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Barb Stegemann, CEO of The 7 Virtues (INTERVIEW)

— August 4, 2011 — Social Good
Barb Stegemann is on her way to becoming a star social entrepreneur. She’s been featured on Canada’s ‘Dragons’ Den’ and was the first woman from Atlantic Canada to get a deal on the entrepreneurial reality show. Furthermore, she’s been nominated for Woman of the Year in the Entrepreneur category at the Canadian lifestyle magazine Chatelaine.

Even with all of those accomplishments, the real star is the work that she does. Through The 7 Virtues fragrance line, which covered in July, she hopes to harness the buying power of women in North America in order to disrupt the illegal poppy trade and build peace through economic empowerment. The 7 Virtues currently sources legal and fair trade oils from Haiti and Afghanistan but plans to expand to other countries in the Middle East in the near future. conducted a lengthy but insightful interview with Barb Stegemann exploring everything from her book, The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, to her lifelong work in community economic development.

Four Questions with Barb Stegemann

1. How did the idea for the business model come about?

When my best friend was severely wounded serving in Afghanistan our lives changed overnight. I promised him I would take on his mission of economic empowerment and safety while he healed. I quickly realized that as a female suburban citizen I really didn’t have a lot of access to the power in affecting change in nations in strife. From big business to government, women simply do not hold the power positions.

So I found a way to harness women’s buying power, a different kind of power that every advertiser and market knows women in North America own. I wrote a book to empower my sisters in North America called, The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, bringing Adam Smith and Capitalism and Plato and the polis to women because our mother’s didn’t necessarily teach us about this language that has shaped business and government. I dedicated the book to my best friend while he was in the hospital healing.

Then, with his mission at the forefront of my mind, when I read an article on this man, Abdullah Arsala, who was giving the farmers in his community in Afghanistan an alternative crop to the illegal poppy crop, I immediately knew this was the way for me to make change. In the article on Abdullah it shared how he was providing legal orange blossom and rose petal harvests to the farmers as a fair wage and the oppressors kept knocking over his distillery. I knew I had to find Abdullah and become his buyer and build demand. I flew to Ottawa and met with the CIDA executives and they connected me with the NGO that did the study to prove the essential oils distilled from legal crops could take on the illegal poppy crop (which accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s heroine, which is on our streets, so it’s in our best interests to care for many, many reasons).

I bought one cup of oil from his company, Gulestan Essential Oils, for $2,000. I found a Canadian perfumer, Susanne Lang and she believed in me and I put 1,000 bottles on my Visa card and sold them out of my garage. Then I went on Dragons’ Den two months later, half my stock was sold and landed the venture capital deal I needed to make 10,000 bottles to call a department store. We are now in every Bay store across Canada. We have three fragrances, and because of this we were able to buy all the oils this year from Abdullah. His goal is to produce half the world’s rose oil and get more farmers off the illegal poppy crops. I intend to do everything in my power to make this happen.

The fragrance line is the thesis in the book, literally the action on the words in the book. So the fragrances match the book. We have the Afghanistan Orange Blossom, Noble Rose of Afghanistan (named by History TV viewers for a show to air this fall called and on Sept 21st, International Day of Peace, we launch Vetiver of Haiti. We sourced the oils to help rebuild in Haiti, so our philosophy can be applied around the world.

2. How did you decide to join this sector?

I had always been involved in community economic development and revitalization in my work so my mindset has always been about finding new ways to include others. I was raised in humble roots and we lived on welfare for a long time in rural Nova Scotia, so I know what it’s like to be excluded from decision making. My education and university degrees in Sociology and in Journalism helped me to observe trends and then to package my findings into new ways of communicating. The work in economic development gave me the business part. Together the formula for my work is rooted in empathy from my personal experience living in poverty, my fascination with people and understanding that North American citizens need to have more ways to connect with change beyond charity and through real economic empowerment -- I am not a fan of charity at all. My courses in International Developmental Studies during my Sociology degree really showed me that you need to create stable demands and financial supplies for resources from suppliers in countries in strife, but work directly with the centers of influence in these communities and let these thoughtful people work with their own people in shaping their own future. They know best, not us. But they need our demand for product. So my job is to build that demand by making rebuilding more exciting than destruction. That’s my mission -- to make rebuilding more exciting than destruction.

3. How do you get your inspiration?

I have the deepest gratitude for my education, my health and my safety living in Canada. I don’t believe I have any more of a right to this glorious life than any other citizen on the planet. I believe when you have been given such resources they were provided to us all to stretch out of our comfort zone and do more for the common good, from a motivation of empowerment and lifting others up at all times. There are enough dark places on this earth, I refuse to create more. Our work is to shine light on these places and show what is beautiful. The essential oils of Afghanistan and Haiti are considered some of the best in the world. By putting their country’s names in the fragrance we are highlighting what is beautiful and that’s how you rebuild.

4. How do you reset yourself to be creative? Do you have any rituals?

I believe, as the philosophers taught that we are all born with the answers. We actually know what to do. Like Michelangelo taught, “The sculpture is in the clay” -- allow the idea to emerge. It’s all there in front of you. The best way to allow the ideas to flow is to see all challenges as a part of your learning. I also feel that anything I create is actually created by the people I meet and the way a culture is moving. When I give talks, I get to hear from so many women and men and they share their concerns about the world and from that it’s like research for me, so I feel my book, the fragrance collection, everything I do is designed by the people, the community. And for that there are principles of creative success because you don’t need to find out if it will sell, if you really listen to the community and others in global village and invite all to share and come to the banquet, then the people design your product and you are merely satisfying an unmet demand. So we are really just maestros when we create. We don’t own it, it’s not ours, it’s everyone’s input. Our job is to dust off the clay and allow that sculpture to emerge. The emergence of a new product is what excites me.

I also physically live in a quiet place. I live in the suburbs of Halifax in a bungalow with apple trees. I write at my Hemingway desk surrounded by books and the working fire place is on during the day in the winter. I go for long runs around the Bedford Basin in the summer from my house. I spend a lot of good time alone working in my retreat. I design my day. Then when I go out and give a talk or meet with clients or do an in-store event I am recharged, ignited and so excited to see everyone.