Women’s History Month: Interview with Carol Lehtonen-Riley

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re continuing to chat to some of the most inspiring females we know to find out their stories, their hobbies, what drives them and the women that inspire them.

We’re celebrating this Mother’s Day with a conversation with co-founder of The Great Frog (and Reino’s mother) Carol Lehtonen-Riley.

Carol, along with her partner at the time Pat, founded the company in 1972 and opened up shop in Carnaby Street, marking the birth of the iconic TGF Skull Ring and introducing the world to our unique and inimitable approach to jewellery making.

We speak to her about her favourite memories of the store, her tips for launching a business, and of course, her favourite TGF pieces.

Carol on Carnaby Street in the 70s.

What females have inspired and supported you the most in life?

Off the top of my head, there are three:

1. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), a writer. Way ahead of her time, her writings gave me the courage to forge ahead. Her contributions to ethics, philosophy, feminism, and politics, long before it was acceptable for a woman, encouraged me to be involved always, with vigour and enthusiasm.

2. My mum, by example, was level-headed and positive (sometimes to a fault), supported me without judgement (even during the rebellious 60s, of which I participated and experimented wholeheartedly!)

3. My “ex-mother-in-law” who so often said of and to herself “I must stay focused.” It rubbed off on me and I strive to do the same.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given by a fellow female?

To respect all things and people, and always know that every person has value. Don’t be judgmental. Be diplomatic. Remember “a smile is infectious” (all attributable to my mum, who passed away last year at the age of 102, giving her many years to refine her philosophies). So rare for her generation, she believed in gay marriage, she thought all women had a right to have an abortion if they felt it the right decision, to name but a few. She was an inspiration on so many levels.

Favourite female musician or band?

Immediate answer: Janis Joplin. She broke barriers heretofore unknown to female musicians. She did it without reservation, to the extreme, and with beautiful innocent gusto.

Bands: (not women, but favourites) Bob Marley & The Wailers, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and I can’t leave out The Stones. The list goes on…

What’s your favourite piece of TGF jewellery?

That’s a tough one. The answer has to be more than one. The only way I can narrow it down is to name the pieces I always end up choosing to wear daily: my small Indian stone ring with faceted green amethyst, my L.A. Bones Ring, my Rose Ring (with sneaky caterpillar/worm hiding underneath), and my small skull & Wreath Ring in silver and gold which Reino gave me right off his finger. Actually, I mustn’t not include my ‘Nevermore’ Raven Pendant and Flaming Heart Pendant. My Naga Skull Ring comes in there somewhere too.

Carol outside the original The Great Frog store on 51 Carnaby Street.

What are your favourite memories of the store?

1. Going to work, which didn’t feel like work no matter how challenging.

2. Working with inspiring people.

3. Being immersed and involved with some of the best music on the planet.

4. And, finally, having my son take the helm.

My heart is full.

What’s the trickiest thing you’ve had to contend with as a woman in business?

1. Fighting the VAT in Court for having paid a couple of months late. It was already paid when they took us to court 6 months later. Totally unjustified, in my humble opinion. I was furious!

2. Having to deal with the vagaries of several worldwide/nationwide recessions, and all that involved. It was a bitch on so many levels.

3. Facing the hardships caused whilst recovering from those recessions, especially with two young children and a business.

4. Juggling work and family life in general. Definitely character building. Lol.

5. And lastly, having to deal with a member of staff (friend?) who stole from us, when they should have known they could come to us for help. Re-hiring them, only to have them do it again. It hurt. No more chances after that.

Carol and Pat.

What are your tips for someone who wants to launch a business?

Make a plan, create a brand with a unique niche market, be patient and know that success takes years of foundation-building, stay fresh, stay strong under adversity, be sensible, be humble, be brave, work with people, a team whom you like and trust, who share your vision (you cannot do it alone), be respectful always, and above all, make/sell quality. Without quality, you will fail. A tall order I know.