Abigail Seldin Profile
Abigail Seldin (Pennsylvania & St. Antony’s 2009) is the Co-founder of CollegeAbacus.org and Vice President of Innovation & Product Management at ECMC Group, where she leads the ECMC Innovation Lab. Seldin co-founded College Abacus in 2012 and served as its CEO until the company was acquired by ECMC in 2014. She was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for Education in 2015. While at Oxford, Abigail read for the DPhil in Social Anthropology. She holds an M.S. in Anthropology and a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania.
Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student? What were significant experiences for you?
Abigail Seldin: I entered Oxford as an aspiring anthropologist and left as an entrepreneur with a start-up that had received funding through a sub-grant of the Gates Foundation. For me, Oxford provided space to reflect and an extraordinary opportunity to expand my boundaries and think more broadly about what I wanted to do moving forward.
Perhaps the most significant experience from my time at Oxford was meeting my husband, Whitney Haring-Smith (Pennsylvania & St. John’s 2007), at Rhodes House at the end of my first term. Beyond the romance of finding each other at Oxford, I think it is important to highlight Sheryl Sandberg’s wisdom that, "The most important career choice you'll make is who you marry.” Our professional paths have both changed and grown through our partnership, not least because we co-founded College Abacus together.
Rhodes Project: What inspired your interest in the problem of student debt in the United States? Can you tell me about your venture, College Abacus, and your motivation behind it?
Abigail Seldin: College Abacus is a free online tool offered by the nonprofit education entity ECMC Group that helps prospective college students and their families get beyond tuition sticker prices to comparison shop for affordable college options. It’s what I like to call “the Kayak.com of college financial aid.” College Abacus generates results from the net price calculators of more than 5,100 U.S. colleges so students and families can calculate and compare their individualized financial aid options across multiple schools all in one place, all at one time.
I was inspired to develop the technology after a conversation with my mother-in-law, a university president, who relayed the incredible stress and anxiety she’d seen families face when trying to navigate the complex financial aid process. College is the single largest expense many families will ever take on. But it’s also the expense that is hardest to quantify because most families do not pay the sticker price. Although the real costs can be calculated on individual school sites, it could easily take 30 minutes to enter in information and generate an estimate on each site. College Abacus provides a simple, technical solution to a fundamental problem for the bulk of families considering sending their children to college in the U.S. We wanted to create a one-stop shop that would enable students and their families to do good financial planning.
Rhodes Project: What have been your most challenging experiences as an entrepreneur? And, your most fulfilling ones?
Abigail Seldin: There are two sides to challenging—anything that is particularly challenging can also be empowering. For College Abacus, the most challenging aspect has been the opposition to price transparency by some of the colleges. At the same time, the opposition by some schools has made it clear to us that what we are doing is important—and would not have come about without consistent advocacy for families and their right to this financial information.
The most fulfilling aspect of the experience has been hearing from students and advocates that they believe the tool is helping them and making a difference.
Rhodes Project: Why did you decide to sell College Abacus?
Abigail Seldin: College Abacus had a very quick startup to sale cycle—we were acquired within two years of starting the business. The product started attracting attention very quickly; we received our first inquiries about acquisition about a year after we started the business, and we held out for another year to develop the product. Though we saw compelling options both from potential investors and acquirers, we opted for the acquisition route as it offered greater technical resources and a marketing platform to scale and reach more students. Among the potential buyers, ECMC Group emerged as the best fit for us, both in terms of the support it was willing to provide and its long-term commitment to keeping the site free for students and families.
Rhodes Project: In leading the Innovation Lab at the ECMC Group, what issues in education are you reflecting on at the moment?
Abigail Seldin: The Innovation Lab is an incubator for new products and initiatives at ECMC Group and its subsidiaries. We are primarily interested in transparency and informed consent. College is the greatest expense that most people take on in their lifetime, and arguably one of most important decisions in terms of earning potential. At the Lab, we focus on building products that help people understand the choice they are making and the implications of different options.
Rhodes Project: What motivates you and inspires you at this point in your career?
Abigail Seldin: From a business perspective, it is very hard to generate revenue by building tools for low-income students. Yet, in my capacity as the head of the Innovation Lab, I am empowered to build high quality products for a segment of the population that is too often ignored by start-ups and industry. We are part of a mission-driven nonprofit organization, and I find that opportunity to be tremendous.
Rhodes Project: You have been an advocate for the D.C. startup scene. How is the startup community evolving, and what makes it a strong environment for social entrepreneurship and policy-driven innovation?
Abigail Seldin: In contrast to other environments where start-ups grow, D.C. is a mission-oriented town. Start-ups here tend to address a particular social problem. The confluence of think tanks, businesses and the government helps to focus local entrepreneurs on big problems. Part of what is driving the growth of the start-up community is the really positive and open engagement from the local government and the federal government. For instance, the unusually robust engagement of the government in technology issues through the U.S. Digital Service, 18F and, more recently, through the Department of Education’s work on the College Scorecard (College Abacus was a beta partner in that effort) has created a feeling that we are all on the same side trying to solve big problems
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to women who are in the early stages of their careers, especially those with an interest in entrepreneurship?
Abigail Seldin: I would recommend they focus on skills and opportunity. To break into a new venture or a new organization, you need to be able to bring a tangible skill. So the best thing you can do is find a way to be useful, whether that is by learning to code or learning about user experience and product management. It is hard to find places in new ventures for well-meaning generalists. At the same time, it’s important to remain flexible so that when exciting opportunities come along you’re willing to take a risk. It’s about knowing when to raise your hand.
Rhodes Project: What books have been most transformative for you?
I recommend Skull Wars by David Hurst Thomas, and The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Skull Wars engages with U.S. history, looking particularly at American Indian issues and how American Indians have been represented historically. This book really shaped my perspective on the field of anthropology and U.S. history.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things is one of the few start-up books that I found to be extremely helpful while running College Abacus. It provides a valuable exploration of how it feels to run a start-up, as opposed to how best to address operational issues. Running a startup is fundamentally lonely, and extremely stressful. Horowitz takes a very personal and compassionate look at the process.
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