For Barb Stegemann’s perfumes, it’s about more than flowers.
Editor’s Note: The 7 Virtues is a mission-driven company founded by entrepreneur, human rights activist and author BarbStegemann after her best friend was severely wounded while serving in Afghanistan. In the following profile, our friend Rob Kunzig, a multimedia journalist, tells her story.
Things might have been different if Barb Stegemann didn’t have a hearing disability.
She might have joined the Canadian Army, following her best friend and fellow Nova Scotian, Captain Trevor Greene, to Afghanistan. She might not have been by his hospital bed as he recovered from his war wounds.
And if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t have founded The 7Virtues, a line of organic fragrances that’s less about what’s in the bottle — essence of rose from Afghanistan, farmed and sold at high risk — than how it got there.
It’s a complicated story, Stegemann said, and one that arguably begins not in the hills of Afghanistan, nor by Capt. Greene’s bed, but in a small home in Nova Scotia, where she was raised on welfare by a single mother. It taught her the value of opportunity: When someone offers you a leg up, you take it.
“I was very blessed in that I had mentors and that I had teachers who expected more from me,” Stegemann said in a phone interview. She excelled in school and ended up at The University of King’s College in Halifax, where she met Greene, a young idealist with a keen sense of service. He joined the Royal Canadian Navy, and later earned a commission in the Army reserves.
“He signed his joining papers at my kitchen table,” she said.
He was sent to Kandahar, a restive southern province in Afghanistan. As a civil-military relations specialist, it was his job to speak to local elders, to hear their concerns and answer their questions. He habitually removed his Kevlar helmet, as a sign of trust and respect. On March 4, 2006, he was speaking with tribal leaders when a young man came from behind and buried a homemade ax in his skull.
“He was poor,” she said of Greene’s attacker. “The Taliban paid him a few dollars. He was desperate.”
After a long journey, Greene returned to Canada to recover and recuperate. Stegemann was by his bed as he struggled to string words together. As a student of philosophy — particularly the Stoics, a group of Greeks who considered personal virtue the most important thing in life — she had a means of coping with Greene’s injury.
But it wasn’t enough. More than aid him, she said, she had to “take on his mission.” As he sought to make the world a better place by helping those less fortunate, she would extend the wisdom of the stoics to girls.
“The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen” drew heavily on the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and encouraged women to use their commercial and political power to affect change. She wrote the book in the early hours of the morning, busting out pages before driving her kids to school. When it was finished, she self-published and billed the first print run to her credit card.
The book was a cult success, leaving her unexpectedly flush after recovering her investment. The next logical step, she said, was to practice what she preached. She now had to leverage herself as an economic force.
Now that Stegemann heads up a burgeoning and rapidly expanding fragrance brand, it’s hard to imagine that it all started with a 2008 story from National Public Radio titled “Promoting Perfume, Not Poppies, in Afghanistan.” She learned about Abdullah Arsallah, a Jalalabad man who was making fragrances from the orange blossoms and roses he grew in his orchard. Because many Afghan farmers grow poppies, and because the opium harvested from poppies funds the Taliban, Abdullah’s business was a de facto protest.]
Maybe Stegemann saw a bit of Capt. Greene in Arsallah, a determined idealist against all odds. She made contact via the Canadian International Development Agency, and the two went into business. She named the perfumes she made from Arsallah’s essences The7 Virtues — “Kind of the thesis of my book,” she said.
In the years since, Stegemann has grown her brand through steadfast evangelizing and appearances on TV shows like “Dragon’s Den,” an entrepreneurial reality program. To accommodate increased demand, Arsallah has expanded his distillery and started selling olive oil, along with his own fragrances — though, as Stegemann notes, “He has to pay for more security now.”
The 7Virtues gathers the narrative strands of Stegemann’s life — the humble roots, the sense of service, the need to act — in tiny glass bottles with minimalist labels. “It’s no longer about Trevor and I,” she said. Capt. Greene was certainly the inspiration, but it’s more about Arsallah’s growing distillery now, which is fine by them.
“When people say they’re going to do something bigger in life, that’s beautiful,” she said. “When people wake up to their own power.” She’s never been able to secure a visa for Afghanistan, so her relationship with Arsallah is maintained via email and Skype.
Stegemann thinks this is the best time for The 7 Virtues to come into its own. Millennials tend to be consumers with consciences, she explained. When they decide what they want to be or what they want to buy, they decide with their hearts.
“They don’t want to be millionaires,” she said. “They don’t’ want to sit in a cubicle. They believe everything should be cruelty-free. I’m so in awe of what I’m seeing in this generation.”
In other words: It’s a good time to be a social entrepreneur. She knows she could build a cheaper supply chain. She knows she could cut corners while retaining her ethical bona fides on technicalities. That would pad out her profit margins, but this was never about profit — not really, anyway.
It’s about love, Stegemann said — the love for mankind that led a young Canadian to volunteer for a war that almost killed him, the love for virtue that led a farmer to resist the poppy crop and the love of a woman for neighbors she’s never met.
“You see firsthand how you can fix communities, and that’s far more valuable than just looking at the financials,” she said. “Instead of always looking at the ROI, what’s your return on love, your ROL? My ROL is really high.”