Arianna Huffington set out to revolutionise how we consume media but that is nothing to what she is seeking to achieve with her latest venture, Thrive Global.
"I think what I'm doing now is far more radical than what we did with the Huffington Post because changing the way we consume news may be disruptive, but not nearly as much as changing the way people work and live is," she says.
Thrive, which Huffington established in 2016 at the age of 66, is on a mission to end employee stress and burnout. It’s a tall order, but the company – which has just announced a new software engineering centre in Dublin – has won plenty of support to date.
The start-up has gained more than 100 clients across 40 countries. Companies such as Walmart, Salesforce and Accenture are seeking to gain insights and roll out Thrive's artificial intelligence-powered platform to help employees achieve a better work-life balance.
Having recently raised an additional $80 million (€68 million) at a $700 million valuation, Thrive is in expansion mode, hence its move into Dublin. Chief technology officer Hugh O’Brien is based locally and focused on assembling an initial team of 40 engineers for its offices just off Merrion Square. Huffington makes it clear the new Irish operation is central to the company’s growth plans.
“It was firmly in my consciousness for us to come to Dublin. It was the combination of it being an amazing tech hub and having incredible engineering talent that drew us here,” she says.
In a blog post to announce the expansion, Huffington speaks warmly of Ireland but also notes that people here are as affected by stress and burnout as anywhere else. She cites a recent survey carried out by the Mater Private Healthcare Group that found nearly 70 per cent of employees in Ireland were experiencing work stress, with 40 per cent saying they felt burned out.
Huffington is well briefed on what is happening locally. She is full of praise for the decision taken earlier this year to introduce a code of practice on the right to disconnect, a move she hails as very positive.
It isn't that unusual for chief executives of multinational companies locating here to wax lyrical about the country and Huffington is no different. Unlike some though, she knows the place well, having been a regular visitor in the 1970s with her then-partner, the late English journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin.
"I used to fly into Dublin and go to the Wexford Opera every year with Bernard who was an opera fanatic. We used to stay at Whites of Wexford and it was just part of my life then," she says.
Huffington hasn’t been in Dublin since 2014 when she attended the web summit but is hopeful about making it back here soon.
When she first envisaged Thrive, the problem of burnout wasn’t as widely recognised as it is now. Huffington says the Covid-19 crisis and the accompanying move to remote working means that conversations around employee wellbeing, mental health and resilience are now centre stage.
“The pandemic has become a catalyst for taking our mission mainstream,” she says.
The company was founded in 2016 but Huffington explains it spent a number of years operating in a similar way to a laboratory, working in partnership with, among others, researchers at Stanford University on collecting data to improve its behaviour-change methodology ahead of the full release of the platform in March 2020.
Headquartered in New York and with offices in San Francisco, Bucharest, Melbourne and Huffington’s birthplace Athens, Thrive has moved far beyond the entrepreneur’s original intention to train herself not to work so hard.
In 2007, the self-confessed workaholic passed out from exhaustion, coming round later at her desk in a pool of blood and with a broken cheekbone and a cut over her eye. It was ,she says now ,“the best thing that could have happened” as it served as a wake-up call that she was doing too much. Her journey to figure out how to cut back led her to establish Thrive a decade later.
One of Thrive’s key features is Microsteps – small, science-backed steps that are aimed at helping workers build healthy habits. Examples include nudges to encourage individuals to turn off notifications on their mobile, or even better, decide a set time to put all devices to bed each evening.
Another of its products is Reset, a feature that is available via Zoom, which is based on a scientific finding that it only takes between 60 to 90 seconds to reset the mind to counter stress. It offers up photographs and suggestions that encourage us to focus on our breathing and centre ourselves after work calls.
“Thrive is based on the assumption that every human being has a place of . . . peace, strength and wisdom in them. It’s like our birthright. Modern life and technology as much as we might love it makes it much harder for us to connect to that place” is how she describes it.
Huffington is keen to stress that there is nothing “warm and fuzzy” about Thrive or its many initiatives. The company is focused on providing evidence-based solutions to its client base, she insists: “Everything we do is data driven, science-based and rigorous.”
Also, while a lot of the focus is on helping people to revise their relationship with technology, Huffington is clear that she is by no means a Luddite.
“I love technology. But ultimately technology is just a tool, which can add to our lives or deplete them. Much like a hammer – a very useful tool, but not if you hit yourself in the head with it, which produces roughly the same cognitive effect as doom scrolling.”
One thing she is firmly against is the "success at any cost" mantra espoused by high achievers like Elon Musk who Huffington has publicly scolded for suggesting that going full throttle is the only way to win.
This “success at any cost mantra” is, according to Huffington, developed on “a false assumption about what makes the human operating system work”.
In reality, there can be no real success if you’re running on empty she believes.
“It’s based on the assumption that we need to power through exhaustion and that burnout is the price we pay for success. This idea goes back to the first industrial revolution when we started developing machines with the aim of minimising downtime. For the human operating system, downtime is a feature and not a bug,” she says.
Such a philosophy is evident in Thrive’s new Dublin offices where just two of the five floors contain desks.
There was surprise when the now 71-year-old announced plans to step away from the digital media company, which was founded as a response to conservative websites such as the Drudge Report . It may have been acquired by AOL in a $315 million (€270 million) deal in 2011, but it was still very much her baby until she left five years ago to establish Thrive.
The HuffPost, as it is now known, may have made her a household name globally but Huffington was already something of a mover and shaker well before she co-founded the digital media company in 2005. Born in Athens in 1950, she moved to England at 16 and graduated from Cambridge University with an MA in economics.
She later moved to the US after meeting and marrying oil tycoon and Republican Michael Huffington and ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate against Arnold Schwarzenegger for the governorship of California.
Since then she has been added to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people and the Forbes Most Powerful Women list. While much of what she has been associated with has led to praise, she isn’t without controversy, not least for joining Uber’s board and for HuffPost’s refusal to pay contributors.
But now it is all positivity as Huffington outlines how Thrive intends to hire 100 people globally over the next few months as it seeks to lead a revolution in wellness.
“The goal is to impact literally hundreds of millions of lives around the world,” she says.