By Charleen Earley
Admit it; we've all done it — our best friend is going through a bad breakup or a close family member is in the hospital, so we rush to the grocery store and snag a card that says it all: "Get Well Soon."
This is where 29-year-old Ali O'Grady of Berkeley comes in.
Founder of Thoughtful Human, O'Grady started a greeting card line that puts meaningful prose and illustrations into cards, but most importantly, into the hands and hearts of those who open them up.
"I was really frustrated by the cookie-cutter sentiments and assumption of conventional relationships. Specifically for things like sympathy and grief, traditional cards feel the need to tell people it's going to be OK," said O'Grady, who was born in Walnut Creek.
"The reality is, it's not going to feel OK for a while, and maybe for a really long while," she added. "I wanted to create a way for people to be more honest and acknowledge that. I wanted to help facilitate a dialogue over what I know to be a 24/7 challenge versus a one-off sentiment that essentially says 'sorry' and wraps things up."
With Impact Hub Oakland as her company base, O'Grady took the leap to leave her day job as a marketing manager at an urban farming startup, Back to the Roots in Oakland, a place she considered her "entrepreneurial boot camp," to start her own thoughtful business.
"The idea that you didn't necessarily need an MBA or x number of years of experience to take a chance and start something," she said. "I also learned from the guys — owners and co-founders Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez — that you can pave your own way, and if you do it with authenticity and transparency, you can forge a really powerful connection and relationship with your community."
It all started when O'Grady says she was on a complex journey with grief ever since she lost her "favorite human," her dad, to colon cancer in 2011. She noticed the difficulty people had in communicating with her around that time.
"Me struggling to talk to my dad about the possibility of his death, my friends and family struggling to talk to me about grief and depression, and me struggling to address addiction within my family," said O'Grady.
"I created Thoughtful Human to help people find honest ways to communicate in dynamic relationships and challenging circumstances like these," said O'Grady, who gave a TEDx Emerald Glen Park talk in Dublin in March explaining her personal "why."
Beyond her personal story, her cards open up dialogue, broaching subjects that a standard greeting card rarely does.
"We create cards with a voice and design that reflect millennials and cover the tough subjects that so many people — and brands — shy away from," she said. "We're ditching the holidays and 'greetings' altogether and creating cards with 'you' first. Your life and your relationships 'are' the occasion."
Avoiding catch-all phrases and clichés, O'Grady's said her goal is to address the challenges and complexities of real relationships head- on — with raw, open-ended questions and sentiments that invite real conversation.
Her company does not stop at just one card either. She creates a series of cards.
"We offer support series to encourage people to communicate consistently over time," she said.
So if your friend or family member is going through cancer and undergoing chemo treatments, Thoughtful Human has a series of cards for cancer support, or a grief series, "to help people keep showing up in the first months and years following a loss," she said.
For that person going through cancer and grief, O'Grady created, "Not going to sugar-coat it, this is going to SUCK … but I'm thinking that together we can make it a little less sucky."
Or how about, "HEY! Keep your head up. OR DON'T. Whatever feels right."
Her cards include sentiments for those going through relationship issues, too.
"We also tap into strained relationships, which you don't see elsewhere in the market," she says. "The idea that you can use a card to reach out a hand to someone estranged, instead of just to celebrate or support the people we're closest to."
O'Grady found an industry statistic from the Greeting Card Association that on average, members of households buy 30 print cards a year. She said she feels print cards provoke action.
"Cards offer an actionable tool to connect and communicate," she said. "There is definitely a different level of intention and engagement behind it versus something digital, and it offers something that lasts, that you can reflect on, well, ya know, unless you plant it."
And speaking of plants, her cards are made with plantable seed paper — in fact, seven different types of annual and perennial wildflower seeds including, bird's eye, Clarkia, black-eyed Susan, catchfly, snapdragon, English daisy, and sweet alyssum.
With simple instructions on her website, card-planters can see sprouts within 10 to 14 days.
"We wanted to create honest, beautiful sentiments, without the waste," she said.
She is an entrepreneur and a card-lover her entire life, and helping others through her cards and as a thoughtful human being is at the core of her business model.
"It's our shared struggle to love, fight, grieve, forgive, overcome, and celebrate, even in some of our darkest moments," she said. "It's accepting and de-stigmatizing dysfunction and meeting our loved ones where they're at."
Beginning a partnership with such nonprofit organizations as the Cancer Support Community and The Mighty, O'Grady and her team say it's not about being another card company.
"We care about people — like, actually! We're not trying to be the biggest stationery company and do things like calendars and key chains; we want to be the most impactful one, and as such, we're focused on building out a hub that offers tools, education, and resources around the issues we cover," says O'Grady.
Her cards, which sell for $5 each on her website, ThoughtfulHuman.co, are also sold in major retail outlets including Whole Foods Market in Northern California, Target.com, Paperchase UK, Paperchase.com, and Paper Source, nationwide.
When she's not working, O'Grady does weddings and maternity shoots for friends and family and travels and backpacks for fun. She's also grateful for the support she's received in her start-up from family and friends.
"From working all of my events with me, or attending them, to helping me pack orders, copy edit products and marketing pieces, answering my desperate opinion polls for various things, and of course listening to me rant, rave, and brainstorm. They have been incredibly supportive," she said.
O'Grady recalled receiving a Christmas card from her dad one year, one of many cards from him that made a significant impact on her life.
"It is a very simple Christmas card with a snowy house on the front and on the inside he just wrote 'you can change the world — one kind act at a time.' With this card, he included a blank check for $100 for me to donate to a nonprofit of my choice," she said.
"This was the kind of human he was," she adds. "I look at that now and think, well, dad, what if we could create products and sentiments to empower tens of thousands of people to change the world one kind act at a time? I think we could make a lot of headway."
Visit Ali O'Grady's website, www.ThoughtfulHuman.co.