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    A conversation with… Gynelle Leon

    The founder and owner of Prick, London’s first cactus shop, on childhood summers in St Lucia, working in the City and how nature keeps us calm and grounded

    What is the story behind Prick?
    I launched Prick in July 2016 and it started out as a cactus and succulents’ boutique on Kingsland Road in Hackney. I always wanted to be a florist and while I worked nine-to-five in the City I took on an internship with a local florist on a Saturday. At the same time, I was doing an evening class in floristry and contemporary floral design with the aim to open a florist. But during that journey, I realised that people wanted houseplants and there were no indoor-houseplants stores at that time – you would have to go to places such as B&Q and Homebase. I had a big indoor-plant collection and I’d go to Chelsea Flower Show and buy unusual cacti and succulents. I just found it so bizarre that, for the rest of the year, I couldn’t buy them anywhere else in London. I went on Google to see if there was somewhere in London that I could buy really good quality houseplants and there was nothing, so that’s when the cogs started turning. It just felt like houseplants were completely off the radar; it was just cut flowers when it really came to indoor foliage. I wanted a shop where I could get low-maintenance plants, because I was a very lazy gardener, and good quality pots that fit. So that’s where it all came from. I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to make a boutique where I can get really great plants and pots together’ and be able to solve the problem that I had and guessed that other people had too.


    When did the idea start?
    I left my job and sold my flat in January 2015 to start the business. So, I think it was in summer 2014 that I started floristry and getting freelance jobs as a florist – pop-up shows for brands and things like that. It was kind of getting bigger and bigger and I got to a fork in the road. I loved working with plants, and I also loved the lack of wastage and the sustainability of them. I loved the fact that I could go away for three weeks, come back home and my cacti would be absolutely fine. I think that’s why I went for cacti and succulents rather than just all houseplants. They don’t have to take up too much space, or you can go the other way and have a massive statement cactus.


    Houseplants – in particular cacti and succulents – are now hugely popular, so you were definitely ahead of the curve with the business…
    Yes, it was a complete zeitgeist moment. I did research and found that there were just two cactus shops in the world – one in Paris and one in LA, which opened a few months before my shop. So, I visited both and saw what they were doing. It was quite different to the styling that I wanted, and I still didn’t think it was going to be this massive thing. So, when we opened it was such a surprise how many people were like, ‘Yes! Oh my gosh, this is the shop of my dreams!’. All the papers picked up on it and dubbed it the year of the cactus, and here’s this one cactus shop in the whole of the UK. That was a huge surprise. I love passion and I was creating my perfect store, not realising there was such a demand for people who didn’t realise they could have low-maintenance plants that lasted so long and that there was an alternative to cut flowers. There are lots of people that don’t like flowers, but it still allows them to have that bond with nature within their home.

    We all have to have healthy boundaries. It comes from being kind to yourself

    You said you always wanted to be a florist, so was this a childhood ambition?
    I had a real deep love and passion for flowers for most of my childhood. My parents are both St Lucian so every summer I would go out there for about six weeks. I’d be out on the beach and the gardens and horse riding – it was very dreamy. As an adult I realise how incredible it was but as a kid it was normal. So having that connection to nature was always there for me but I would say that all of us are nature lovers; it can come in different forms. It might be more about animals or plants or cooking with plants – nature is part of everything. And being able to harness that relationship does so much for keeping us calm and grounded. It’s always been there; it was just tapping into it and realising exactly how I could make it part of my life and career.


    You studied science and worked in private banking before launching your own business. Can you talk us through this rather unusual career path?
    I always loved art and science, and I thought that I would be a forensic scientist. My first degree was in human anatomy and then I went on to do a master’s in forensic science. It was while there that I realised I’m totally a people person. I can’t be in the lab all day long! I love interaction with the living world. That was when I was like, ‘OK, let me just take a pause’. I was already working in banking as my part-time job when I was at uni. So, I went full time and then went through the motions of going into private banking and, within that, wealth management investment banking. Then I sidestepped to Monster (the recruitment site), who were dealing with government solutions for fraud prevention. That was a great role because it used my analytical skills. But the biggest thing that happened was going through a breakup. That’s when I thought about what I could do if I was to be completely selfish. I have that weird science-banking-cactus shop trajectory, but I think it’s nice because I’ve always believed that you can draw from everything. Banking was great because I was managing other people’s money and it allowed me to help with budgeting and understanding how it all works. And science is massive because it’s so analytical. So, when it came to starting a business, I was very methodical with how to do things and how it was going to work. I was able to mash all those different skills together. Having that unusual background means you have an unusual skill set compared to other people that might have gone straight into business.


    Did you always want to set up your own company?
    No, not at all! I was always coming up with ideas for things, but they never went anywhere. I think that it was all about timing. I already had quite a few friends that owned shops, so I knew it was possible. I do think that, looking back, you can see little seeds of being a business owner here and there. Like when I was in school, my first entrepreneurial move was that everybody loved the look of my sandwiches – I told my mum that I was really hungry, so she made me more, which I’d sell in school! I think the fact that I’m a problem solver and that I have so many different skills – like photography, writing, design and coming up with ideas – all those things kind of come together. But I never thought I’d be a business person because, when I was younger, I saw business owners as old men with briefcases who worked in a skyscraper. My dad was always self-employed as a mechanic with his own garage, but I never saw him as being a “business owner”. The narrative has now changed: you can work from home, and you don’t have to wear a suit and go into an office to be a business owner.


    What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned since launching your own business?
    I was first really surprised by the amount of love people had for the business; the way that a whole group of people can support you and want you to thrive. It’s something magical, especially if you’re not following the trend. I did it [the store] my way and people really enjoyed it, and that was the most rewarding feeling. So, I think it’s just the impact of that one thought; if you can just keep it going and let it grow, what it can grow into. All the things that have come from Prick, like two books, a weekly column and launching new products. If you would have asked me seven years ago what I thought I’d be doing I would never have guessed that this would be it. What’s also been very interesting is the development of self. I don’t think I would have been able to grow as much – personally, skills, confidence and abilities-wise – if I hadn’t had to go through this crazy journey because it pushes you to the limit. You have to really grit your teeth and push through, and I think no other job has really done that.


    So how do you maintain a healthy life-work balance?
    When I first started the business, I didn’t rest. I was doing all-nighters and working non-stop, and it wasn’t healthy at all. But I feel like, at certain points, you do need to push yourself. It’s not sustainable to do that all the time but sometimes you have to do it. I find that putting in holidays every three months, even if it’s a long weekend, is really important. And I do little things like on Mondays I don’t take any calls or meetings. I’ve done that for years. It’s just setting boundaries for yourself because you have to; you’re not accountable to anyone but yourself. We all have to have healthy boundaries. It comes from being kind to yourself. It’s also important to break up the day with something for yourself, such as exercise or a walk or even going to see an exhibition in your lunch break – especially with working from home. You have to do something where you’re able to disconnect from work. I find that in those moments, when you have time to relax your mind, you also spark creativity.


    Speaking of working from home, obviously the pandemic saw lots of people turning to houseplants. Did you notice a boom in sales?
    Yes, it was overnight! I think people were looking around and thinking, ‘I’m going to be seeing these four walls a lot more, so I need to make them as beautiful as possible’. And not only that but it was a stressful time where we needed the power of plants to help us relax. The wellbeing aspect of it was so important for everybody at that time, especially for people who didn’t have gardens. Having living, breathing, beautiful green plants around you is a form of company, and making that connection is very grounding.


    What are your hopes for the future of Prick?
    The one good thing with the pandemic is that it gave us a moment to pause. I think when you’re an entrepreneur you’re on that wheel and you can’t really jump off – but it did give me time to create strategy and think about what I want to do going forward. I’d like to acquire more corporate contracts to curate large spaces with plants to help de-stress employees and create beautiful work spaces. I would also like to design and produce more creative corporate gifting and to secure investment. Our online shop is super popular now, and we’ve been able to move more into merchandising and collaborations. I want to give plant owners the skills to maintain them. So, plant care products are what I’ve been designing and producing as well as hosting workshops, which I hope to flesh out further. I opened a new creative space in Bethnal Green last year called Shallow Roots where we can have real-life workshops, which I think everyone needs! So, it’s working on fun partnerships, growing the business, having more plant-care products that don’t yet exist, designed in a way that I love. We’ve got so much to offer.