finally earned a private pilot certificate at Santa Monica Airport. I have over 4,000 hours logged in over 80 different aircraft from a Piper Cub on Floats to the Airbus A320. When I’m not working or flying, you can catch me somewhere around the world scuba diving or racing cars. In 2006, I was at a dinner and had a roundtable conversation with a group of women from pilots and mechanics. During this conversation, someone spoke up about her desire for a fully functional aviator watch and how the watch industry will never create something for women because it’s too small of a market (6% of pilots are female in the US). Her comments struck me because not two months earlier, I had been looking for a pilot’s watch made for women and gave up after not finding anything. It was at that dinner that I decided I wanted to form a company that is dedicated to building purpose-built watches designed with women in mind. I wanted to build watches for women who do more. Fifteen years after that dinner, I still regularly meet with women in industries with active lifestyles. Together, we leverage our expertise and knowledge to create innovative products that meet their professional and personal needs. As an unintended result — the Abingdon watches themselves have become a symbol of empowerment.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
That’s a tough question — there are so many to choose from! One comes to mind though and that was when one of my Crew Members, Retired Colonel Laurel “Buff” Burkel invited me to her Air Force retirement ceremony at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. She was retiring as a colonel and had been in a helicopter crash three years earlier in Afghanistan. She was wearing her Abingdon Marina watch at the time of the crash and both her and her watch survived. After a year of rehabilitation, she continued serving until her retirement in 2018. That’s when she asked me if I’d be there for her retirement. I said absolutely! (I mean, how can you say no to an Air Force Colonel right?) I had no idea it would be at a mountain over 18,000 feet in the air. She said, “Great, start training now. You have 8 months to get ready. It’s going to be at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.” I started training, flew out to Africa in October, met with her and eleven others that were there for her retirement — from General Roser, who officiated the ceremony, to some of her best civilian friends. We hiked over the course of six days, however, by day four, I had started to experience altitude sickness. I suffered through it and continued on the climb. I made it to the top of the summit with a 42% oxygen saturation which could have probably killed me. They helicopter evacuated me and it took months for my body to recover. But, I made it and I was there for Buff, and that’s what matters to me the most.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
So not many people know this, but typically a leather watch strap is always put on a watch in one way — the buckle side is attached to the top side of the watch and the long part of the strap attaches to the bottom side of the watch. So one day, I’m meeting with a very big watch strap manufacturer — one of the largest in the world — and my leather strap on my watch is on upside down. I hadn’t even noticed. Well, one of the guys in the meeting pointed it out to me in front of everyone and it was embarrassing. I shrugged it off and made up some excuse, but I filed the incident in the back of my mind. I never wanted one of my Crew Members to have the same thing happen to them, so when I started manufacturing watch straps, I stamped the numbers “12” and “6” on the underside of the strap so the wearer would know what side to put it on their watch.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Many people have helped me get to where I am today. I married an entrepreneur like myself. My husband, Shawn, is strong in the areas I am not. I’m the creative entrepreneur whereas he is the analytical type. He helps me every day from the smallest question I may have to the largest issue that may come. Running a company comes with big and small challenges and Shawn is my number one guy that helps me navigate stormy waters.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
In my early days of establishing the Abingdon Co., I experienced not only sexism, but also ageism as I asked others to help me build my idea for a watch company. I was 22 when I came up with the idea for my company and I told everyone who would listen to me what I was trying to do. You never know who your next investor may be, right? Well one older man in his fifties or sixties that I knew at Santa Monica airport where I was working, told me he had an idea that he thought might help me get financing and offered to discuss it with me over lunch at the airport café. I met him for lunch and he propositioned me for sex in exchange for financing my company! I was shocked, dumbfounded, and didn’t know what to do. Unfortunately, women get asked to dinners and lunches by potential investors to “discuss the opportunity” often and sometimes the investors have ulterior motives. These situations are inappropriate and shouldn’t be happening, and a woman needs to know how to navigate shutting down such a situation while not burning bridges even though every ounce of their self wants to.
And if they DO get to the boardroom for a proper sit down with a potential business partner, it is widely researched that female founders are asked more risk aversion questions while male founders are asked growth potential questions. Women get all the way into the meeting they had been fighting for and they still are assumed to fail! I get why women are held back from founding companies. Women have to be smarter, better businesspeople in order to navigate tactfully the “isms” that they will no doubt experience. So why would a woman want to found company when so much is set up against them as a barrier to entry? She may be the most passionate expert in her field with the next trillion-dollar business, but without believers, mentors, financing, and access, she will not succeed with their company.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Be open minded. Just because someone doesn’t look like you or doesn’t fit the founder stereotype that you’ve built in your mind doesn’t mean they don’t have what it takes to create an incredible business. As a society, we need to listen more to founders and what they are trying to create. And if it resonates or aligns with us, then we should support them. Support comes in many forms. Money, praise, connections, relationships, partnerships — even the occasional text asking them if there’s anything they need help with. Treat female founders professionally and ask yourself, would I be doing/saying/acting this way with a male founder? Be an ally and encourage male founded companies to bring women onto their board or leadership team for a more well-rounded approach to the business. With more diversity in executive roles, businesses become more successful.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
The real question is why SHOULDN’T more women become founders? The more women found companies, the more commonplace society will see women in leadership roles, inventing products or processes, and building. If you want to equate becoming a founder to something that society believes women do “naturally,” then look at motherhood. Founding a company is identical to motherhood — from creating to nurturing to feeding to growing into something that can survive on its own. I think women should become founders because they will realize how good they can be at it. It uses all of your brain, your senses, your intuition, and your smarts. It challenges you, forces you to grow, and creates one more legacy for you. My company is one of the things I am most proud of, and don’t get me wrong — I have shed blood, sweat, and tears for it — but I’ve also experienced more joy than I could imagine running a company that not only benefits the employees who rely on my leadership for their income, but also my Crew Members who sigh in relief that they finally have products made for them.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Founders are sometimes thought to be risk-taking loners with strong personalities who are workaholics with no work-life balance because they are only motivated by money. Ok, maybe not all of those things together, but any one of those traits are myths that founders oftentimes need to dispel. Though a founder does take risks, they are usually careful and calculated, often as part of a well-thought-out strategic plan. As for the “loner” mentality, yes there is some truth to the old adage, “If you need to get something done right, you may as well do it yourself,” but that’s not sustainable for founders who are playing the long game. Founders who want their companies to scale need others as part of their team to grow the company. Being a loner is not an option. Next, having a strong A-type personality is not the only personality of a founder. Some famous examples of introverted founders are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Now being a workaholic is definitely something I have difficulty with. I have to remind myself to socialize, exercise, and talk about other things other than work. Some founders I know have a great work-life balance. It’s one of the things I struggle with because it’s a (bad) habit I’ve formed over the years. Lastly, motivated by money… that is a characteristic very few of the founders I know have. Based on how difficult it is to build a company, the money motivation myth is rarely ever true. More times than not, founders are passionate about causes that are near to them. They need to be because when times are tough, that passion is their fuel to carry on.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
No, I don’t think everyone is cut out to be a founder. You have to have desire. You have to be ok with failure, because you will make mistakes along the way. Being a founder requires dedication, patience, hard work, and pure toughness. If you have an idea and even the slightest vision to make it happen, then anything is possible. There’s also strength in numbers — co-founding has become extremely popular. People may have certain strengths & abilities that you lack, and vice versa, but if you partner then remarkable things can happen. However, some people just prefer to enjoy the products or services that are being offered to them, instead of being a founder & leading a company, and thank goodness for them! If everyone was a founder, then nothing would get done! It all depends on your values and what you want to put into this world. As for myself, I feel I have a lot to offer — I want to empower women and make a difference in my community — and I’m able to do that through Abingdon Co. & Abingdon Foundation.
Here is the main question of our interview: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. “At the beginning, act as though every decision has a $0 budget.” This will force you to get really creative. Don’t have money for a printer and paper to sign a contract? What will you do? I guess you’ll have to look at free online tools where you can sign documents using a trackpad or stylus. Yes, they exist. Can’t buy marketing software like Photoshop or Premiere to edit photos and videos? Better use the freebies like Canva and YouTube editor… When you are starting, every penny counts. And with technology today, there are countless free options available to solve almost every cost that comes your way.
2. “Act as though it were impossible to fail.” If this is your daily mantra, you’ll approach each problem as a challenge instead of a roadblock. Your mental game will get you through the tough times of the early days, so work out that muscle strong.
3. “You will have people tell you their opinion of your business whether you want to hear it or not, and most of the time they will try to poke holes in it.” Expect it from friends, family, potential investors and business partners, and even strangers. Just remember though, they have thought about your business a fraction of the time that you have spent thinking about your business.
4. “Look at the source of where your advice is coming from.” Has the person who is telling you how to raise capital ever successfully raised any money themselves? When your friend tells you how to post on social media, do they actually know what it takes to grow a following on social media? What about an investor who advises you on your business — how many years in your industry do they have? Always look at the background of the person or group who is giving you advice. Remember, you can always hear the advice, but you don’t always need to take it.
5. “Some things take time, so be patient.” I wanted everything to happen so fast at the beginning, but that just wasn’t how things went. I had to learn that there are some things I could control and get done quickly (like building a website. I built a Shopify site myself in 45 days) and some things that took time, like getting product reviews. To get product reviews, you have to sell the product, then ask for the review — sometimes several times — and then only a small percentage of your customers will put down a review. You can’t hurry some things, because some things are out of your control.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In 2017, on the 10th year anniversary of the Abingdon Co., I was granted 501(c)(3) status for the non-profit side of the company, Abingdon Foundation. We award scholarships to women who are interested in a pursuing something in STEAM and we teach girls at a young age to explore science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics as something fun, attainable, and for them. I started by using conferences such as Women in Aviation, Heli-Expo, SHOT Show and DEMA as a backdrop and we’d introduce recipients to women of influence in their respective STEAM fields so that they can develop their own networks with groups of supportive women that can help guide them on their path. Women should be given the know-how to evolve their passions into their own unique expressions of careers and lifestyles. The It’s About Time Sponsorship is overseen by Abingdon Foundation and awards a full-paid trip to a STEAM Industry Conference to a woman 18 years of age or older. Along with first access to seminars and multiple networking opportunities, the winner is introduced to key people in their industry who share their experiences. The unique aspect about the scholarship is that applicants are not required to be in the industry at the time of their application. The goal is to invite someone to see all of the different avenues of their industry (i.e. aviation includes: engineering to aerobatics to maintenance and airlines).
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire any movement, it would be to change the societal belief that girls and women aren’t cut out for STEM. Girls are great at science, technology, engineering, and mathematics! They just have to believe it — and that begins with the adults in their lives. If a young girl tells you she wants to be a pilot, a computer coder, a scientist, or a crane operator — encourage her! It may sound foreign in your world, but it doesn’t in hers. The worst thing we can do for our children is define their dreams for them.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Without a doubt, Sara Blakely, CEO of Spanx.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!Originally Published in Authority Magazine