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Eau d’Empowerment – the scent of opportunity: a conversation with Barb Stegemann

Barb Stegemann is the author of The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen and CEO of The 7 Virtues, a fragrance line sourcing its organic essential oils from countries of conflict to introduce these businesses to new markets. With two fragrances from Afghanistan (‘Afghanistan Orange Blossom’ and ‘Noble Rose of Afghanistan’), 7 Virtues is launching a new perfume from the vetiver oil of Haiti this fall on September 21st (International Day of Peace). We sat down to chat with Barb in August; this is our read our conversation with her.

This interview has been edited for length.

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PDT: I was wondering how you came up with this idea in particular. Was it something you always wanted to do, or was it prompted by something?

BARB: I would have to say that it was prompted by my best friend, Captain Greene. He was one of my first mentors who really believed in me, and we met in university 25 years ago. When he joined the military, I wanted to join with him but couldn’t because I have a hearing impairment. So he joined the military and while he was there 5 years ago he was severely wounded, and, you know, your life is flipped upside-down. Suddenly you look at your life and say, “Well, am I really doing meaningful things?” I was working in economic development and revitalization and it certainly was meaningful, but suddenly when my best friend was severely wounded, I felt that I wanted to take on his mission and help him to ensure that women and children and families in the community of Afghanistan where he was serving were not being oppressed and that they could have their dignity and literacy and all the freedoms that are the basic foundation to peace. And economic empowerment is obviously a part of that.

In the hospital for the year with him, I wrote my book and dedicated it to him, and really felt that I had to start in my own neighbourhood and women in North America to really share some of the ideas about community economic development and roles that women could play in making change. Because we aren’t the top level CEOs, we’re less than 5% of the top 500 CEOs, which is where a lot of decisions are made. In government, in business, we’re not there in the numbers we need to be. We own the voting power at 52%, but we only have 20% representation [*2011 stats: 25% in Canada; 16.8% in the U.S. House of Representatives, 17% in the U.S. Senate] so I just felt that it was time to communicate differently with women because maybe we need to create new models. The models that are out there don’t necessarily work for us.

So as I went around my province giving talks I listened to women, and they were telling me, “You know, we feel like our hands are tied, we don’t have an accessible way as everyday citizens to be a part of change in Afghanistan, or in other countries experiencing strife, for that matter.” Even though our hearts ache, a lot of women were sharing that charity was the only way they could connect. Of course, I don’t really believe in charity – I was raised with very humble roots, we spent many years on welfare in rural Nova Scotia, and I really could connect and understand what they were talking about: there had to be a different way.

[…] One day I read an article on this gentleman Abdullah Arsala in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and he was working tirelessly to get farmers off the illegal poppy crops, which accounts for around 90% of the world’s heroin, and the traders kept knocking over his distillery. And that was it: I knew in that moment he was my way of making change. I flew to Ottawa, met with CIDA, who connected me with the NGO that did the study that proved that if you could provide buyers with the suppliers, that farmers would grow the legal crops. We pay $10 000 for a litre of rose oil, $8000 for a litre of orange, and it certainly can take on the illegal poppy crops.

What’s been fascinating for me as we’ve been doing this is that I came to find out that it goes against Islamic law to grow the poppy crop. So not only is it economically empowering for these families, and helping them to not be beholden to oppressors, but it’s giving them their dignity. And you know, I think that’s crucial, in terms of really making lasting change. I think that dignity is such a central part of economic empowerment and literacy. […] When you can achieve something like that, I think you’ve cracked the code on really making change and building peace and harmony. […]

I think it really follows the thesis of my book: that is, 3 levels of government and private sector together in harmony. As citizens, we tend to look at government and say “fix it, fix the world, fix issues of war and poverty.” I think that’s really incorrect, I think as citizens and businesses we need to be saying “how can we participate, we recognize we need to participate,” and we need to start really leading with government and harmony. And I think that’s why what we’re doing is exciting so many, and I started on my VISA card in my garage – I bought all the orange blossom oil they had and just took risks, went on ‘Dragon’s Den‘ and was terrified, but I did it because I realized the chance to tell millions of Canadians that we need to do trade with nations in strife and this has been, I believe, the missing piece. I mean, you see it too with Peace Dividend Trust: I want to see a cavalry of businesses lining up, excited to purchase from suppliers in countries like Haiti, Afghanistan, other nations.

Rose petals are distilled into precious oil

I think that’s crucial: more than the work we’re doing, I think we need to be communicators and I think our job at the end of the day, whether it’s PDT or CIDA, myself, or anyone that’s doing this kind of thing, our job is to communicate that it is more exciting to rebuild than to destroy. And I think we have to actually make rebuilding more exciting than destruction. If you look at the media, often what grabs the headlines is destruction. The spokespeople that are often the oppressors get interviewed, and those who are oppressed are silenced. And so, I really believe it’s our responsibility in business to be louder than the fanatics to ensure that logic is louder and that rebuilding is more exciting, and that means taking responsibility, doesn’t it? […]

PDT: Yes, exactly. And it really does depend on perspective, too – we were talking to Gayle Lemmon, who says that people don’t invest in victims, they invest in survivors, so you really do have to display the dignity in these entrepreneurs and in the people who are living in these areas of conflict.

BARB: That’s right, you’ve hit it on the nail. I think that the fact that even though I was raised in humble roots by Canadian standards, that’s more wealthy than most in the world, so I don’t take my public school education, my health care, or the chance to go to university which I took advantage of [for granted]. I don’t believe that we are more entitled to this than anyone else, so I don’t believe that I have more of a right to this than any girl in Afghanistan, or any child in Haiti. So it’s not about charity, because we don’t have the right to have any more. We must find ways to fix broken systems and fix broken models and it’s really healing to do that. It’s healing for us and it’s healing for others, and there’s something very satisfying in knowing that you’re making a difference but that others are able to realize that their communities can be stronger, their lives can be better, and at the end of the day I don’t believe anyone should be bullied. I think that we have to speak up. […]

Harvested rose blossoms

PDT: Exactly. I know some might think of perfumes and fragrances as a luxury item and say that we might need to counterbalance poverty by re-evaluating our consumerism. However, it’s a billion-dollar industry, so do you see any need to adjust that, or do you think it’s more important to offer ethical alternatives and to make sure that we can access things [in a way that] does provide dignity to people and does do some good in that purchase?

BARB: Well, it’s twofold, right: it’s dignity abroad and it’s dignity at home. You go to the beauty counter in a department store and […] you see a myth of beauty that is unattainable for real people, and I am tired of watching little girls look at that and think that that’s what they should grow up to be. I want little girls to grow up to be ambassadors and prime ministers, and I want them to be strong, and I want them to be brave, and I want them to build new models. So going to the beauty counter with a book on empowerment and philosophy and Adam Smith and capitalism, who would’ve thought? You will never see skinny models or movie stars in our advertising, because we prefer to give that money to the farmers [to model and promote]. I think it’s really crucial that when we are caring about others in other nations we are also caring about ourselves, and so that’s really the model that this is. Every time we help a farmer get off the illegal poppy crop, he’s not beholden to an oppressor and he’s growing the legal orange blossom and rose [and can] have his dignity and can pay for books and shoes for his children.

[…] And then back here at home, when someone buys the Afghanistan Orange Blossom or the Noble Rose of Afghanistan or soon the Vetiver of Haiti, they’re not bombarded with imagery of […] unrealistic ideals of beauty. They are being shown a book on community economic development, our story, how to empower themselves, and it’s a language that wasn’t given to women necessarily.

So it’s informing and empowering women here in North America – and by the way, it’s glorious, the essential oils from these countries are absolutely beautiful. And in terms of luxury items, this is truly fair trade. Which means the suppliers get fair market wages, but in true fair trade, you then don’t make it a leap over here in North America. It’s a very attainable price point, available at a department store chain: The Bay, the oldest department store in Canada. I was advised by many to make it very elite, to put it in little specialized boutiques, and I said “that’s not fair trade.” It has to truly be something that is [fair trade].

The other thing is that it’s a communications piece: we always honour the country in the name of the fragrance: so Afghanistan Orange Blossom, it flips the idea of what Afghanistan is. It showcases that these farmers grow some of the most exquisite oil in the world. Same thing with Vetiver of Haiti – our perfumers said the vetiver of Haiti is the most exquisite vetiver in the world. When I spoke in New York, a journalist interviewed me and she said “I didn’t think there was anything in Haiti.” I said “Yeah, there’s lots of suppliers selling products and they need buyers,” so I feel it’s partially my responsibility through the fragrance line to be communicating that businesses need to work through Peace Dividend Trust or CIDA or whichever group is in their country to connect with suppliers and buy from them. And it’s very easy to do, the process is very straightforward […] and you’ve got all these wonderful tools to build a relationship.

PDT: I like what you said about building that relationship; I think you’ve said a few other places that fragrance can be “a body of communication,” and it’s sort of a neat connection to remember the places and the people whenever you use it – especially because it is a fragrance – to sort of carry them with you, in a way.

BARB: That’s right, it’s very powerful. A lot of women will smell the Afghanistan Orange Blossom and they may be from Afghanistan or Lebanon and they’ll smell the orange and say, “Oh, this is my childhood!” I’m blown away by the stories people share with me because scent is so powerful, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a fragrance based with its base note of essential organic oils from countries of strife, so it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced. People are always amazed at it, but I love that it carries people there, especially for people who are from those communities. […]

Haiti; rebuilding after the earthquake

We get a lot of orders from soldiers from the U.S. and across Canada because they understand this is part of the mission in Afghanistan, that farmers are not beholden to oppressors, that we can find other ways to contribute to a vision of security and peace – and in fact we have to: it’s our responsibility. There’s a lot going on, including the shift out of the idea of the beauty industry being kind of superficial and giving it some real substance, whether it’s the essential oil that’s giving it substance or the story, it’s definitely shifting the industry. I would love to see more businesses finding ways to take a product that North Americans would have bought anyway and convert it into something that’s actually a little more meaningful and has more value-based purpose, and I think there’s a lot of room for the market to change and to see more kinds of things like what we’re doing crop up.

PDT: To transform all the things that we use into something that has a greater purpose – I think that’s a really fantastic goal. One last question: in the book you wrote, The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, I really love the idea of ‘wonder’ as a central principle. You’ve mentioned other ones – dignity, courage – but I really like that idea of wonder. I think wonderment and imagination are often sort of undervalued or not necessarily considered conducive to business, so I was wondering how that was important to you in this venture in particular.

BARB: Oh yeah! I love that you recognized that, by the way; that’s very important to me. I think that wonder is the most important virtue: it’s where all philosophy begins, the minute you wonder “I wonder what’s going to happen today, I wonder who I’m going to meet, I wonder what could happen if I tried this” as opposed to judgment or cynicism, which the world is filled with. I think that wonder is like a muscle, you’ve got to rip it, it’s daily practice, daily practice, to continue to wonder and not judge, and I think it starts with ourselves. I think the most important thing is to not judge ourselves, I don’t judge myself, I don’t label myself – I might discuss the fact that I was raised in poverty so that people can understand my roots and why it’s important to me, to share – but I don’t believe I have any less of a right to come to the banquet or to speak than anyone else. […]

This is the other thing: I’m working with people that are coming from a place of wonder, and people who are living in places that are filled with strife and yet these people are open and excited and keen and really, I think, some of the most beautiful businesspeople I’ve ever worked with in my life, who are coming from, you know, some of the most strife-ridden countries. […] I’m getting to see communities through a whole new lens, because they too are in that state of wonder. I think it fades as we get older, and I think it takes a real skill to remain in a state of wonder at all times and not to judge. And the minute we judge ourselves or judge other anyone else or a community, we are doomed to fail. Guaranteed. I do not believe you can possibly work with people if you’re judging them and, well, it just can’t work. Wonder is the root of the success in doing anything that’s not been done before or anything that’s a little different. […] And so it’s very important for us [if] we want to make change, to strip away the clutter and the opinion and the fear and focus solely on that state of wonder [and what] would happen, and just start. You just start, right. You don’t get overwhelmed, just begin. And it works.

PDT: That’s wonderful, it’s very inspiring as well. So what’s next, then? I know you’re launching the perfume from Haiti and you’re launching nation-wide this year as well. Are there any other locations or scents or ventures you’d like to try in the future?

BARB: Well, we’re launching ‘Vetiver of Haiti’ in 91 Bay stores on International Day of Peace at the Rideau Centre [in Ottawa]. I’ve got some beautiful grapefruit oil from Israel and I’m working with the Minister of Housing for Palestine – I would like to do a Middle East collection so that you can actually mix the oils yourself; that way we don’t have to wait for permission to build peace, […] and again the whole example of our responsibility to be louder than destruction. It’s really important for us to get the headlines and show that rebuilding is possible and that we have to – there’s no alternative. What’s the alternative? To stay in a state of disarray is not a choice. That’s one of the future lines – and then, a friend of mine is from Korea and I’m very interested in bringing oils from the North and South and merging them into one fragrance. So, just going around the world! Sadly there’s no shortage of countries in strife, so if we can keep shining light on these countries and give people in communities faith that people in North America love them and care about them and honour them then I think it does a lot.

PDT: Exactly. This sort of changing and making that a bigger part of our habits and our consciousness, connecting Canadians to things like that is so, so important.

BARB: Thank you, I love it. I love the people I’m communicating with and connecting with and I just feel like I’m becoming a better person from these people that are teaching me, whether it’s Gilbert in Haiti or Abdullah in Afghanistan. I feel very blessed and I want others to experience this kind of journey too, because it’s just –  it’s a very fulfilling living. I think that a lot of Canadians, North Americans, are struggling with fulfilment, you know, you really see that people are trying to find joy and fulfilment through stuff, and that’s never going to be the way. Joy and fulfilment only comes from doing something meaningful and obviously stretching out of your comfort zone a little bit, so I’d like to see more people doing that, and being happy, right? Being satisfied, being joyful, and feeling like they’re living with purpose – it’s one short life and I can’t imagine wasting a minute of it.

PDT: Exactly; that’s wonderful. Thank you so much for your time and the opportunity to talk to you.

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