Barbara Stegemann’s entrepreneurial vision was formed after her best friend—a soldier—was severely wounded in Afghanistan. Understanding that supporting Afghanistan’s economy was a key to building stability for its people, Stegemann created The 7 Virtues Beauty—a company that sources organic oils from countries experiencing turmoil (such as Afghanistan, Haiti and the Middle East) to encourage change and to reverse the effects of war and poverty. institute B, an entrepreneur accelerator for businesses that put profit and societal value on equal footing, had the chance to speak with Barbara recently about her career and company:
institute B: A friend of yours was severely wounded in Afghanistan while serving in Canada’s armed services. Why did this experience compel you to improve the lives of the people of Afghanistan?
Barb Stegemann: When my best friend, Captain Trevor Greene was wounded serving in Afghanistan in the Canadian Armed Forces, I wanted to support his mission while he healed. I realized I did not have a way, so I created a new way. I buy the legal essential oils from farmers there so they have an alternative to the illegal poppy crop. This is my way of building peace.
You don’t believe in charity, rather in empowerment. How could your company revolutionize your particular industry?
I was raised in humble roots and I believe we must invite people to the banquet and include them in decision making. I find charity has good intentions but it continues to keep the impoverished outside of the decision making. When we empower others they are included through economic development and it also gives us our dignity. We pay fair market value for our essential oils and we are now seeing others buying oils from nations rebuilding, so we are happy we have begun to bring substance to the beauty industry in a meaningful way.
How have your life experiences shaped your core values and the mission of 7 Virtues?
Studying philosophy in university and being raised in a community that founded the Cody Institute which helps farmers in nations rebuilding really shaped me from a young age and throughout my life as a student.
How do you maximize the social impact of 7 Virtues while maintaining a profitable business?
Well this business model ensures everyone makes a little bit of money. So we don’t make all of the money like traditional beauty industry companies. And perhaps it means a slower growth strategy, but I am willing to do that to do it right. To ensure we are leaving a better foot print than we found is our priority. There’s no rush to the finish line here. It’s what are we doing along the way? How are we improving the lives of others and still running our company. We have found that balance that works for us.
You consider yourself to be a retail activist. Can you explain?
Yes I am a retail activist. We flex our buying power to empower others. Then we communicate that on the floor to our consumers.
As your company grows, how will you maintain a corporate culture that focuses on improving communities?
We continue to work with embassies and trade commissioners in nations rebuilding. There is no shortage of nations that need us. Right now we are working with the Rwanda High Commission to try and bring their essential oils to our line and help farmers living with HIV.
You have added Haiti and Iran to the list of countries you are working in. What challenges do you face working with suppliers in these countries?
You have trade embargoes. You have risky supply chains with cholera outbreaks and elections and you work around it all. You buy more oils than you need so that you are ok should the barriers slow things down. You buy more oils than you need to support your suppliers.
What can 7 Virtues teach other entrepreneurs about making a positive impact?
Follow your gut. Whatever injustice you see in the world or issue that bothers you, go and do something positive about it. Business is the best vehicle to make change in the world.
You are responsible for your company’s success, culture, brand, results and limitations. How do you motivate your team to strive for audacious goals with you along this journey?
The team is lean. It’s a new company. We are small so the group is very clear and connected to me at all times. We are close to our investor as well, W. Brett Wilson who I met on Dragons’ Den. He is an exceptional mentor and has a great deal of time for me. So we are a hard working, committed team of people who care deeply about the world and our customers connect with that.
How would you like people to remember you and your company? What will your legacy be?
It’s all about being present. What are we doing right now, is building a better world. That’s all that matters. I hear from customers all of the time how grateful they are that they can be a part of change with us. Engaging citizens in new ways to be the change is really very rewarding.
How did being on Dragon’s Den impact your business?
Dragons’ Den was a big game changer. Finding my dream mentor in W. Brett Wilson as a partner exposed me to new networks and audiences. This could not have been possible without him. Mentorship is key. And he’s fun. He can take challenging world issues and bring joy to the change we make. It’s so motivating. He also connected me with his speakers’ bureau and now I am booked to speak across Canada and the USA so it helps me reach new markets.
The show itself was incredible because we got to reach millions of people with our message of doing trade with nations rebuilding. The producers and the Dragons were all so incredible.
Winning top Game Changer and receiving a Ford Fusion car for our work caught me by surprise. I cried on that episode! So I made them cry when I went on the show. Then they made me cry.
When we think about the world, we often do get upset, I cry sometimes, and then I dry my eyes and do something about it. I think that’s what it’s all about.