Barb Stegemann is on a mission to make the world a better place—and beauty products are her weapon of choice
“THREE THOUSAND GOURDE,” the porter said. “For your check-in.”
It was November 2016, and Barb Stegemann (a high-energy motivational speaker, author of The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen and president and CEO of The 7 Virtues Beauty Inc., a Halifax-based fragrance company with a global social entrepreneurial mission) was standing at the American Airlines check-in counter at the airport in Port au Prince.
She’d traveled to Haiti to meet with local essential oils suppliers, as well as to volunteer in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Matthew, which had ripped through that incredibly poor, hard-luck country that was then still reeling—and still far from recovered—after a massive 2010 earthquake.
It was that earthquake (which killed more than 250,000 Haitians, displaced 1.5 million more and damaged or destroyed close to 4,000 schools) that had brought Stegemann to Haiti in the first place. Having already made a name for herself by creating perfumes sourced from fair trade suppliers in Afghanistan in order to goose that war-ravaged country’s legal economic development, Stegemann was the only Canadian invited to join a Clinton Foundation post-earthquake recovery trade mission to Haiti in 2012. That mission led to the launch—appropriately on United Nations International Day of Peace—of Vetiver of Haiti, a perfume made from an essential oil Stegemann had purchased there.
On this buying-volunteering trip, however, she’d encountered one of the realities often faced by those who want to bring social change to warand- disaster plagued countries: endemic corruption. The day before she’d arrived, she’d been told a Norwegian relief vessel filled with supplies had been forced to turn away because local officials demanded “impossibly high bribes” the ship’s owners could not pay.
And now, admittedly on a much smaller scale, Stegemann herself was smacking up against the same dilemma. While in Haiti, she’d bought a large box of shea butter and natural oils as a way to support the local women who’d produced it. At the airport on her way back to Halifax, she’d tipped the porter $15 USD to carry the box from the cab to the ticket counter. But before he got there, he’d handed it over to another porter, who’d ferried it up to the American Airlines counter and instructed Stegemann to wait at the end of a long line. Less than a minute later, Stegemann recalls, “he came back and brought me to the airline agent at the kiosk and told me she would check me in. I felt relieved.”
Until, that is, she’d been checked in and realized the porter was now insisting she also needed to pay another 3,000 Haitian Gourde (about $45 USD) to the agent for the speedy checkin. Stegemann explained she’d already paid the other porter, then said she had no more cash on her. Unabashed, the airline agent escorted Stegemann to a bank machine outside the airport so she could withdraw the money, which the agent then slipped into her pocket before walking Stegemann back through security.
Perhaps corruption will end when North American airlines and every company working in Haiti refuse to participate in bribes.
When Stegemann got back to Canada, she called American Airlines to complain. Officials apologized and refunded her money. But “that’s not the point,” Stegemann tells me today. “I don’t care about the $45.” What she does care about is the casual corruption she encountered, the kind that discourages those who want to help. “Perhaps corruption will end,” she muses, “when North American airlines and every company working in Haiti refuse to participate in bribes.”
It can be done, she says. Consider Rwanda, the genocideblighted country where Stegemann also sources essential oils for perfumes. “When I visited Rwanda, the fastest growing and safest country in Africa, they had a billboard, interestingly just before the airport that said, ‘If you see corruption, you are safe. Please report it.’”
As we talk, it is clear Barb Stegemann is already “ramping up” her rant on the issue of corruption. “It’s my new obsession,” she jokes. “That’s the journalist part of me.”
Ah, yes, the journalist part of Barb Stegemann. Which could still lead who knows where.
In 1999, she graduated from the journalism school where I teach and, while she did not spend much of her career in the traditional journalism trenches, she clearly learned a thing or two. “I learned to get on the phone, to make cold calls, interview, research, communicate.”
She also learned the importance of stories, and how to tell them. She learned very well.
Barb Stegemann’s life, in fact, unfolds as a series of disconnected but interconnected narratives that, taken together, create a remarkable hang-together story, one that is still unfolding.
Barb Stegemann was born in 1969 in Pointe Claire, Quebec, a largely English-speaking Montreal suburb, at a time and in a place where being unilingual English had ceased to be an advantage. When she was eight, her parents moved Barb and her sister to her mother’s home province of Nova Scotia. It didn’t go well. Her parents split up. “My mother suffered from misdiagnosed mental health issues,” Stegemann says now, “and I think that was the breaking point with Dad.” As a result, Barb spent her formative teenaged years living with her mother and sister in a trailer near Antigonish. Even then, she says, her mother “wasn’t present. The neighbours fed us.” In school, she was bullied.
Her 11-month-older sister, Marjorie (now the program manager at the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute) helped “break the cycle” by heading off to Dalhousie University after high school. “I used to visit her,” Stegemann says, “and I remember, on one of my visits, seeing this place on the campus. ‘What is that?’ It was [the University of] King’s [College]. I knew right away I had to go there.”
During her first week of her first degree on King’s postagestamp- corner of the much larger Dalhousie campus in September 1987, she met the man who would change her life. Trevor Greene was a fourth-year journalism student: tall, blonde, athletic, popular, smart, with a passionate interest in the world around him. By contrast, Barb thought of herself as the poor, under-educated kid from the country. For reasons that don’t make sense and probably don’t matter, they almost instantly became soul mates.
Their relationship was never romantic (“we were more like brother and sister”) but it was as intense as any romantic relationship. She and “Bubba,” as he was known around campus, rowed together on the university’s rowing team. Greene had volunteered with Ethiopia Airlift and World University Service of Canada; he inspired her to imagine a larger world beyond that tiny campus. Even after Greene graduated and went off to Japan at the end of her first year, they stayed in close touch and she picked up on his interest in the world.
After her own graduation three years later, Stegemann knew only what she didn’t want to do: “sit in a cubicle, work in some nine-to-five job.” She toyed with the idea of social work, but a volunteer stint at a local youth facility (“one of my duties was to check behind the shower curtain to see if anyone had slit their wrists”) quickly convinced her “that wasn’t me. I wasn’t strong enough to handle that kind of work.”
So she became an airline flight attendant. A flight attendant? “I poured coffee on airplanes,” she jokes, but is quick to add the job became her own kind of business degree. “When I took those [career aptitude] tests as a kid, it always came back ‘business’ as my career path.” There were all sorts of businessmen on planes, of course. “It was like a flying boardroom,” she recalls. “I’d pick their brains.” At night, she’d take copies of business and current events magazines from the plane’s seat pockets and read them in her hotel room.
Which led her to… journalism? “I always wanted to be a journalist,” she insists. After she graduated with her Bachelor of Journalism degree, she began working as a documentary filmmaker (“I was making $6,000 a month”) but then, very quickly, “I fell in love and got pregnant.”
She already had a child from a previous relationship. Oh, yes, right. We forgot to mention that. She’d been a single mother when she took the one-year journalism program. “I remember you standing up at the front of the class telling everyone not to even think of taking on a part-time job during the program,” she tells me now. “I leaned over to the girl beside me and said, ‘Uh-oh. I already have a kid and a full-time job.’” She managed to manage jobs, a kid and journalism—and do it all quite nicely.
Just as she now found a way to navigate the new reality of her second pregnancy. “My boyfriend at the time said, ‘the party has to continue.’ I told him it didn’t.” Instead, in the late fall of 1999, she and her son Victor moved to the west coast where her ex-husband lived, and she gave birth to her daughter Ella there. “It was the fairy tale divorce,” she laughs. “My ex lived down the hall,” and they co-parented. “It worked for a while.” Long enough.
After a brief, unhappy stint working for a syndicated TV show, however, Stegemann found herself applying for a call centre job just to make ends meet. While she waited for her telephone job interview (“they kept me waiting for 45 minutes”), she randomly Googled “self-employment” and up popped information on an entrepreneurial education program at nearby Douglas College, which was designed to help people receiving employment insurance benefits—people like her—create their own businesses. She applied… and the rest is the next chapter.
“By the time I graduated, I was doing marketing for the college.”
I was making real money for the first time in my life. I learned about economic development, and I learned it from risk-takers.
In June 2000, she launched Acclimatize Communications Corp., a boutique PR firm, and spent the next seven years “making real money for the first time in my life. I learned about economic development, and I learned from risk-takers.”
She also reconnected with her university best friend. Trevor Greene had returned to Canada in the mid-1990s and was now living on the west coast too. Greene and Stegemann became copresidents of the King’s B.C. alumni association. “I also met Debbie (LePore), Trevor’s girlfriend,” she says, adding, “his first girlfriend I approved of.” (Greene and LePore, who have a child together, married in 2010.)
By the time he and Stegemann reunited, Greene had already turned his experiences in Japan into his first book, Bridge of Tears: the Hidden Homeless of Japan, and become one of the first journalists to connect the dots in the deaths of Vancouver’s sex trade workers in his 2001 book, Bad Date: The Lost Girls of Vancouver’s Low Track. In between—shades of the eclecticyet- always-focused Stegemann—Greene had also done a brief where-did-that-come-from stint in the Canadian navy before transferring to the army reserve, where he was now an officer in a reserve infantry unit.
In 2006, at the long-past typicalsoldiering- age of 41, Greene volunteered for duty in Afghanistan as what is known as a civilian-military cooperation officer. Essentially, his military job was to connect with Afghan civilians in the war zone and work to improve their lives. “I was there when he signed the papers,” Stegemann says now. “I wanted to join too,” but a hearing impairment kept her from enlisting.
“You’ll find your own way to be part of the mission,” Greene told her.
Little did he—or she—know.
“Babs, are you OK?” The voice at the other end of the phone belonged to Clare MacIntyre, a journalist and another King’s journalism grad who was friends with both Greene and Stegemann. It was March 4, 2006, and she was calling about news reports she’d just read about a Canadian soldier named Trevor Greene who was “in critical but stable condition after being attacked by a man wielding an axe during a meeting with tribal elders [in Afghanistan] today.”
Barb Stegemann was not OK. She’d also seen the reports on her computer (“we didn’t have TV”) but she’d assumed/hoped/prayed/pretended beyond all logical pretending that it couldn’t be her best friend and soul mate Trevor. It was.
Greene had traveled with a group of Canadian soldiers to the Afghan village of Shinkay that day to meet with elders and discuss how they could get clean water and improve local health care. There’d been greetings, there’d been tea. Greene had removed his helmet and was sitting on the ground taking notes when a 16-year-old boy came up behind him, raised a home-made axe, brought it down hard on Greene’s head, pulled back, raised the axe again. Within seconds, stunned Canadian soldiers responded, killing the boy and then engaging in a firefight with local fighters while others tended to Greene and waited for the helicopter to rescue them. After being briefly assessed at the Canadian-led multinational field hospital at Kandahar air base, Greene was immediately airlifted to a U.S. medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany, and placed in a medically induced coma. No one knew whether he would live or die, or, if he lived, whether Trevor would still be Trevor.
Within hours, Stegemann had swung into action—it is who she is—first working with MacIntyre to help protect Debbie from the hordes of reporters who wanted to talk to the family, and then rallying Greene’s friends for “A Positive Thoughts Gathering For Captain Trevor Greene” on Vancouver’s Jericho Beach just four days after the attack. “Please dress warmly, bring an umbrella, a covered candle, a flashlight and your positive thoughts,” she wrote.
After that, Stegemann put her own professional life on hold to focus on Greene’s recovery and rehabilitation. She refused to accept the possibility he might not survive to rehabilitate, or that he might not find his way back to the Trevor of her memories.
There were many difficult days. One day in the middle of his long and painful rehabilitation, Stegemann remembers watching Greene standing, propped up on a wooden sled, his head lolling forward. She’d bought along the soundtrack to The Mission, a movie from their college days. She played the uplifting Ennio Morricone theme song “we’d both loved,” she says now, “and I said, ‘Come on, Bubba! Come on!’ He lifted up his head, made this face and then he roared like a lion —so loud everyone around stopped what they were doing and just stared.”
Stegemann remembers telling her best friend, “Your mission is not in vain. I will take on that mission.”
Greene’s mission, as Stegemann interpreted it, was to bring peace to Afghanistan. Which meant, in part, empowering Afghan women, who’d been denied even a basic education by the Taliban, so they could take their rightful place in their country’s society and economy. Which meant—you need to follow the dots carefully because they will connect—writing a book about women’s empowerment in order to “empower women (and men) to live with the stoic wisdom taught through the centuries…” That stoic wisdom came from the “old books” taught in the firstyear ‘Great Books’ Foundation Year Programme that Stegemann and Greene had taken at King’s. Some of those books, she admits with a laugh today, “I was reading for the first time. I realized the wisdom in those old stories, and I took refuge in all that wisdom as I wrote every day from 4–7 a.m..” She selfpublished the book, Seven Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, which she dedicated to her friend. It’s now in its sixth printing.
While promoting that book, she discovered a much more direct—and practical—way to take on Greene’s mission. She happened to hear a National Public Radio interview with an Afghan man named Abdullah Arsala. He’d been struggling to convince Afghan farmers to replace their illegal but profitable opium poppy crops (which they grew at the insistence of the Taliban, who used the proceeds from sales to buy weapons, and then threatened the farmers and their families with reprisals if the harvest failed to meet their expectations) with legal orange blossoms. As difficult as that had been, Arsala told the interviewer, he now faced an even greater obstacle trying to create an international market for the essential oils of the orange blossom crop.
Within the week, Stegemann had traveled to Ottawa, plunked herself down in the offices of the Canadian International Development Agency and demanded they help her track Arsala down. They did. Squeezing the last $2,000 out of her Visa card limit, she bought up Arsala’s remaining stock of organic oil.
With the help of a Toronto perfumer, she then created her first fragrance— Afghanistan Orange Blossom—and launched 7 Virtues Beauty Inc. Its mission statement: “Make Perfume, Not War.” Within two months, she’d sold out her initial run of 1,000 bottles from her garage.
Today, 7 Virtues’ $70-plus-a-bottle fragrance line also includes Noble Rose of Afghanistan, Vetiver of Haiti, Middle East Peace, Patchouli of Rwanda and Lisa Ray Jasmine of India, all of them “sourced to economically support our suppliers in countries experiencing war or strife… to encourage a cavalry of businesses to come and do trade with nations rebuilding.”
Although the fragrance itself is important to her perfumes’ commercial success, of course, so too is the reality— in these environmentally, socially conscious times—that her vegan, natural oil products contain no cancer-connected phthalate, parabens or sulfates, and are not tested on animals. “Women tell me all the time, ‘I haven’t been able to wear a fragrance for years and now I can wear yours,’” Stegemann tells interviewers. “Because it’s natural, people are discovering fragrances again.”
But Stegemann herself is quick to acknowledge the most important ingredient in her formula for success as an independent entrepreneur in a $29-billion, marketing-driven-andcontrolled industry is the story of how it all came to be.
“Hi, I’m Barb Stegemann. I’m from Halifax, Nova Scotia. My company is The 7 Virtues and I’m here to ask for $75,000 for 15 per cent of my company.”
Stegemann’s company was officially barely two months old in May 2010 when she made her big ask of the notoriously cranky investors on CBC-TV’s Dragon’s Den, “where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their business concepts and products to a panel of Canadian business moguls who have the cash and the know-how to make it happen.”
Stegemann had spent months crafting, honing and refining her personal story (“humble roots… don’t believe in charity… my best friend was severely injured… we all want to know what we can do to make a difference… I figured out one way… every litre impacts 400 people in the community…”) and seamlessly melding it with her entrepreneurial pitch (“perfumes have one of the highest profit margins… $30,000 in sales in first two months… break-even in four weeks… need to boost production and supply department stores… like to make money… believe it can be both a successful business and have a social purpose…”).
By the time it was over, there were tears but also enthusiasm. Dragon Brett Wilson immediately agreed to pony up the $75,000 Stegemann was seeking— making her the first woman in Atlantic Canada to land a Dragon’s Den deal.
It was a serendipitous bonus that Stegemann’s segment, including plenty of couldn’t-be-bought product placement, aired on February 9, 2011—just five days before Valentine’s Day.
Award followed accolade. In 2011 (the same year Hudson’s Bay agreed to sell her perfumes in its 90 Canadian retail stores), Stegemann was nominated as Chatelaine’s Woman of the Year in the entrepreneur category, won the Women’s Innovator of the Year award from the U.S. State Department at a conference hosted by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was nominated for a Manning Innovation Award for the company’s philanthropic business model and even found herself appointed honorary colonel of 14 Wing at CFB Greenwood.
The next year, she was included in Profit Magazine’s list of Top 30 Fabulous Canadian Entrepreneurs and nominated as Ernst and Young’s 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year.
Oh yes, and in 2016, award-winning director Michael Melski’s Perfume Wars—an inspirational documentary film about how the abiding best-friendship between Greene and Stegemann led to the 7 Virtues social enterprise phenomena— had its international debut.
Not bad for a bullied kid who scrambled her way out of an Antigonish trailer.
And Barb Stegemann is still writing her story.
Barb was back in Haiti when she first learned that Sephora, the world’s largest prestige beauty retailer (with 2,300 outlets around the world) had launched a new program called Sephora Accelerates to teach and mentor female beauty-business entrepreneurs, using the “well-established model of a tech accelerator,” in the fine but mysterious new-old arts of research, analytics, focus groups, fundraising, marketing and the rest. Its ultimate goal was even bigger than that: to create an empowerment network of next-generation women beauty entrepreneurs.
Stegemann applied, but despite—or perhaps because of—her success to date, she wasn’t initially accepted. In a world increasingly geared to millennials, she was told she would need to “‘let go of the old.’ They had to see that I was not attached to my own ideas.”
As usual, Stegemann did not give up or go away. She not only sold them on herself and her do-good/do-well ambitions but also on her openness to new ways of working. She was eventually chosen as one of just 10 women from around the world for Sephora Accelerates’ Class of 2017. The six-month experience— hanging out at the campuses of Google and Facebook, learning the advanced ins and outs of YouTube and Instagram from world-class experts, getting mentored by those who’ve already been-there-donethat in the beauty business—was mindexploding. “I feel like someone had splashed a cold bucket of water on me,” she told one interviewer at the time. “I feel recharged, energized and not alone anymore.”
There were practical outcomes too. After six months of working with Sephora’s top buyers, Stegemann will launch “a brand new contemporary fragrance collection exclusive to Sephora” and aimed at millennials in the retailer’s 60 stores across Canada and online in February. While “made with the same essential oils from nations rebuilding,” she says the new line will boast “completely new scents, packaging and look.”
And the news only gets better. After Accelerates Demo Day in October when Sephora’s graduates got to present their companies “to industry experts, potential venture partners, and senior leaders within Sephora,” Sephora Europe reached out to talk to her about the possibility of adding her line there. “We’re hoping to meet in Paris,” Stegemann says, adding she’s busy boning up on her French with Babble online lessons. “If we get that meeting, who knows…?”
Who knows indeed?
“I’d love to create a whole roster of natural beauty products,” she says of her company’s future. “Vegan lipstick, face products, aroma therapy oils to complement the perfumes.” And then, of course, there are her larger dreams. Remember corruption? Someday, she admits, she might want to run for office. She already has a slogan: Business, jobs, dignity…
And she has a story to tell.