Barb Stegemann: Smells Like Something Good
When Barb Stegemann’s friend Trevor Greene signed up with the Canadian Armed Forces because he wanted to help women in Afghanistan, she wanted to go, too. She couldn’t. But, when Greene was brutally attacked, Stegemann told him simply, “Don’t worry, I will take up the cause.” This is the story of how she poured her heart and soul into this new mission, achieving something far greater than either of them could ever have imagined — persuading farmers in Afghanistan and war-torn countries around the world to start growing flowers to make essential oil for perfumes.
When someone believes in you, encourages you and supports you, you don’t ever forget it. Barb Stegemann certainly didn’t. And when her family moved to Antigonish, N.S., from Quebec in the ’70s, her life changed. “I come from a very humble background,” she says. “We were on welfare, we had a few things, but mostly we went without. We were bullied, and I think that made me a risk-taker, because I never had anything to lose.”
All Stegemann knew was that she wanted to study philosophy and journalism at university, and when she was accepted at University of King’s College in Halifax, she was over the moon. She showed up with a knapsack, five bucks and no sheets for her bed. But when she met Trevor Greene, he became a mentor to her. “He took me under his wing and changed my life,” she says.
When Greene signed up with the Canadian Armed Forces, he just wanted to help women. But in 2006, a Taliban fighter put an axe through his head, and Greene was lucky to come home alive. He spent two years in a hospital being rehabilitated. And for many days Stegemann was there, along with his wife, Debbie, and his daughter, Grace. “I witnessed this strong man, now unable to move,” says Stegemann. Since then, Greene’s recovery has been nothing less than remarkable. “Whatever happens, you have to make sure that your best friend’s life is not in vain, and that became my priority, because so much was taken from him,” she adds.
The first time Stegemann saw Greene in the hospital, she knew she wanted to carry on with his mission. “I just said, ‘You heal; I got this.’” She had no idea where to start, but she became obsessed with writing a book, getting up every day at 4:30 a.m. to start writing. On International Women’s Day in 2010, she self-published The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen: A Woman’s Guide to Living & Leading in an Illogical World. Now in its eighth edition, Stegemann’s book has become a bestseller and is also the subject of the award-winning documentary Perfume War, directed by Michael Melski.
Stegemann also became obsessed with helping people in war-torn countries, to do business with them and make sure that families could work with dignity and earn a decent income. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were forcing farmers to grow illegal poppy crops for heroin, with many of the farmers having to resort to unthinkable measures, like handing over their children to drug smugglers to pay their debts.
When Stegemann read about Abdullah Arsala, who was encouraging farmers to grow orange blossoms and roses, instead, to make essential oils for perfume, she became intrigued. “I purchased a sample from his distillery, then I bought the oils, the bottles and the formulations to make perfume,” she says. Once she did that, she smuggled a bottle of the fragrance back to him in Afghanistan. “I wanted to show there were good people there,” she says. Next hurdle, though, was that she needed a loan to get the fledgling business going, but the banks wouldn’t finance her. That’s when she had the great idea of going on Dragons’ Den. Brett Wilson agreed to finance her company, 7 Virtues Inc., and became a mentor to her as well. And it just grew and grew and grew.
“You Have To Get Mad First, Then You Just Think About It And Calm Down And Take A Bath, Then Have A Nap, And Your Subconscious Mind Will Give You All The Answers You Need”
The more Stegemann travelled, the more she realized that she couldn’t stop with Afghanistan. “That’s why I went to Rwanda. The mission wasn’t over, it was just beginning,” she says. Today, 7 Virtues is helping people in Haiti, too, and working with Israel and Iran. They have come up with one of their most popular fragrances today, Middle East Peace. The news reached Sephora, which eventually led to Stegemann’s brand ending up in Sephora stores across North America. And now CPL Aromas, an international fragrance house, is on-board, committed to buying $3 million worth of patchouli oil from Rwanda every year. “That is huge, that is life-altering, that is changing entire communities,” says Stegemann.
Although Stegemann knew nothing about making perfume or partnerships, she knew how to forge ahead. Perhaps it was her philosophy degree or perhaps it was resilience from when she was a child. Whatever it was, she just took a leap of faith. “I’m very good at not caring about what someone thinks of me — I also think I’m not that important,” she says. “I’m just going to go do my service to others. But it’s interesting that I never really reflected on the fact that I’ve had really great training and had to deal with a lot as a child that there’s not much anyone could do to me now.”
There’s really only one way to describe what Stegemann is doing: she calls it social enterprise. “It’s not charity, it’s fair trade,” she says. “I need my suppliers as much as they need me — and we’re equal.” She doesn’t really believe in charity, either. “We need charity, it’s important after an event like earthquake, or where there is an immediate need, but I’ve seen too many charitable donations never making it to the people they were supposed to help, instead, going to line the pockets of corrupt governments,” she adds.
Even a pandemic has not set back Stegemann. In the beginning, she had engagements cancelled, which was worrisome. “I’ve always lived on my speaking engagements and my books,” she says, as she takes no money from the fragrance company. But she has a saying she came up with during this time: “Get mad, take a bath, have a nap.” To get out of the situation, she explains, “you have to get mad first, then you just think about it and calm down and take a bath, then have a nap, and your subconscious mind will give you all the answers you need.”
Stegemann discovered there were digital grants available for people who were starting to pivot digitally in their business. “My choice was to build an entire studio, and it’s like ABC News: it’s got a teleprompter, stunning portrait candles, cameras,” she laughs. “My son is a techie, so he works with us and does our video, and he built the studio in my office.” Now, as a bonus, Stegemann can train about 700 Sephora beauty advisers at once in about an hour, whereas before, they would have to go into individual stores to train them.
Stegemann did learn one thing from the pandemic. “We will be remembered as individuals and brands, and by how we got people through this pandemic,” she says. Now she can spend more time with her family. She’s started Friday night backgammon and cribbage tournaments. “The more balanced I am, the happier I am,” she says, and she is quite happy to spend more time with her family, going for walks by the lake with her husband and spending more time with her daughter, Ella, and her son, Victor.
Stegemann is essentially unstoppable. She’s full of great advice and, to share it, she just launched a mini online leadership course for women. It’s free, and she’s getting non-stop emails from all kinds of women. “I’m just thrilled, because I didn’t know how they would respond,” she says.
Stegemann says that although she grew up in poverty, she always dreamed of having a beautiful family. “I have my dream life and I’m very grateful,” she says. “I don’t take it for granted.”