Ali O’Grady’s business Thoughtful Human is different from other greeting card companies. First, it’s zero waste. You can plant the cards and grow wildflowers. And these cards don’t celebrate typical holidays. Thoughtful Human’s greetings are appropriate for when you find out your loved one has cancer, or is in rehab, or just suffered a miscarriage.

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The cards have caught on, and now you can buy them in Cost Plus World Markets across the United States. O’Grady talked to Inhabitat about how she started this unusual business and why people have responded in such an overwhelmingly positive way.

Related: The high environmental cost of popular holiday gifts

Inhabitat: How did you start drawing?

O’Grady: Spoiler alert — I didn’t! I write all of our cards and come up with concepts for the designs, but this hand simply cannot draw. Fortunately, I found our amazing illustrator, Summer Ortiz Ross, back in 2017 and have worked with her since day one of Thoughtful Human. She has a really unique ability to create lettering and graphics that are whimsical and fun, but also lend a certain tenderness, vulnerability and weight to them. I searched through many, many designers to find someone special who could deliver that!

Several cards on a table.

Inhabitat: Tell us a little bit about how the idea for your card company first hit you.

O’Grady: I lost my dad in 2011 after a 10-year battle with colon cancer. It left me with a lot of time to reflect on that experience and the things I wasn’t able to ask or say. After he passed, I started to notice more and more communication issues all around me — lots of well-meaning friends and family struggling to talk to me and my family about grief and depression, while I myself was struggling to find words to address addiction and other challenges within my circle. It just became really clear that so many of us wanted to show up but didn’t have the words or tools to navigate challenging conversations, and that a lot of people were left feeling isolated and alone as a result. I wanted to help change that.

As far as defining moments, I was on a long drive home from the funeral of a family member who sadly passed of an overdose. It was a really somber day, and I was having a lot of racing thoughts about mortality, family and showing up. Among them, I was thinking about how I had just dropped the ball on my grandma’s birthday. Despite thinking about it so many times as it was approaching, I had done nothing and was really disappointed in myself. I remember thinking, how could I have had the thought so many times and done nothing? The answer was as simple as not having a stamp or finding a card/gift that resonated with me. I distinctly remember thinking, it shouldn’t be so hard to be a thoughtful human, and it just kind of clicked. I wanted to help remove barriers for people who wanted to show up, but for whatever reason weren’t getting there. And that was it — I went home and claimed the Thoughtful Human domain name that night and started to doodle our first logo.

A stack of cards.

Inhabitat: How did you decide on your more unusual categories, like depression, miscarriage, rehab, cancer, etcetera?

O’Grady: It was less of a decision than it was a response to the circumstances within my family and a desperation to find meaningful ways to connect. Many of the subjects we cover are perhaps unusual for mainstream cards and retailers, but they certainly aren’t uncommon issues. In fact, 1 in 7 people face a substance addiction, 1 in 5 people face an episode of mental illness each year, and 2 in 5 people will be diagnosed with cancer within their lifetimes. It’s a lot of individuals and families and, of course, these are just three particular issues that have impacted my family directly, but we’re really talking about content that opens up a dialogue around any sensitive or stigmatized issue.

We want to make people — both the card buyer and card recipient — feel seen. We want to shift the model from platitudes and niceties to encouraging people to show up honestly and consistently in tough moments — to build the kind of trust that fosters vulnerability and allows for real connection and healing.

Several cards on a table.

Inhabitat: What kind of feedback have your customers given you on your cards? Any special stories you can share?

O’Grady: People have been so receptive and supportive! From traveling around and speaking with all kinds of people, it’s really clear how desperate so many of us are to communicate around our pain and struggles. And when you give people that space, it’s the coolest thing — it creates palpable connections, and you can almost feel the relief.

Inhabitat: Tell us about the sustainability aspect of your cards.

O’Grady: I have been really passionate about sustainability since high school where I first started advocating around climate change and waste, so I knew starting my own business that it had to be low-to-no waste. All of our cards are printed on seed paper that can be planted to grow wildflowers. The paper is made from post-consumer recycled content and printed with water-based inks. All of our products, packaging and shipping materials are totally plastic-free and made with either recyclable, compostable, or plantable materials.

Four images showing a plant's growth.

Inhabitat: Congratulations on getting into some giant markets, as well as lots of cool smaller places. Do you have any tips for other entrepreneurs?

O’Grady: Thank you! My best advice is to be authentic and make people feel something. I spend so much more time talking about mental health, addiction, etc. than I do talking about my actual products. So much more time being vulnerable myself and listening to others’ challenges than I do trying to sell anything. I feel strongly that it has been this approach — the process of extending and evoking empathy — and our vision for communication that has opened so many doors for Thoughtful Human.

We’ve also been uncompromising in our commitment to our mission and sustainability, and I think people — from buyers to customers and everyone in between — can see that it is authentic. It’s not CSR [corporate social responsibility], it is the brand. Any time we get a platform you bet we’re going to use it to blast an organization we care about relevant resources. That’s because we actually care. It’s never been about cards, it’s about genuinely trying to help guide people who are facing very real situations towards the support they need.

Of course, this advice is going to look different for other entrepreneurs and categories, but whether it’s a pickle, a shirt, an app, literally anything — be authentic and make people feel something!

A person sitting at a table holding a card.

Inhabitat: What else would you like readers to know about you, your cards and your mission?

O’Grady: I’d love to remind people that whatever that thing is — the one you find the most painful, shameful, humiliating — is so much more common than you think it is, and there are so many communities and tools available to support! I started a podcast this year to help normalize a lot of stigmatized subjects and bring people more tools and vocabulary to approach uncomfortable conversations — from colons and colostomy bags to herpes, grief, addiction, incarceration, race, and beyond. It’s okay to talk about this stuff, it’s okay to stumble through or “mess up,” it’s okay to have questions, it’s okay to ask for help. You are not alone!

+ Ali O’Grady / Thoughtful Human

Images via Thoughtful Human