“Work to make yourself obsolete”, With Douglas Brown and Amy Williams

Work to make yourself obsolete. This one is reasonably counter-intuitive, especially for a control freak like me, but as the founder of a tech business, I’ve learned the hard way that I’m very unlikely to ultimately be the perfect person for every job in the company. So the best form of leadership I can offer […]

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Work to make yourself obsolete. This one is reasonably counter-intuitive, especially for a control freak like me, but as the founder of a tech business, I’ve learned the hard way that I’m very unlikely to ultimately be the perfect person for every job in the company. So the best form of leadership I can offer is one that empowers my team to push forwards without needing me. Over the past four years, I’ve hired people who are far smarter and experienced than me, and I’m honestly so proud of this fact.

I once heard good leadership described as someone who’s helpful everywhere but needed nowhere — that’s a perfect articulation of the lesson I’ve learned over the past few years. I believe the trick to building a successful tech company is to create a successful team. As founders, we need to be smart enough to surround ourselves with people who are far more intelligent than us and humble enough to let them teach us.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing 28-year-old Amy Williams. She is on a mission to convert people’s attention into funds for good causes. She co-founded Good-Loop in 2016 after stints at advertising giant Ogilvy London, and a soup-kitchen in Argentina, to make ethical behaviour easier for consumers and more profitable for companies. Today working with the likes of Nestlé, Unilever, the Co-Op, Coca-Cola and H&M, Amy’s ‘ethical ad platform’ rewards consumers who choose to watch an ad by donating to their chosen charity, whilst delivering better ROI for advertisers. It’s Yin Yang, win-win. Amy is one of Forbes Europe’s 30 under 30, eConsultancy’s Rising Star of 2019, a face of the United Nations #SheInnovates global campaign and one of Ad Age Europe’s ‘Women to Watch’ 2020.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started my career in an ad agency working with brands and communications in the laundry sector. I had a mentor who said you should find the bit of your job that you would happily do for free and focus on building your career on that. I loved working with clients who were baking purpose into their brands. I wanted to create a business that could make an impact, but I still wasn’t quite sure what or how. To give myself time to shape my idea, I took some time out.I travelled for nine months. I volunteered in a soup kitchen in Argentina that had been built from scratch to serve a community in need. The experience solidified my drive to build something that could create sustainable change, something of which I’d be proud. I realised I wanted to do something to solve the issues around online media to drive results and change it into a more positive space. My idea was to create a value exchange between the person watching the ad and the advertiser.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I guess it would have to be the time my face was 10ft high, looming over New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus! The UN Women run a global initiative called She Innovates, which helps female innovators and entrepreneurs to defy gender barriers and drive innovation forwards. I was invited to be a part of their launch campaign.

I remember they asked me to go for a simple photoshoot, without really giving me much context or information. But I love the charity, and it’s a cause very close to my heart, so I was delighted to go along to the studio. When I arrived, I was greeted by a whole costume and makeup team along with several agencies, shoot assistants, lighting designers — the works. Even at this point, I don’t think the penny indeed dropped. I just sat on set, stared moodily into the camera and left. A few months later, I received a phone call from my fiancé — he was sitting waiting for his train at a London station. Opposite, staring right at him, was a massive poster featuring my face with the words ‘SHE’S IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE’. I don’t imagine dating me is a picnic at the best of times, but that day I indeed was impossible to ignore. I had friends calling me from New York saying they passed my face in Grand Central Station. I had people texting me with pictures of my face in their morning newspaper. It was an incredibly surreal day.

The #SheInnovates campaign was such a fantastic expression of how UN Women empowers and emboldens women and girls around the world. In fact, it’s a charity that Good-Loop has supported many times over the years, in partnership with brands like Dove, so it was indeed an honour to be featured in their campaign, alongside some incredible women including Dr Christyl Johnson, the first African-American Deputy Director of NASA and global activist Zainab Salbi.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I remember going for a fancy sushi dinner with some potential clients but being a simple countryside lass, I’d never really had much experience of Japanese cuisine. I’ll always remember the moment I tentatively held a piece of sushi in my chopsticks and dipped the entire thing into my bowl of sake, believing it to be some punchy Japanese condiment. Another time, when I was attending a fancy industry conference, I misunderstood the menu and accidentally ordered an entire Jeroboam of Rosé for myself — that was a long night.

I seem always to be making silly, embarrassing mistakes, but honestly, I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously. As a young, female founder, there’s a temptation (and sometimes the necessity) to wear a mask, to seem as serious as possible, to stop people underestimating you. But with time, I’ve grown in confidence and with that, I’ve less need for people to take me too seriously. I know my worth, and I know that if they underestimate me, that’s their loss. I’ve also brought some pretty impressive, knowledgable people into the Good-Loop team over the years, so it’s often the case that I’m not the smartest person in the room and I LOVE that. I don’t need to pretend I have all the answers. In fact, I love leaning on and learning from my colleagues; it’s such a valuable part of the journey.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Once I’d had the idea for Good-Loop I was put in touch with a team of investors in London — they said they were interested in my idea, so I flew home from Argentina to meet them. I excitedly emailed. Then I emailed again. Then I called. And emailed again. They blanked me.

They had changed their minds about the business deal and to be honest, it made me wonder if I should too. They were industry experts, telling me this wasn’t worth pursuing. It was too risky; I was too inexperienced; it’d never make money. At that moment I was so close to quitting.

That’s of course not the only rejection I’ve faced — the last funding round we undertook saw some brutal rejections. My solution? I now keep a spreadsheet of every investor I talk to, noting their feedback. Why? For the same reason that I keep a copy of my Oxford University rejection letter — rejection makes me stronger. It makes me angry, and it fuels me. It’s another person who thinks I’m not intelligent enough, not tough enough, not experienced enough. Frankly, it’s just another person I’m going to prove wrong.

None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Without a doubt, it would have to be Daniel Winterstein. My idea to create a value exchange between viewers of ads, and the marketers behind the ads, was always going to be based fundamentally on technology. But I was no techy. Luckily I realized that I didn’t have to — there would be someone out there who shared my vision but also ticked all the tech boxes. And there was. Via an online forum that matches founders, I met a man called Daniel. He was a software developer, with a PhD in Artificial Intelligence and a team of talented developers up in Edinburgh. And he loved my crazy idea. So, I flew up to Scotland to meet this man I’d met on the internet, and as luck would have it, he wasn’t a psychopath.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Wear Sunscreen”

OK, so it’s not a pithy quote, but honestly, I think about this essay weirdly often. It was written by columnist Mary Schmich in 1997 and put to music by Baz Luhrmann. It’s a simple and thoughtful suggestion that we all should hold on to compliments, let go of jealousy, love our bodies, dispose of lousy advice, dance and, perhaps most importantly, wear sunscreen. This video has 10m views on YouTube, and I reckon I must be at least 50 of those. There is something so reassuringly self-evident about it, and every time I watch it, I feel calm.

What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Online advertising is broken. Attention and data are the currencies with which we pay for the internet. But the value exchange at the heart of this economy is broken. If we are to preserve a free and universally accessible internet, we need to create a better system.

The drive for more ‘effective’ online marketing has led to annoying, interruptive adverts and pervasive ‘surveillance capitalism’ where personal data is harvested and used in opaque ways. Worrying abuses of the system with events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal have rightly eroded public trust.

Due to all-time low levels of trust in advertising, consumers are tuning out brands’ efforts to reach them by blocking or at least skipping online ads. At the same time, more and more people expect brands to take a stance on social or environmental issues — and to follow through with tangible financial support for organizations tackling those issues.

To earn back trust, deliver on corporate purpose and keep shareholders happy, online advertisers need to:

  • Connect with consumers in safer, more respectful and more positive digital environments
  • Walk the walk when it comes to ‘purpose’ by showing their financial commitment to causes in a transparent, measurable manner.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The online advertising industry is mired in negativity and distrust. In fact, with so many annoying and interruptive ads, the Advertising Association run a study last year that found public trust in advertising has declined by 50% in the previous ten years. Depressingly, we’re now, less trusted than bankers or estate agents! Not only this, but ad fraud is the second most lucrative crime globally, and increasingly brands are being called out for appearing next to hate speech and misinformation. All in all, it’s a pretty tough time to work in advertising.

So quite simply, Good-Loop stands out by being ethical, respectful and positive.

This USP became particularly evident over the summer, as thousands of brands around the world joined the Stop Hate For Profit campaign, boycotting Facebook in an industry-wide reaction to the hate speech and misinformation running rampant on social platforms. As brands have become increasingly aware of the role that their ad dollars play in fueling this engine, we’ve had an influx of clients getting touch with us wanting to explore the ways that they can use their ad budgets more positively. Ultimately media spend is such a considerable portion of the ad budget, and when those dollars fund hateful fake news, it’s damaging to the brand and contradictory to their values, so we’ve been working with brands to support diverse, quality journalism whilst funding the charities that most resonate with the brand purpose.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re always working on new ways to connect brands people and good causes around the world. Be it through innovative Out-of-Home formats or with new partners like YouTube. We are continually innovating and finding new ways to help our clients put their purpose into action. I am especially excited about our activity in the US where we recently launched, and have been running campaigns since May, with global iconic brands funding everything from homeless shelters and soup kitchens through to antibiotics for children.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Honestly, it’s impossible to know if my experience founding Good-Loop would have been different if I were a man. On the one hand, I have had some hugely exciting opportunities present themselves to me because of my gender — everything from press coverage to awards, to certain investment groups who focus on supporting women in technology. These opportunities have been crucial in helping me build my brand and my company. Equally, there’s no avoiding the fact that three per cent of venture capital investment goes to female-founded companies. I’ve been in rooms where people have assumed I am the social media manager rather than the founder. So I have no doubt that we have a way to go, but I’m just focused on how I can be the best I can be, and how I can lift up other women along the way.

In terms of changing the status quo, there are systemic changes required at all levels.

  • Within education, there is work to be done to empower young girls and give them the role models and confidence to explore STEM subjects.
  • To empower women who are currently in the workplace, I would say it’s important to emphasize the ways that non-techy people can get involved in startups. I am not a ‘tech person’ — I know what to ask for, but I certainly don’t know how to build it. I can’t code, but I can build a brand, I can sell, I know how to tell a story and to bring people along on a journey. All of these soft skills are crucially important to building a successful technology company, and they can also be a way for talented women, without a STEM background, to get a seat at the table.
  • And finally, when it comes to VCs and investment decisions, we need to reconsider the entire process, to remove bias — for example, standardizing the investment questions and procedures to create a level playing field. Or reducing reliance on existing networks, as the ‘old boys club’ can be a powerful and pervasive barrier for diverse founders.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Honestly, one of the biggest challenges is that we keep getting asked that question. We keep having to think about how we’re different, just because of our gender, when the challenges we’re facing are the same for anyone running a company. All that matters is building a business of which I’m proud. And that, to me, is worth more of my time and energy than worrying about things beyond my control.

So I would suggest that the best way to address this is to reframe the concept of supporting female founders. First and foremost, it’s not charity. Writing a cheque for a female-lead seed round doesn’t count as your good deed for the day — but often I’ve walked away from investor meetings feeling that they’re doing me some sort of favour. It’s incredibly patronising and also wildly inaccurate. Investing in diverse founders is actually a shrewd business decision as it’s much easier to be white, male and mediocre than it is to be diverse and brilliant. Arlan Hamilton, the founder of Backstage Capital, captures this sentiment best when she talks about black and minority ethnic founders as ‘underestimated’ rather than ‘underrepresented’. She makes no apology for seeing the business opportunity within this cohort of founders. So I would say that of course, it’s still crucially important to support and invest in women in technology proactively, but don’t approach us as ‘female’ founders just approach us as the kick-ass founders we are.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

I’ve found PR to be an essential vehicle for growth. When you get a little bit of press coverage, it makes the team feel proud, because they read about your story in an industry-leading publication. It boosts investors because they see your influence. It drives excitement amongst your customers to be involved in something newsworthy. When we started the business, we were very fortunate to have Unilever as one of our first customers, and because Unilever is such a respected brand, our campaign attracted headlines. We received coverage in many industry-leading publications — this press meant that other brands started to get in touch, wanting to learn more about this exciting new ‘ethical’ ad platform.

From a very early stage of the company, I always invested in PR, ensuring our stories were being told and that the right people knew who we were and were updated on anything new or exciting that’s happening in the company. I think founders so often invest in sales first and foremost because it has the most measurable impact on revenue. Still, PR can also be incredibly valuable fuel in your sales engine.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Building a kick-ass sales team is undoubtedly tricky. Finding people who can sell your products authentically because they genuinely believe in what you’re building, but who also have the hustle, rigour and resilience to bash down doors and hit the numbers you need — it’s a tall order.

There are many different types of salespeople, and for me, the key is balance — between numbers-driven people and more creative, more consultative sellers. A balance of personalities is also vital. Where so often, sales teams can be quite ‘macho’ and competitive, I’ve focused on building a very gender-balanced and diverse sales team. We avoid boozy client dinners or exclusive golf clubs and instead try to encourage client volunteering days or meaningful lunch & learn sessions, where we really can add value to their day-to-day.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Ultimately Good-Loop attracts new customers because people want to be proud of the work they do. They really just want to build brands that matter to their consumers, and that matter to the world, and we can help them achieve this. Indeed, our company mission is about harnessing the influence and power of the advertising industry and using it in positive ways. So really, attracting new customers is about getting new customers to hear our story and to join our mission. Be it through our network of advisors, through press and PR or our thought leadership and content creation, we’re always focusing on how we can make advertising a positive force in society and that idea has real gravity.

A lovely example of this is during the first few scary months COIVD. A leading consumer electronics company got in touch with Good-Loop, wanting to advertise their high-quality headphones in a sensitive and compassionate way. During lockdown, consumers were really looking for brands that could offer support and help, to reassure us and to protect the most vulnerable. So Good-Loop’s ethical ad formats offered an excellent way to talk to consumers whilst having a real on-the-ground positive impact. We delivered a global campaign supporting Save The Children to help keep children alive, protected and learning during the COVID crisis. Not only did the campaign fund family handwashing kits and home-schooling bags but we also delivered fantastic business results for the client with a 44% uplift in purchase intent and a 39% uplift in the perception of the brand as ‘trusted’.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

For us, customer service is all about becoming an expert in our clients’ businesses and understanding both their purpose as well as what role that purpose plays in the company. We focus on becoming trusted experts within our space so that we can add value through data, incite and strategic guidance.

For example, when we started working with H&M, they were unclear what NGOs or partners best aligned with their values and the values of their consumers. So we ran a campaign, featuring various charities, and we found that overwhelmingly, WWF was the most popular choice. So in future campaigns, we used this consumer insight to drive an even deeper relationship between the brand and the charity. In future Good-Loop campaigns, H&M only supported WWF, but they empowered their consumers to choose which conservation project they would like to support.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

Consistently the thing that most affects repeat rate is how well our campaigns deliver against the client’s campaign objectives — be that engagement, awareness, affinity, purchase intent or brand love. Thus, the most important thing we can do is to establish clear benchmarks and success criteria upfront, so as to be able to illustrate success clearly while making it super easy for our client to share that success internally.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

Talk to everyone

When I started Good-Loop, the best and perhaps most important thing I did was tell everyone about it. I worked my way through my black book, buying everyone a coffee and asking them to pick apart my idea. Slowly, through repetition and refinement, as each person brought their lens and perspective, my business started to take shape. At the end of every meeting I’d ask ‘who else would you recommend I speak to’ and through this process I began to build out the network of friends, advisors and colleagues who continue to support Good-Loop to this day.

Even now the company is established, I try to say yes to meetings as much as I possibly can, even if I see no immediate benefit or connection. I recently had a (virtual) coffee with a truly impressive and interesting founder called Foong, who runs Matchable, a platform that enables skilled volunteering across the eight biggest charities in the world. Her passion was contagious, and we’re now exploring possible collaborations.

I think being able to build and harness a network is one of the most essential skills a founder can have. Each node in that network has the potential to be an advocate and an ally in rooms to which you’d otherwise have no access.

Be extremely clear why you’re bothering.

Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerrys, once said “Business is a combination of human energy and money, and to me that equals power. I would so far as to say that business is the most powerful force in society today and it is a force that ought to be harnessed to effect social change, to improve the quality of life in those societies around the world where basic needs are not met.” Too often in our society worth has become measured by what you accumulate rather than what you contribute, but I honestly don’t see the point of starting a business solely to make money. Frankly, there are plenty of easier ways to do that, and in the toughest, darkest moments, you and your team will need a real reason to keep going.

‘Brand Purpose’ can often seem like lofty marketing fluff, but in truth, it’s just about being extremely clear what the point of your company is. In the tech sector, this is especially important as the ubiquity and scale of our platforms can mean that technology businesses gain significant influence extremely quickly, shaping fundamental aspects of our society. From Uber creating an ‘underclass’ of insecure, unprotected zero-hours workers, to Facebook shaping election outcomes through algorithmic content amplification — all of this is acceptable when the goal is to make money, but it becomes less acceptable when you consider the role of business to be to protect, empower and enhance humanity.

Become a storyteller

To be a successful tech entrepreneur, you need to know how to tell a story. Whether you pull from a place of vulnerability or a place of passion, your story is fundamentally the reason people will choose to back you, work for you and buy from you. Products change, and industries evolve — without a clear articulation of where you’ve been and where you are going, you’ll struggle to stay on track.

When I started Good-Loop, we joined an accelerator program. One of the most valuable training sessions we had was a ‘storytelling’ workshop where we drilled down on what our narrative was and how we’d flex that narrative based on whom we were speaking with and what we hoped to achieve. I learnt that building your story isn’t about merely creating a list of the events that lead you to where you are today, it’s a very considered process of boiling all the events down into something memorable, impactful and repeatable.

For example, the idea of Good-Loop evolved slowly over many months (and many coffees, as mentioned above) but one particularly influential part of my journey was when I was volunteering at a Comedor in Argentina, feeding young kids who desperately needed it. In the Good-Loop story, we use this as a pivotal moment because it’s so poignant to consider how this organisation feeds 40 kids for less than 10 dollars a week whilst advertising is a 400bn dollars industry full of untapped potential. Of course, there were many intricate twists and turns that took me from the outskirts of Buenos Aires to founding a tech company in Scotland, but this storytelling mechanic is a great hook to humanise our brand, to give people some context of who we are and to illustrate the driving force behind what our company does.

Work to make yourself obsolete.

This one is reasonably counter-intuitive, especially for a control freak like me, but as the founder of a tech business, I’ve learned the hard way that I’m very unlikely to ultimately be the perfect person for every job in the company. So the best form of leadership I can offer is one that empowers my team to push forwards without needing me. Over the past four years, I’ve hired people who are far smarter and experienced than me, and I’m honestly so proud of this fact.

Generally speaking, I see my role as the intrepid explorer. I sling a metaphorical tent on my back, strap on my metaphorical snow shoes and wander off into the parts of the company yet unexplored. At first, that was sales. I was solely in charge of building those first few pivotal relationships that enabled us to reach product-market-fit. Then we brought on an experienced salesperson and a small-but-brilliant sales team that helped build the structures and systems that tamed and harvested my newfound lands. Now, I sit above the sales team, dipping in and out where I can be helpful, but letting them get on with what they are best at. Meanwhile, I can turn my hand to marketing and brand-building as we start to experiment with ways to turn product-market-fit into meaningful scale. Then, at some point in the future, I plan to build a marketing team who can read my primitive cave paintings and turn them into something much more impressive.

I once heard good leadership described as someone who’s helpful everywhere but needed nowhere — that’s a perfect articulation of the lesson I’ve learned over the past few years. I believe the trick to building a successful tech company is to create a successful team. As founders, we need to be smart enough to surround ourselves with people who are far more intelligent than us and humble enough to let them teach us.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would make taxpaying sexy.

We urgently need to redistribute wealth. The world’s richest 26 men have more money than 3.8 billion people. This is laughably unacceptable, especially when in 2019, the 400 wealthiest Americans paid a lower total tax rate than any other income group thanks to their expensive ‘tax-efficient’ accounting teams.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is an individual worth more than the GDP of Morocco. Amazon paid 0 dollars in federal taxes in 2018 and 2019 meanwhile Bezos recently announced that he would be donating 10bn dollars (£7.7bn) to launch the Bezos Earth Fund. Whilst this Earth Fund is no doubt a great thing, I’m sceptical of this ‘generous billionaire’ trope with Forbes Philanthropy listmakers deciding which causes matter most to them and donating accordingly. It’s a ‘privatisation’ of social impact that leaves the majority of people at the whim of an unelected, uninformed and occasionally generous establishment.

Conversely, we elect our governments to protect our collective interests. Although this system is far from perfect, it is built for the many, not the few. I would love to inspire a movement where we celebrate taxpayers with the same reverence we offer generous billionaires. A culture where it is a duty and an honour to support the schools, roads and hospitals we all need. A culture where tax efficiency is cruel, not clever and a culture where the most wealthy are expected to support the most vulnerable.

I thought it was genuinely fantastic when Patagonia reacted to Trump’s GOP tax cuts by donation all 10 million dollars to climate change awareness charities. In a statement about this momentous decision, Rose Marcario, ex-CEO of Patagonia wrote, “Being a responsible company means paying your taxes in proportion to your success… Taxes fund our important public services, our first responders and our democratic institutions. Taxes protect the most vulnerable in our society, our public lands and other life-giving resources… we are giving away this tax cut to the planet, our only home, which needs it now more than ever.” Rose is a truly inspirational business leader, so if I had any influence, I would encourage people to follow her lead.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag tem 🙂

Oh I would actually love to meet Rose Marcario. She reimagined capitalism, through a lens of kindness, civic-engagement and compassion and she brought it to life through Patagonia.

As the founder of an ‘ethical advertising’ company, I’m often torn between our mission to harness advertising as a force for good, and the fundamental truth that consumption is bad for our planet. Advertising ethically is complicated, some would even argue impossible, but then I’m sure people also said it’d be impossible for Patagonia to become a billion-dollar company whilst actively telling people “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” Rose is an activist who’s earned respect and influence within our ruthlessly corporate society, and I would be so honoured to hear about her journey.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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