Reversing war and poverty through buying power: A Q&A with Barbara Stegemann
Canadian entrepreneur Barbara Stegemann is this year’s speaker for our Find Your Divine event, taking place on April 5 at the Castlegar Community Complex.
The Castlegar News had a chance to speak with Stegemann about her fragrance company The 7 Virtues, which sources essential oils from companies that are rebuilding. She was inspired to create the company after her best friend Capt. Trevor Greene was injured in Afghanistan. Stegemann wanted to support his mission of economic empowerment, and learned about Abdullah Arsala, the owner of a distillery in Afghanistan who was trying to grow legal orange blossom and rose crops, rather than illegal poppy crops.
Castlegar News: Why is it important to you that your company is socially responsible?
Barbara Stegemann: For me, I was raised on welfare and by a single mom, and charity, the generosity of neighbours was absolutely important. Going to people’s homes for dinner really helped us when mom was sick. But when people dropped off the hamper at Christmas and drove away, that’s when my sister and I really felt like, “We want to be invited to the banquet. We want to be included,” and I think that really shaped me. And so for me, the solution to really reverse issues of war and poverty is to empower people through dignity and jobs. So for me, sourcing from nations like Afghanistan, Haiti, Rwanda — I can be a part of the solution as a citizen, so it’s in the DNA of my company. It’s actually the why behind my company. I never set out to make perfume at all. When I read about this gentleman in Afganistan who was growing the legal orange blossom and rose, I just had to help him. It started with wanting to help these farmers and then going, “Well, what can I make?” So I guess it wasn’t like a business and now we should try to be responsible. It was more like I gotta help these guys and then I’ve got to create a company that actually works and flies — then you have that other added pressure.
CN: How can women use their buying power to affect change in the world?
BS: Women will own the buying power: by 2022 two-thirds of the world’s buying power will be owned by women. So when I think about that, I think, “Well, we’re going to buy makeup or fragrance or moisturizer, or whatever products we’re going to buy, anyway. Why not make products that are not only good for your skin, made with natural products and no harsh chemicals, but also why don’t we source things from women around the world, and families that are working farmers, and make products with their supplies?”
And so this is how we can actually make change, because we’re in a cycle of war and poverty that’s not been broken. After World War II, the world said never again to genocide and we have 33 countries facing some level of genocide, and we’ve learned that obviously one step is corruption — we have to end corruption in these countries — but one thing we can actually effectively as citizens do, in the meantime, is create jobs, create relationships, tell new stories, give people hope, and I think that’s one of the most important ways to reverse the issues of war and poverty. And business is the way.
My inspiration was my best friend Cpt. Greene who was wounded serving in the Canadian Forces. I sat back in the hospital, in Vancouver General, when he was there for two years, and I really reflected on women owning the buying power and what could I do to actually be a part of the solution so that… these brave soldiers that go and build roads and build schools, and protect families, but if the families don’t have jobs then the Taliban or the other oppressors can come and take over once the troops have left, and we’ve seen that in Afghanistan. It’s more dangerous now without the troops for our supplier and far more attacks go on now than we saw when the troops were there. So I think the missing piece is that business calvary to come and buy from families, so that they’re not beholden to oppressors.
CN: In launching your company, what is the biggest challenge you have faced so far?
BS: I’m a female CEO in the beauty industry where less than four per cent of the CEOs are female and I’m also a social enterprise; I feel alone sometimes. I don’t feel alone in terms of our customers. We have so much love and I feel so fortunate to have such amazing suppliers — they feel like my family — but in terms of a roadmap and other peers that are living what I’m living, it’s kind of lonely.
Just recently, the press release came out on International Women’s Day, I was invited to be one of 10 women CEOs invited to San Francisco by Sephora, and they’re going to mentor us for six months, and possibly invest in us, possibly have us in their stores and just really help us. I’m excited because I’m going to be with nine other women who are living the same life as me and I’ve never been in one place with that many women living the same challenges I live, the same concerns I live, the same purpose behind their companies. So I’m really excited. I don’t think I’ll feel alone after that, so it’s pretty nice.
That was the biggest challenge and now I finally feel after six years in that I’ve got a really nice opportunity to really grow and expand the company and think differently and just be exposed to different women who have gone through this. And of course, the Sephora Accelerate program was ranked by Forbes as one of the top accelerate programs in the States. So to have their mentorship for six months is really exciting.
CN: It sounds very exciting.
BS: I know, right? They actually bring in Pamela Baxter who ran Christian Dior and Sephora. They bring in the top retail packaging experts and they basically do a makeover on you with you. So you live in a mansion for a week, April 17 to 23 in San Fransisco, and then you come back and you’re mentored, and then you go back and pitch, kind of like Dragons’ Den, which I’ve done successfully, so I’m like “Ok, I can do this, I can do this.” Then they could possibly invest in you or have you in their stores, and it’s very exciting.
CN: How do you balance running your own business with having a family?
BS: My kids have always looked at The 7 Virtues as another family member, like another baby in the house. So they kind of shared me with The 7 Virtues, and then really got involved.
So my son has been apprenticing with me. He set up our stores in England and moved there for a year right after high school, and now he works with me here in Canada. And I couldn’t do it without him. But the neat part is we work together so I get to be with my family all the time. My daughter is in Grade 12 and I’m really hoping she comes and works with me as well. She wants to do a business degree. Then I’d have really just the perfect model. I’d be with them all the time. I don’t like leaving them; I love being around them.
That’s kind of how I’ve juggled it really. Including them in it. The other thing I do is, even if I was on the road when they were younger…, when we’re home I make dinner, we sit together. Sometimes we’ll sit together at the dinner table for three hours talking, and no one’s allowed to use their phone or answer the door. So when we’re home it’s really quality time. If you measure it, we probably have as much quality time as any other family. But then the other bit is I incorporate my family into my company, so I think that’s been helpful.
CN: What’s the most important advice you would give an emerging entrepreneur?
BS: The most important thing is just to do it and not second guess yourself. Listen to your instincts, your gut. Do your homework. Be passionate. But also ensure that you have a mentor who is in the industry you’re in or is seasoned at business.
So for me, I have Brett Wilson —I met him on Dragons’ Den — my investor, and he’s so seasoned at business. He helped me with so many challenges, and he’s just the best sounding board, and I know I couldn’t do it without him. If I were asking friends for advice, who maybe didn’t run a company, then I might get different answers. So it’s really important when you want to start up a company that you have a seasoned business person in your life who you can go to for sound advice and not to be afraid to go reach out to people in your community for advice. Even for Dragons’ Den, I met with two venture capitalists in Nova Scotia. I’d never met them before, but I asked if I could at least pitch my idea to them, and they were so receptive. So I pitched to them and they loved it, and that counsel helped me successfully pitch Dragons’ Den.
So not to be afraid to go and approach seasoned business people and tell them about your idea, and just ask them for feedback. Even if they can’t mentor you long term, just to even get some solutions — I have to say that it’s the most important way to navigate your company.
Tickets to Find Your Divine are $40 and can be purchased at the Castlegar News office or Bear Country Kitchen in Rossland.