Interview between Dawn at First Light Candles and Karen at The Kind Shop.
On leaving school, I auditioned for a number of Drama Schools. One particularly prestigious school left me with a belief that would stay for most of my adult life. It was something that was said to me by a student, prior to the audition and it went something like this…“Being shy and quiet is not going to help you in life Dawn. You need to learn to put yourself out there and appear confident” What I heard was …’people who appear shy and quiet cannot succeed in life’. Over the years I have met many people who are just this and have ‘succeeded’ at life in a variety of ways.
Two weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of finally getting to meet Karen Thomas from the brand-new shopping platform, KindShop.co.uk
We chatted over Zoom for a couple of hours and if anybody blows the myth that success can only be achieved by those that appear to possess (or have learned the illusion of) confidence, it is this very successful business owner and expert in her field.
Quietly spoken and in her own words ‘quite shy’, Karen has carved out an incredible career in an area of industry known for being pretty ‘hard-nosed’ and is now taking the knowledge she has gained, to create a brand-new online marketplace with a difference.
Since becoming part of the Kind Shop community, Karen’s warmth, sincerity and generosity have filled every email or message she has sent to us, so I knew even before she popped up on my screen that I was going to love talking to her. After an introduction to her beautiful dogs (one of which is an assistance dog) and a general chat about my thinking behind why I want to gather stories, we began the interview.
I started by asking Karen how she explains what she does if she is meeting people for the first time. Karen responds to this question with the kind of sensitive reply I imagined she would give…
It really depends on who you are speaking to, and if you feel they are going to value what you do
Her very human concern that people might not be interested in what she does is invariably placed to one side, Karen tells me, when they hear about the journey she has made to where she is now.
Karen grew up in Buckley, a little town in North Wales with her mum, dad and brother. Mum worked in an old people’s home. Dad, an ex-steelworker (at 77) still runs a Window Cleaning business.
From an early age Karen would feel very unhappy when things appeared unfair or unjust. As a little girl she remembers her mum telling her that some children grow up without “a mummy or daddy”. This made Karen feel really sad and she knew that she would eventually do something to help others less fortunate than herself in the future.
Despite being “shy” as a child, Karen would always stand up for other children if they were being bullied. This continued into her teenage years, where despite being a victim of bullying herself, she felt a strong desire to stick up for others and do the right thing. This is a quality that Karen has taken into her adult life and put to good use within everything she has ever done.
Karen describes her teenage self as a bit of “swot” She wasn’t in her words “the brightest of the bunch”. However, she always tried very hard at school. Any female who has lived through their teenage years will know how important it can feel to fit in. Despite having a small group of nice friends, Karen actively avoided being involved in any gossip, with the popular girls, and deliberately separated herself from these typical teenage behaviours. Aged 15, the woman who is drawn to doing things differently and in a kind way, was already beginning to emerge.
Karen left school at 16 and went to Business School. Despite Art being the one subject that Karen excelled at, she was frightened of “chasing her dreams”, she also knew that she wanted to be able to provide for any family she might have in the future. Growing up Karen’s family were quite financially “poor” and despite her love of Art, she felt it could not offer her the financial security that she needed.
For the entirety of the Business Course, despite it now being the early 1990’s Karen chose not to take up the opportunity to use the college computers on offer. Instead, she carried a heavy electric typewriter around with her for the entire three years, which she used to complete all her assignments. She puts this down to her desire to do things differently coupled with the fact that her parents could not afford a computer at home. Consequently, at a time when jobs were becoming reliant on computer skills, Karen had no idea how to use one. For somebody with Karen’s skill level in this field now it is something quite difficult to comprehend.
Despite being 19 years old, without any computer skills whatsoever, Karen managed to “bluff her way in” to her first job as a Quality Assurance Administrator at an engine plant. She very quickly taught herself the technical knowledge that the job required and astonishingly within a few months it was Karen who was training other people within the company. She stayed on at this company for seven years despite being very unhappy there.
There was me at 19…very shy… 4 other women, who were unkind to me and 500 men. I learnt how to use technology and I had won a couple of awards….so I was in the firing line a lot. I didn’t enjoy my time there at all. My boss made me feel like I was worthless ….and I never felt that I could go anywhere else. It was a very harsh place to work
Following the tragically sad suicide of her best friend Wayne, who had worked for the company and who wrote in his last note to Karen that she should find another job, she knew it was time to leave. She took what she describes as “the leap of faith” and that is where her career really began to develop.
Karen went on to work for another manufacturing company as a Systems Analyst. During this time, she got the company online, set up their website and their online catalogue and made changes that would eventually reduce the workload of the employees by 50%. As a Systems and Business Analyst Karen turned several companies around with an approach that always placed the employees at the heart of everything she did. Business Analysts are often feared by employees when they are brought into companies. However, in Karen’s case the changes were met with approval (and on one occasion a standing ovation) from the people who had originally viewed her with suspicion.
Karen’s inroad into online selling was with the price comparison site, Moneysupermarket. She went on to set up a very successful Comparison Website with her then husband, before moving on to the fashion website VERY.co.uk. At VERY, she was in charge of all the Front Facing aspects of their website. Overseeing 16 website developers, this was a very high-pressured job and Karen found herself working long hours, sometimes through the night. Karen had suffered with some conditions from an early age and it was at this point that her health began to dramatically deteriorate. After a period of a year where Karen tried to continue working from her bed, she was finally given the diagnosis with a clear message from her consultant that she could not continue in the role she was in.
Karen was diagnosed with POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) a rare condition affecting the blood vessels and heart rate along with EDS (Ehlers Danlos Syndrome) a connective tissue disorder affecting the skin, cartilage, ligaments and blood vessels. She was medically retired aged 40.
Karen’s diagnosis and immediate medical retirement allowed her the space to really think about what it was she wanted to do with her life as well as panic that she might not be able to do anything! Karen had loved her career, but was also aware that the values of the companies she had worked for did not align with her own. I had always worked for big blue-chip companies and I was very proud of telling people what I did, but I didn’t feel like I fitted in. I covered this up by working really hard and by gaining peoples respect. However, I was always questioning how was I improving people’s lives by making it easier for them to buy a dress while gaining finance in order to do this? It didn’t sit right with me at all.
There is a huge part of me that is grateful for getting sick. It gave me the freedom to leave the rat race and be able to help others
In 2015 Karen set up ‘Conscious Crafties’, an online shopping platform for Creative Disabled Entrepreneurs. She brought to the company huge swathes of knowledge, along with her kind heart and desire to help others. By setting up Conscious Crafties, Karen was not only creating an online marketplace where disabled people could sell there ‘Crafts’ and regain their sense of purpose, but she was also providing a community where these disabled entrepreneurs could talk about the things they had lost, along with their struggles and successes. Despite being diagnosed with multiple serious illnesses (Karen also suffers from Fibromyalgia, Raynaud’s Disease, chronic pain syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines and asthma) Karen wanted to take all the knowledge and experience she had gained over the years in order to help other people. She has got to be one of the kindest people I think I have ever met.
Karen ran Conscious Crafties with the same passion and determination she has given to everything in her life. There was a huge need for what she was offering, and the company grew very quickly. However, she began to recognise that because of the level of commitment required to run this model of business, her own health and wellbeing were beginning to suffer. Karen sold Conscious Crafties to people who she knew would carry forward her mission. She embarked on a year off where she focussed on herself and her health.
This space allowed Karen the time to think about what she would like to do next with her life and where she wanted to place her focus. In 2020, aware that there was little support for heart-centred entrepreneurs who might want to use their business as a force for good, Karen set up the wonderfully named ‘Kind Shop’. In Karen’s words Kind Shop is
A mission focussed business, supporting kind, purposeful entrepreneurs, and connecting them with conscious shoppers who want to do their bit towards making the world a better place
In my words it is a brilliant concept and one I think the world is crying out for right now.
Karen is teaming up with industry experts who will add content to the Kind Classes that they will be offering to all Kindpreneurs signed up to the platform. She has made the wise decision to “not do everything” and has set herself boundaries in order to protect her health. Karen is keen as much as anything to act as a good example to all the other Kindpreneurs who often neglect their own self-care in order to help others.
So… lets go back to the beginning of our interview where Karen with incredible humility talks about her reticence in sharing her business with people she feels “might not understand” I defy anyone to not understand the incredible journey Karen has been on. From her humble beginnings to her incredible successes at some of the top blue-chip companies and now to the disabled entrepreneur she is today, Karen is inspirational. Fulfilling her dream to help others, she brings to Kind Shop just about everything (in my opinion) that is valuable in business. Her level of authenticity is golden and if that word could only be applied to one person it would have to be Karen Thomas.
Karen now lives with her partner Jamie. “A very caring and considerate person” Jamie has only known Karen as she is, after becoming disabled. It is obvious when Karen talks about Jamie that he offers her enormous love and support.
John and I feel so lucky to have found Kind Shop. In the world of business, and networking there are many companies and networking groups professing to have the interests of their members at heart. I often struggle to believe it, as so often you can see through the transparency of the strategies and the words that are being used. Karen‘s knowledge, words and intentions are 100% authentic. I cannot wait to see how things develop for her and the Kindpreneur Community going forward and I am SO grateful to Karen for taking the time to share her story with me.