Canadian Barbara Stegemann never intended to become a parfumier, nor a retail activist , but her company combined to make her both, creating perfume from the chaos of war. Stegemann went to the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She studied sociology. Her best friend was Trevor Greene, a student in journalism. After they graduated, Greene joined the Canadian Forces and was deployed to Afghanistan. In 2006 he was injured in service. This life-changing event shaped both his and his college buddy’s futures.
Seeing the extent of Trevor’s injury and the long and painful lengths he would have to go through to regain his powers, Barabara Stegemann was humbled. She knew she did not have it in her to become a soldier or a world leader, but she determined there must be something she could do to support the people of Afghanistan whom her friend had bravely defended. His mission had been to restore peace and she wanted to continue it, whatever way she could find. It had been during a shura, the name for a peaceful discussion, with village elders about provision of health care and clean water, that Trevor had been struck in the back of a head with an axe. He had removed his helmet as a mark of respect.
While Trevor began his long road to recovery in a Vancouver Hospital, Barbara began her researches. As he healed from his head injury, she first self-published a book The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen. The title of the book became the name of her next big idea. After reading online about Abdullah Arsala, founder of Gulestan Essential Oils in Jalalabad, she saw there was a way to persuade Afghan farmers not to grow poppies for opium, but to grow orange blossoms and roses instead. She needed to get in touch with Arsala.
The Canadian International Development Agency put her in touch with Rory Stewart who runs Turquoise Mountain, an NGO dedicated to the rebuilding of traditional industry in Afghanistan. Stewart knew Arsala and soon Stegmann had bought $2,000 worth of orange blossom oil from him on her Visa card. Little did she know, but at that point in time, Abdullah Arsala was on the brink of giving up. Her order inspired him to continue and he now has many buyers. She then found someone who could distil perfume, Suzanne Lang in Toronto. After nine months, they had a product. The first fragrance from 7 Virtues perfumes, the Afghanistan Orange Blossom. It began to sell locally and online.
To move up a league, Stegemann needed more investment, and so she went onto Dragon’s Den. Without buying more oil, she couldn’t make enough to approach a department store, which was the next logical move for her perfume sales. Three of the five dragons in the TV show wanted to jump at her offer. She revealed she had already made sales of $30,000 in just two months of retailing. One of the dragon investors was W.Brett Wilson, a military fundraiser, who offered mentorship as well as money, so she chose him. After one cold call to the Hudson’s Bay store, the 7 Virtues were launched across Canada.
Since those fortuitous beginnings, Stegemann has gone on to expand the range. She now has added Noble Rose of Afghanistan, which uses rose petals sourced from Arsala’s former poppy farmers. After the disaster in Haiti she turned attention there and bought vetiver oil to make Vetiver of Haiti perfume and this was launched in 2011. Middle East Peace, another new line, combines Israeli grapefruit oil with basil and lime from Iran. Next week, Patchouli of Rwanda will join the 7 Virtues range.
Twenty years after the most dreadful genocide, her trade-not-aid policy has gone into Rwanda to work with farmers and growers in the country and make a positive difference to help rebuild shattered lives.
As well as the original factory run by Suzanne Lang, Stegemann has opened another, run by her eldest son Victor where another nine staff are employed. In Jalalabad the factory employs 15 workers as well as 1,500 seasonal pickers. Demand shows no sign of slowing down, especially after a big order from prime London showcase store, Selfridges. Although Barbara Stegemann had realized herself that the retail power of women was enormous and that their buying habits could make an impact and a positive difference for areas damaged by strife, it was Alannah Weston, Creative Director of Selfridges, who first called her a “retail activist.” She likes the term. Making products can change the world.
One of the many things destroyed by war and conflict is the ability of communities to help themselves. To bring back education and health the people need a means of stable income. If the only choice they had was to grow poppies in Afghanistan and unwittingly feed the world’s heroin habit, then that’s what they would have to do. But given a choice, and paid the same price or better, they would grow other flowers.
Stegmann knows about poverty as she was brought up poor by her single mother, and then struggled for years herself, working as a flight attendant and raising two kids alone. To lift others out of poverty and debt is a passion for her. She is now happily married, Captain Trevor Greene was Man of Honor at the wedding; and running her successful ethical business from which she draws no salary and ploughs back all profits. By buying her perfumes, she enthuses, women can empower other families to buy books and shoes for their children.
There is also a happy ending for Trevor Greene who has recovered all his mental faculties and is married with a baby son, Noah. It has all turned out to make perfect scents.
By Kate Henderson