Perfume powerhouse

Economic development - one fragrance at a time

- December 16, 2013

An Afghan farmer holds orange blossoms. (Sandra Calligaro photo)
An Afghan farmer holds orange blossoms. (Sandra Calligaro photo)

This article first appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Dalhousie magazine.

"Not everybody has been given the gift of poverty,” says Barb Stegemann (BA’91).

And not everybody thinks of poverty as a gift. But Stegemann does. She and her sister grew up poor, children of a single mom on welfare, living in a trailer on a dirt road near Antigonish. That experience, and the education at Dalhousie and King’s that followed it, shaped Stegemann’s beliefs about business, giving back and building a better world, ideas she first explored as an international development studies (IDS) student at Dal. “Business is a great way to apply the IDS principles of honour and respect.” They are values she’s embedded in her perfume company The 7 Virtues Beauty Inc. and the book she’s written to capture her philosophy on business and life, The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen: A woman’s guide to living and leading in an illogical world.

It hasn’t been easy. “Fewer than one-tenth of one per cent of people would take on the challenges she’s taken on,” says Stegemann’s mentor and former CEO of the Halifax Trade Centre, Fred MacGillivray. “But challenges only make her work harder.”

That work has paid off. In 2011, she was the first woman from Atlantic Canada to sign a deal on CBC’s Dragon’s Den, partnering with then-dragon W. Brett Wilson. In 2012, the show named her their Top Game Changer of the last seven seasons, for her innovative approach to social change through business partnership rather than charity. (Her “perfume not poppies” business strategy has pumped $120,000 — “legal dollars” as she says — into the economy of Afghanistan.) That same year saw her top entrepreneur lists produced by Ernst & Young in Atlantic Canada, Profit magazine and the Women’s Executive Network, while her Vetiver of Haiti perfume was named to Chatelaine’s Beauty 100 list. Not bad for someone who didn’t really know much about perfume until she decided to launch her company in 2010.

“Barb is a force of nature,” says Kim Kierens, vice-president of the University of King’s College, once Stegemann’s journalism professor and now her friend and mentor. One might think, though, that even a force of nature would hesitate to launch a company producing products she didn’t know much about, sourced from suppliers in a war-ravaged country she’d never visited.

Inspired to make a difference

But Stegemann is no stranger to challenge, starting with “educating myself out of poverty.” She remembers flipping through the Dalhousie course calendar, imagining another life for herself. Once at Dal, she studied sociology and international development studies and made friendships that would last through the decades that followed. A stint as a flight attendant and a return to school — enrolling in King’s one-year journalism program while working virtually full-time — followed. Then in 2006, the unimaginable happened: her classmate Trevor Greene, a captain in the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, was attacked and suffered a devastating head injury during a goodwill meeting with the elders of an Afghan village.

Where others might have reacted with hatred for Afghanistan, Stegemann was inspired by her friend’s own desires to help the people there. She wasn’t sure how or when, but she promised herself and Greene that she would continue his work to rebuild Afghanistan.

Four years later, her chance to keep that promise arrived. Stegemann had taken a communications position with the Halifax Trade Centre and written and self-published her book on leading a value-driven life, when she stumbled on an article about the challenges faced by an essential oil producer in Afghanistan. “The same people who had attacked Trevor were the ones trying to destroy these legal businesses,” says Stegemann.

A whirlwind of learning, telephone calls, conversations with embassies and discussions with Toronto perfumer Susanne Lang followed. “The learning curve was steep,” Stegemann says. She made contact with the essential oil producer, Abdullah Arsala, and bought $2,000 worth of orange blossom oil, funding her fledgling business with her Visa card. (The start-up costs would top $18,000 by the time she launched her company — “the price of a nice kitchen reno,” she laughs.) Nine months later, The 7 Virtues Beauty’s first perfume, Afghanistan Orange Blossom, hit the shelves at The Bay.

In the three years since, the company has launched three more fragrances, each sourcing top-quality raw material from a corner of the world more often known for its bad news than its appealing fragrances: Noble Rose of Afghanistan, Vetiver of Haiti, Middle East Peace. Stegemann has plowed the revenues from the perfume company back into the business, not drawing a salary. But she’s quick to point out that the perfume business is not a charity. “Everybody makes money from it, the farmers, the retailers, the suppliers — we all make money.”

While she, her children Victor and Ella, and her husband car dealer Mike Velemirovich live in a modest bungalow in Bedford, Stegemann doesn’t long for a bigger house — or even the kitchen reno her business investment could have bought her. “We’ve made something that makes a difference.”

And while she says she has no master plan for her life, her mentor Fred MacGillivray sees more success in Stegemann’s future. “She’s a visionary,” he says. “There are more big things in her.”

Read about other inspirational alumni at the Dal Alumni website.


All comments require a name and email address. You may also choose to log-in using your preferred social network or register with Disqus, the software we use for our commenting system. Join the conversation, but keep it clean, stay on the topic and be brief. Read comments policy.

comments powered by Disqus