Perfumes for peace: Purposeful entrepreneur does business with a cause

Barb Stegemann transformed a tragedy into a company of hope and happiness

7 minutes read

Barb Stegemann

Canadian Forces Captain Trevor Greene was sitting on the ground speaking with a group of elders about clean drinking water in the Afghan province of Kandahar when a 16-year-old Taliban sympathizer crept up behind him and swung an axe into his skull.

For Captain Greene’s best friend, Barb Stegemann, this horrific event brought home the dreadful realities of day-to-day life in war-torn Afghanistan.

Determined to carry on her friend’s mission of peace, Stegemann founded The 7 Virtues, a social enterprise selling perfumes made from essential oils sourced in countries rebuilding from war or strife.

“I thought about how I could effect change and realized I could have a huge impact on poverty and education and people’s ability to help themselves, which are all destroyed by war,” Stegemann says. “My mantra is ‘make perfume, not war’.”

The Halifax-based business now sources oils from farmers in Afghanistan, Haiti, Rwanda and the Middle East. The fair-trade oils are brought to Canada where they are turned into organic, hypo-allergenic perfumes that are free of phthalates and parabens. Her perfumes are sold around the globe.

From journalist to retail activist

A former journalist, Stegemann had read about a man in Afghanistan who was growing orange blossom and rose rather than the far more common and illegal poppy crops, which are the source of more than 90% of the world’s heroin. The same people who attacked her best friend were also destroying this man’s distillery.

Stegemann travelled to Ottawa to meet with the Canadian International Development Agency. From there, she connected with a non-governmental organization (NGO) that had done a study showing that by paying US$8,000 for one litre of orange-blossom essential oil (neroli) and US$12,000 for a litre of rose oil, you could get farmers off the illegal poppy crop

With no experience in the notoriously competitive perfume industry, she decided to try to bring hope to a challenging place. With the help of the NGO, she connected with the Afghan supplier and began purchasing his oils.

Stegemann, who was raised by a single mom on welfare, calls herself a “retail activist” and she describes her line of fragrances as “peace perfumes.”

A year after launching, The 7 Virtues began a relationship with Hudson’s Bay, launching its Original collection in 70 stores across Canada. That same year, Stegemann also landed a deal with “Dragons’ Den” Dragon W. Brett Wilson, who mentored her and remains an investor with the business.

Stay true to your purpose and character

The most recent boost to The 7 Virtues was Stegemann’s participation in Sephora’s Accelerate program, which is geared to female innovators in the beauty industry. The initiative provided her with guidance and mentorship.

The 7 Virtues’ sales are 10 times higher than they've ever been, in great part due to Stegemann’s active speaking schedule and her partnership with Sephora. And the collaboration is just getting started between the two companies. Currently in 15 of Sephora’s 75 stores in Canada, Stegemann is now expanding her line into the U.S. with an in-store launch at select Sephora stores coast to coast in August 2018. Her brand is also part of a new Clean At Sephora product line that excludes the use of certain ingredients.

The partnership with Sephora was also a launching pad for the development of a new Contemporary line of fragrances, which is exclusive to the beauty shop.

“I had to be willing to let go of my old ideas,” Stegemann says. “I knew I needed to reinvent to be modern, to connect with the world that’s truly around me right now. You have to reinvent yourself while staying true to your mission, purpose and character.”

For any company at a crossroads, I’d say to take a look at your packaging, let go of old ideas, and get the best people to help express who you are.

Attracting Millennials

Stegemann needed to find a way to reach millennial shoppers. Working in her favour was The 7 Virtues’ backstory and mission: nine out of 10 Millennials will switch brands to support one with a cause, according to a 2015 survey by Cone Communications.

But it was a wake-up call when she learned that her 18-year-old daughter wouldn’t wear her Original line of perfumes because they seemed a bit too mature for her tastes. That changed with the Contemporary line’s Vanilla Woods Eau de Parfum. The vanilla is sourced from a sustainable cooperative in Madagascar that provides families with fair wages; the fragrance also smells fresh and beautiful.

“She sent me a picture of an empty bottle of the new Vanilla Woods and said, ‘Mommy, this is how much I love you,’” Stegemann recalls. “She was 10 when I started my company; now she has buying power. She’s my litmus test.”

Stegemann and her team created the seven new formulations for the Contemporary line—which include Jasmine Neroli Eau de Parfum, that supports agriculture in India and also fosters college programs for blind people there to become perfumers. She turned to BDC to help finance this large-scale manufacturing effort.

The 7 Virtues

Express who you are

The 7 Virtues also worked with external designers to rebrand the entire company and rework all their packaging, branding, messaging and artwork.

“As a social entrepreneur, I thought I should really be spending that money on farmers,” she says. “But if you want to stand out on a counter and tell your story properly and effectively explain why it matters, then you need to go to the best.”

She says entrepreneurs shouldn’t underestimate the power of rebranding.

“For any company at a crossroads, I’d say to take a look at your packaging, let go of old ideas, and get the best people to help express who you are. We’re finally in our own skin now.”

Become unstoppable

Since becoming CEO of the company in 2010, Stegemann has also written a best-selling book called The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen. Her story was the subject of Perfume War, a feature-length documentary film, and she hopes to become a certified B Corporation soon.

Captain Greene, meanwhile, shared the stage with Prince Harry during the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto. It’s astonishing that the blow to his skull wasn’t fatal. Although Greene’s recovery is ongoing, he has made remarkable progress. He is learning to walk again even though doctors once told him it would never happen.

“He was the first person who really believed in me, and his story continues to inspire me,” Stegemann says of her long-time friend. “I’m as excited about my work as the first day I started. And when you love what you’re doing, you can be unstoppable.”

Lessons learned

1. Be open to input and criticism

Stegemann says it’s important to surround yourself with mentors and people who can guide you. She points to “Dragons’ Den” investor W. Brett Wilson as a source of invaluable mentorship. “When I first started The 7 Virtues, I was overprotective. He really helped me learn to let it go, to just roll with it. He gave me the ability to be braver and to take more risks.

2. Get everything in writing

Everyone learns it at some point in their career, but it’s always best to confirm expectations about any business deal in writing.

“Whether it’s friends who want to work with you or a new contractor, always make everybody sign a contract,” Stegemann says. “It’s in their best interest, it’s in your best interest, then no one walks away disappointed.”

3. Get on the phone

Stegemann says starting a business is difficult and the odds are stacked against you. But preparing well in advance can help you guard against failure.

“The saddest thing on earth is a wasted dream,” she says. “You really have to do your homework, do your research, have mentors, go ask questions, and be curious. Get on the phone and call high-level businesspeople in your community and ask for advice.”

4. Don’t rest on your laurels

No matter how daunting or discouraging building a business can at times be, you can’t wait for things to come to you.

“You have to hustle in America,” Stegemann says. “You have to get out there and say why you’re the best and why your product is the best. You have to grab that brass knuckle and still stay true to your character. Because if you don’t, someone else is going to hustle faster than you and they’ll be ahead of you.”