Catching up with Halifax entrepreneur Barb Stegemann

The 7 Virtues CEO reflects on her Dragons' Den pitch, post-show success and why Kevin O'Leary's rejection was a huge mistake

Supplied photo
Barb Stegemann, founder of The 7 Virtues, a Halifax-based fragrance company Supplied photo

Make perfume not war. That’s the motto behind Barb Stegemann’s fragrance company, The 7 Virtues. Her company sources fair-market essential oils from war-torn nations and is a soaring success — thanks in part to her emotional investment pitch on CBC’s Dragons’ Den nearly six years ago.

Three Dragons sought to partner and mentor Stegemann on the show, minus one current Conservative leadership candidate: Kevin O’Leary.

In a twist of fate, Stegemann found herself opening for O’Leary at a speaking engagement.

“People thought we were going to duke it out,” reflects Stegemann.

Any potential drama was quickly diffused as O’Leary made a backstage confession to the Nova Scotia-based businesswoman: “I really missed the boat.”

Barb Stegemann's memorable pitch on Dragons' Den lured three Dragons to her fragrance company
   Barb Stegemann’s memorable pitch on Dragons’ Den lured three Dragons to her fragrance company Screen capture

Stegemann is part of a growing number of social entrepreneurs — companies whose goal is to do social good and turn a profit. The company’s sourcing of essential oils from Haiti, Rwanda, Ghana, India and Afghanistan has been a powerful weapon for peace.

In Afghanistan, farmers who grow poppies for heroin production are at risk of having their daughters taken by the Taliban if the crops fail.

“But if that farmer is growing legal rose or orange, then nobody can take their child,” Stegemann says.

“We’re going to buy makeup, lipstick and moisturizer anyway, so why wouldn’t we ensure that whatever it is we’re buying is sourcing something that can contribute to other people’s lives and nations rebuilding?”

An Afghanistan farmer sourcing essential oils for Halifax-based The 7 Virtues
   An Afghani worker sourcing essential oils for Halifax-based The 7 Virtues Supplied publicity photo

On a recent volunteer trip to Haiti, Stegemann was shocked to learn just how much of an obstacle corruption is to nations rebuilding. Just a day before she arrived, a Norwegian Aid Boat was turned away by Haitian officials demanding bribes that the ship couldn’t pay.

“I’m still livid,” says Stegemann. “All of the billions that went into Haiti could have fixed it, and it’s still a mess.”

The key, she says, to ending corruption is economic empowerment.

“That’s where the old charity model turns a blind eye… Did [the money] really empower them?”

Passionate about social enterprise, Stegemann doesn’t believe in charity. “For me, as an entrepreneur, I would far rather do fair trade and invest in people. There’s so much dignity lost when you’re dependent upon charity.”

Raised by a single mother on social assistance in rural Nova Scotia, Stegemann knows this first-hand.

Barb Stegemann, founder of The 7 Virtues, a Halifax-based fragrance company
   Barb Stegemann is the first woman from Atlantic Canada to have successfully pitched and landed a venture capital deal on CBC’s Dragons’ Den Supplied photo

“People used to drop off the Christmas hamper and drive away from our trailer,” she recalls. “My sister and I didn’t want to be given a handout. We just wanted to be invited to the banquet.”

The seeds of Stegemann’s socially-conscious company grew out of tragedy. Her close friend, Captain Trevor Greene was brutally attacked during a mission in Afghanistan, and Stegemann promised him that she would do something to help the country.

Stegemann was working as a communications manager in 2009 when she read about Afghanistan supplier, Abdullah Arsala, who was struggling to provide legal crops for his farmers.

“After I’d read about Abdullah, I met with [the Canadian International Development Agency] in Ottawa and said, ‘Help me find him.’”

Using the last $2,000 on her Visa, Stegemann purchased organic oil made from Arsala’s crop and worked with a Toronto perfumer to launch the first fragrance: Afghanistan Orange Blossom.

She hit her break-even analysis in four weeks, and the initial run of 1,000 bottles sold out within two months.

When it comes to the business model’s bottom-line, Stegemann puts it bluntly: “Nobody makes all of the money.”

But does that make her business partner, former Dragon, W. Brett Wilson nervous?

W. Brett WIlson
   W. Brett Wilson made a fortune as an energy industry investor. He was a deal maker on CBC’s Dragons’ Den during seasons three to five. Supplied photo

“He’s a billionaire. He doesn’t care.” Stegemann confides of Wilson, who has remained a steadfast investor and business mentor. “But he does want to see the company grow. The idea that nobody makes all the money is the philosophy of people who are agents of social change.”

Stegemann, whose story was chronicled in the documentary, Perfume War which premiered at the 2016 Atlantic Film Festival encourages more social enterprise entrepreneurs to join her in retail activism.

“I’d love to have my products placed in a store beside other products that source. I’d love to one day be in a retail section solely like that.”

Another future plan for Stegemann includes speaking engagements with her friend and inspiration, Captain Greene. Since the attack, he has learned to walk again, gotten married, and welcomed a new son into the world.

The 7 Virtues fragrances include Afghanistan Orange Blossom and Patchouli of Rwanda
   The 7 Virtues fragrances include Afghanistan Orange Blossom and Patchouli of Rwanda Supplied photo

Looking back on the show that started it all, how does Stegemann now feel about O’Leary’s fire breathing and subsequent slaying?

“He was a venture capitalist speaking from an experience of software,” she reflects.

“I think the message there, for any woman, is that we’ll have men in positions of authority tell us what doesn’t work; and we have to actually step back and reflect on, ‘Well, who is this person? What is their background?’”

To sum it up, Stegemann borrows a quote from stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius: “The opinion of ten thousand men is of no value if none of them know anything about the subject.”

The 7 Virtues products are sold nationwide at all Hudson’s Bay locations