Women make up just 14.6% of executive officers nationwide. In Silicon Valley, women account for just 9% of executive positions in information technology, according to American Progress. But here’s one young woman who is not only a CEO, but making huge strides in drone education. Meet Abby Speicher, CEO of DARTdrones.
Drone Girl: So from what I know about you, you seem to be a serial entrepreneur.
Abby Speicher: My family is very entrepreneurial; my dad is an entrepreneurship professor. I ended up starting a social enterprise where we made purses in Ghana; I started that when I was 17 and worked on it through college, where I realized that I loved running a company and learned how to pitch a product.
DG: Where do you go to school?
AS: I went to Babson College’s MBA in Entrepreneurship program.
DG: So what changed there?
AS: I was desperately looking for a new type of company to start. That’s when I met my cofounder (Chris Costello), who was at the Army National Guard for 30 years. He was in charge of missions using Raven drones. That’s when the two of us entered a business competition together.
DG: What were you pitching?
AS: We were pitching a general drone services company. At first we thought we would do all types of services involving drones — selling, repairs. We had a plan, but we didn’t have a business.
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DG: So what happened?
AS: Well, I had never actually flown a drone until the pitch competition. I ordered a Phantom and I flew it in front of the judges; it was my second time ever flying it. It got out of control and went over the judges. Papers were flying everywhere. My dad was in the audience and tried to catch it. It was terrible. It almost crashed.
DG: Oh dear.
AS: But that’s the point I realized I needed a training course. And so we decided, ‘alright, let’s just make a drone training school.’ Today, we have a Section 333 exemption, 5 pilots on staff and 6 additional employees.
DG: So how long have you been in business?
AS: It feels like it was 10 years ago, but it was only a year and a half ago.
DG: What are you primarily teaching?
AS: We offer flight training classes.
DG: What does a class look like?
AS: We offer a 1-day class right now — that’s basic training. We have a maximum of 8 people in each class, plus one of our flight captains, who all have a private pilot’s license and are a certified flight instructor for manned airplanes. It’s a mix of indoor classroom study and then getting a chance to fly outside.
DG: What was the biggest challenge in launching your own business?
AS: There’s a lot that goes into it. The business side took a lot more than I expected.
DG: How so?
AS: Each of our drones is insured as an airplane. And it’s pretty expensive to hire instructors who have a private pilot’s license. And then it’s just challenging to keep up with the industry. We built our whole set of slides on the Phantom 2 to perfection — almost 200 slides — and then the Phantom 3 came out the next day. Part of our team is focused solely on what’s changing in the industry. The answers continue to change on a daily basis.
DG: Training is a huge industry, it seems.
AS: Yeah, it’s important to make sure one idiot doesn’t ruin it for everybody. It’s all user error. The drone is not crashing at the White House. The person is crashing the drone at the White House, and that person should have taken a class. With all the press that that got, the positive uses of drones don’t get any press. That bothers me a lot — I’m sure it bothers you too.
DG: What type of people take your classes?
AS: We’re finding a lot of hobbyists who fly but take our classes because they just want to learn how to be safe. There are older, retired gentleman who are looking for a new hobby to bond with their grandchildren. Then there is a huge portion of people really seeing the commercial use for them and are applying for 333 Exemptions in real estate, photography and construction. But so far we’ve only had three female pilots come through — and two of them were in the class today.
DG: Wow, just 3 women? How many students total have you taught?
AS: About 200.
DG: So why so few women?
AS: Well, the first time I flew, I had such a fear of it. It’s so public. People see you if you crash it into a tree. After my crash, I was so cautious and learned every single thing that could possibly happen.
Part of the reason that women are nervous is we want to do things right. The women in our class are really good. They’re thoughtful about it and they want to know every possible thing that would go wrong. But often the best pictures come from women because they are so thoughtful about making every shot.
DG: What’s it like being a female CEO in the tech industry?
AS: I’ve gotten High Fives. I spoke at a conference earlier this month, and though I’m usually not a good public speaker, so many people came up to me asking me to talk to their daughter because they say we need to get more women in engineering. People are proud to hear I’m a CEO. There’s no reason why a woman can’t be a CEO.
DG: What advice to you have for other leaders in drones?
AS: At business school they talk about having the wind at your back, having the industry going the right way for you. Otherwise you’re just pushing a ball up a hill. There are a hundred million purse businesses. But the drone industry is taking off and there aren’t enough compaies to meet the demand.
DG: So you would say there is room for more drone business?
AS: Everyone seems to have success and people are hardly competing against each other. Someone was literally giving away his business because he could not take the demand for it. Everyone is excited about the industry and cheering each other on.
This interview was originally published in 2015.