What’s most astonishing about Nova Scotia entrepreneur Barb Stegemann is not that she landed a deal on Canada’s popular reality TV show The Dragons Den or that she has been so successful in such a short time. No, what really makes this determined lady stand out is her commitment to creating a business that is not just prosperous but one that also improves the economic opportunities for people in countries like Afghanistan; an achievement which also supports the Canadian military’s mission.
Inspired by her best friend Trevor Greene, who was ambushed and nearly killed while serving as a Canadian reservist in Afghanistan, Barb decided she needed to do something to raise the consciousness of others to the plight of people in countries where hope for personal gain is dismal at best.
“The night Trevor was severely wounded I woke up to my responsibility as a citizen to support his mission,” says Barb. “Trevor has always been the voice for those who can not speak for themselves, whether he was writing his book on the missing women on the East Side of Vancouver or on the homeless of Japan. His mission is to ensure no man woman or child is bullied or oppressed. He understands that literacy and economic empowerment in a safe environment must be the goal and that it takes all of us.”
While her friend Trevor healed, Barb continued to try and find ways to support his mission. One day she read about this gentleman, Abdullah Arsala, who was trying to get the farmers off of the illegal poppy crop and onto legal crops such as orange blossoms and roses. But the traders kept knocking over his distillery because they forced the farmers to grow the illegal poppy crop, which accounts for 90% of the world’s heroine.
“I knew at that moment I had to do trade with Abdullah and buy his oils made from the legal crops and to never abandon him,” says Barb. “I flew to Ottawa, met with CIDA and the Ambassador for Afghanistan to Canada and they helped me find Abdullah.”
She bought all the flower oil he had on her visa card, found a perfumer and launched 1,000 bottles of her first perfume, Afghanistan Orange Blossom, out of her garage.
“I had no formal experience at all in perfume, but that didn’t matter. You see, I too am on a mission to ensure no man, woman or child is bullied, not here at home or elsewhere.”
As the first woman in Atlantic Canada to land a deal on CBC’s Dragon’s Den, Barb says she has always understood the value of taking risks financially.
“Sometimes I feel like I walk on glass. I take risks everyday. Not the kind that involve safety but the kind that are financial. That is why I found the courage to go into the Den. I was terrified to go on. But I got over my fear because I had the chance to share with millions of Canadians that we must do trade with nations at war or in strife to help make the world safer. Achieving the greater good is the best way to help you work through your fear.”
Her debut on the Den and her deal with philanthropic dragon Brett Wilson has led to a successful partnership. Following that appearance, Barb made a cold call to The Bay and landed all 91 Bay stores.
“We were able to buy all the oils from the farmers,” explains Barb. “I feel fortunate to have W.Brett Wilson as my investor. He and I share a very strong commitment to the military; so both personally and professionally it’s a good fit.
“We joke in our talks or in-store events that I am the “loudest baby in the nursery,” says Barb. “Brett has 30 companies incubating at different levels and I am the one screaming, ‘love me!’ And he always laughs, and then goes out of his way to join me and support me wherever I am. He does this for all of his companies; sometimes I am just really loud and needy. I have had to take business issues to him that may be typical for a seasoned pro like Brett, but not for me, as I have always been a sole proprietor. He always treats me with kindness, calmness, levelheadedness and gives me the strength to make tough decisions. That’s leadership. He expects so much of me and I want to deliver.”
Barb is also grateful for Brett Wilson’s commitment to our Canadian troops. When he flew over to Afghanistan to meet her supplier, he was also there to spend time with the troops.
“I feel very blessed to have Brett as my mentor and partner,” says Barb, “but the fact that he is so supportive of the troops makes our deal a dream come true. Trevor Greene even wrote Brett a letter after the Operation: Western Front event Brett hosted to raise money for military families, and he told Brett he would have wanted him to serve beside him. Brett gets teary eyed at this and so do I. For us, as citizens, we feel blessed that we can, in some way, be a part of the mission.”
Since launching The 7 Virtues Fragrance line last spring, business has virtually bloomed for this native of Antigonish. Building on the success of her second fragrance: Noble Rose of Afghanistan, Barb just launched her third fragrance, Vetiver of Haiti, on Sept. 21st the International Day of Peace. It was also at that launch in Ottawa, that the Minister of Defence, Peter MacKay, announced that Barb would be made an Honorary Colonel for the Canadian Military on December 9th this year.
“It is so exciting to have three fragrances within a year,” says Barb. “My vision for The 7 Virtues is for it to become a mini store within a store with a representative from The 7 Virtues explaining our fragrances from around the world. I want them to share the stories of the brave suppliers, their lives and their world, and how we can make a difference–all of us–and how we must. I see this in Canada, USA and, ultimately, Europe.”
As a mom of two children, the challenge of managing a home and an international business is not always trouble-free. However, she explains, she has an “amazing network” of support.
“My mentors and partner are fully supportive. My kids are really cool; they help me and believe in me. They love what I do and that I am showing them that parents need to live their dreams too. We can’t give up our dreams. We have one life and our children need to see that we too take risks to live and lead the life that makes us feel authentic.”
As an author and a popular public speaker, Barb often has the opportunity to share her vision and philosophy with others; particularly those who are inspired by her success and may be considering a business venture of their own.
“I tell everyone go for it,” says Barb. “Have a mission, a clear mission to do good for the common good in some way and you cannot fail. I write about these principles in my book The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen: A Woman’s Guide to Living and Leading in an Illogical World.
“Be open to learning every day. Get rid of your ego. Take nothing personal ever. Be self-deprecating. I joke about being needy and the loudest baby in the nursery because it’s a fun visual for business folks in the talks Brett and I give. But I am a serious business woman who puts in long days, sometimes 14-day stretches, but I get my sleep. I know when to stop. I have learned to listen to my internal clock and not waste a minute of my day. Do your homework. Be passionate. Be unstoppable. And share the credit. Have tough conversations with love and compassion. Never strip another of their power or dignity and never hand yours over and you will come to a good place even if there are challenges.”
She adds that although you may want to win, you have to prove you can win with grace and dignity.
“Do not crush anyone on your way up. Extend a hand and mentor back when you can. Never forget where you came from. Be willing to examine the world from a state of wonder instead of judgement. The minute you judge others or yourself it’s over. Business is about being creative, fast, innovative, joyous, positive, and it has to be profitable. Philanthropic business that empowers is the most rewarding and is the kind of business this world needs more of, if we are ever going to have peace.
She says poverty and illiteracy are two of the problems that keep us in a cycle of war.
“Empowering people to read and building relations through business is crucial. We must all do our part to create a safe world where fathers and mothers can buy books and shoes for their children in a safe environment. Business is the missing piece in making this a reality.”
Inspiring others to pursue their dreams is a great side benefit to her business. She wants everyone, especially young women to feel empowered to make a difference in this world.
“I realized much of who I am has been shaped by my stoic male mentors who are leaders in North America and I felt the first step should be to share this wisdom with my sisters, so that we can all go through challenges with dignity, grace and wit. Traits Trevor Greene has shown me these past 25 years.
“I want little girls to dream of being ambassadors, or world leaders or soldiers or business women, and I want for them to push the boundaries to build a safer world.”
Barb Stegemann is CEO of The 7 Virtues Beauty Inc. and author of The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen – A Woman’s Guide to Living & Leading in an Illogical World. She is a recent recipient of the Women Innovators award from the U.S. Secretary of State. She holds a degree in Sociology and Philosophy and a degree in Journalism from the University of King’s College where she met her best friend and mentor Trevor Greene. She and her family make their home in Halifax.