A Female Pilot Soars as a Niche Entrepreneur

Chelsea Abingdon Welch is the female founder of The Abingdon Co., which makes high-end watches for women in male-dominated pursuits like flight and diving who are tired of settling for “a pink or small version of men’s stuff.”

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Chelsea Abingdon Welch. (Credit: The Abingdon Co.)

Chelsea Abingdon Welch. (Credit: The Abingdon Co.)

When Chelsea Abingdon Welch earned her pilot’s license in 2006, she wanted to reward herself with a woman’s aviator watch. But when she searched for one to buy online, it was “crickets.”

At first, she considered getting a watch custom-made, but when she talked about her dream watch in her circle of women pilots, “there were so many people saying this would be amazing,” Welch says. Just under 6 percent of pilots in the U.S. were women as of 2010 — a minority, to be sure, but the fact remained that approximately 15,000 female pilots were left without aviator watch options.

Seeing a void in the niche market of high-end watches for adventurous women around the world, Welch decided she would be the one to fill it. She spent a year developing her first products, and in November, 2007 she launched The Abingdon Co. with two completed designs and a website.

Today, Welch’s Las Vegas firm has 10 employees and collaborates with manufacturers in Japan to design, craft and distribute dozens of signature timepieces to customers around the globe for $300 to $800 apiece. Each watch comes in multiple women’s sizes and can be made in a wide variety of colors from various materials.

“Initially, I just wanted to make one for me,” she says, but “I decided, instead of getting one custom made, I could get 500” and turn the endeavor into something bigger — something that could speak to scores of women like her who are underrepresented in their careers and passions.

Taking Off

Welch learned to fly back in 2006, when she was just 22 years old. “I dreamed of becoming a pilot ever since I was 14,” when she attended a career seminar near her childhood home in Burbank, Calif. She went for the free food, she recalls, but became enraptured when two pilots spoke about their work.

From that moment on, she knew what she wanted to do with her life. And after becoming first in flight — in her family, that is — she immersed herself in aviation by joining a local chapter of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization for women pilots.

It was during a holiday gathering with this group of women that her fruitless search for a pilot’s watch sparked a larger discussion. When she realized the shared interest in such a product, Welch thought: “Why don’t we start making them?”

She spent the next 11 months working, with some help from those women, on her first two watches. Since she didn’t have existing women’s aviator watches to build off of, she sketched designs by hand and used PhotoShop to make mock-ups. “These were completely being created from nothing,” she says.

Using contributions from friends and family — which she paid back in full on the company’s fifth anniversary, she proudly states — Welch got The Abingdon Co. off the ground. Soon after debuting her products, she began attending trade shows and receiving press attention. “It spread like wildfire, and we started gaining a lot of traction,” she recalls.

In fact, the attention was more than Welch had expected, and “the site started crashing,” she says. Once she renovated the website and tightened up back-end operations, however, she was able to handle the influx of customers.

In addition to her online store, Welch sells through retailers throughout the U.S. and in Canada and South Africa, many of whom she met at trade shows. Those relationships have been integral to furthering her reach, she says. “It’s important for customers who want to hold the product to have retailers across the country and in other countries” who can give them that opportunity.

The growth of The Abingdon Co. continued at a steady pace until 2014, when Welch landed on ABC’s entrepreneurial pitch show “Shark Tank.” It was hardly a successful appearance, though. Not only did the panel decline to invest in her, her segment didn’t even make it to television. Still, she says she got something crucial out of the experience — a realization that she would need to broaden the scope of her venture if she wanted to grow faster.

Soon, Welch began designing watches for other adventurous women — divers, sailors, equestrians, base-jumpers and more. It was a profitable shift. Though she declined to disclose annual revenue figures, she says it has been growing year to year and is set to triple in 2017 from 2016.

But for her, the change was about more than money — it was about catering to female participants in a wide range of “adrenaline-junkie activities” traditionally enjoyed by men.

For the Ladies

Working with and for women in male-dominated sports is what motivates Welch each day. She says customers frequently express relief when they find her, saying, “I’m a scuba diver or I ride horses or I race cars or I shoot guns, and I’m sick of having a pink or small version of men’s stuff.”

Welch gets it — she is no stranger to being a woman in a man’s world, after all. As a professional pilot, “I’m breaking stereotypes every day.” Indeed, she is often assumed to be a flight attendant by mechanics and other people she encounters on the runway. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not one,” she says. In addition, they frequently direct questions about the plane’s fuel needs to nearby men, instead of her.

There aren’t many women in the watch world either, and Welch deals with condescension there, too. People will call her designs “cute” or question the necessity of some of her watches’ functions, she says, despite the fact that many of her customers are professional female pilots who rely upon her pieces for crucial information. “It’s so funny to watch [other] companies invest so much in pictures of celebrities, then say theirs are ‘real’ and mine aren’t.”

But rather than get frustrated, she gets busy. “I don’t mind the resistance I’ve received. What I’m doing is not only breaking stereotypes, but also educating” the unenlightened — and she is passionate about being that messenger.

Clear Skies Ahead

Nearly 10 years on, Welch is proud of the stake she has put in the ground with The Abingdon Co. “We are a legit business, a full-time company,” she says. And she is dedicated to growing it even further.

This year, she is focusing on running a series of tenth-anniversary promotions — for example, her “May Day, May Day, May Day” offer, which welcomes anyone who purchased a watch in the past that isn’t working now to send it back and get it fixed for free.

Welch is also hitting trade shows as often as possible in a bid to expand her customer base, even as she pursues investors and develops a scholarship program for women interested in aviation.

Long-term, she aspires to one day offer “a watch for every group” of women who enjoy adventurous activities. Then and now, her desire is to head “a company for the customer,” one that’s a grittier Chanel or Tiffany — “timeless, but with an edge to it.”

Posted: August 15, 2017

Candice Helfand-RogersA Female Pilot Soars as a Niche Entrepreneur