x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Perfumer with a nose for sniffing out help for the poor

A Canadian entrepreneur and businesswoman uses her company to help farmers in poor and war-torn countries such as Afghanistan make a legal living. And her product? Perfume.

Canadian social entrepreneur Barb Stegemann encouraged Afghan farmers to give up growing illegal poppy crops. Farshad Usyan / AFP
Canadian social entrepreneur Barb Stegemann encouraged Afghan farmers to give up growing illegal poppy crops. Farshad Usyan / AFP

There are not many chief executives who pepper their conversation with Plato, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius or Michaelangelo within five minutes of meeting you.

But Barb Stegemann is not your average chief executive, nor even your average entrepreneur.

She is a whirlwind. A hearing-impaired Canadian social entrepreneur who in just three years has managed to put US$120,000 into the pockets of Afghanistan farmers, making it worth their while to give up growing illegal poppy crops.

She does not believe in charity, nor really in philanthropy. But she does believe in the power of business and economics to change the world and she wants women in all countries to use their buying power to improve the lives of those rebuilding their countries in Afghanistan, Haiti and the Middle East.

And her plan to do that is through perfume.

Ms Stegemann has recently started selling her award-winning fragrances in Selfridges, one of London’s most stylish department stores, and is finding a strong following.

Launched less than three years ago from her home in Nova Scotia, Canada, her perfumes, The 7 Virtues fragrance collection, feature scents made with essential oils that she buys from war-torn or disaster-hit nations.

She began by creating the Afghanistan Orange Blossom with orange blossoms harvested by Afghan farmers. She went on to make the Noble Rose of Afghanistan, with oil made from rose petals that are transported down the world’s most dangerous highway from Jalalabad to Kabul. After visiting Haiti with the former US president Bill Clinton, she has produced a scent called Vetiver of Haiti and has one called Middle East Peace – made from oroblanco, or sweetie, grapefruit oil from Israel in harmony with lime and basil oils from Iran.

But Ms Stegemann never really planned to make perfume. On 4 March 2006 her friend Captain Trevor Greene, who was serving in the Canadian forces in Afghanistan, was almost fatally injured.

“My best friend and mentor was discussing how to bring health care and water to the village and a man who did not want to see his community have free thought or will axed him in the head,” she says.

It was thought unlikely Capt Greene would survive but Ms Stegemann was at his bedside nursing him through and she promised him she would take on his mission. Although wheelchair bound, Capt Greene is now married and has a baby boy.

“Then I realised that I don’t have a way [to continue his work],” Ms Stegemann says.

“This patriarchy [in Afghanistan] isn’t built for me as a woman. But then I thought, ‘women own the buying power and women own the voting power’.”

The first step in her journey to founding her company was writing a best-selling book – a cross between a philosophy primer and a self-help guide. It’s now in its fifth edition.

It was a chance reading of an online article about Abdullah Arsala, the owner of the Gulestan Essential Oils distillery in Jalalabad, Afghanistan that led to her “light-bulb” moment.

Mr Arsala was trying to encourage local farmers to stop growing illegal poppies in favour of orange blossom and roses. The idea for a scent came to her.

Without going to Afghanistan she got in touch with Rory Stewart, now a Conservative MP in the United Kingdom, and through the Turquoise Mountain charity, which he used to run, she made contact with Mr Arsala, who has become her main supplier of essential oils.

“All he had was one cup of orange oil, I bought it for $2,000 on my credit card and found a perfumer and we launched 1,000 bottles of perfume on International Women’s day 2010,” Ms Stegemann says.

Two months later, persuaded by friends, she was pitching on the Canadian version of Dragon’s Den.

She chose W Brett Wilson as her investor from the show, a well-known philanthropist in Canada, because he offered mentoring and investment.

Later she won the accolade of top game changer in the history of CBC’s Dragon’s Den.

Although the perfume is now sold in the chain of high-end UK department stores Selfridges – fighting for space amongst the huge French and US designer brands – as well as Lord & Taylor in New York and in 90 Hudson’s Bay department stores across Canada, it is still a tiny cottage industry.

Ms Stegemann’s son Victor, 18, is helping her set up the business in Europe and her husband Mike, who owns a Volkswagen dealership, oversees production. At most, only about nine people work in the Canadian operation.

The business is making money, with more than a million dollars in sales, but Ms Stegemann pumps all her profits back into the business. She takes no salary but pays herself through speaker fees, at linked events where between 70 and 150 perfume bottles can be sold.

“I pump it all back into production because I am up against Chanel and Estée Lauder. This shouldn’t even exist,” she says of her business.

Asked if her aim is one day to sell out to one of the major perfume houses, her answer is interesting.

“When I went to Haiti [on an agricultural trade mission with the Clinton Foundation] I met some buyers of essential oils from France, who have real buying power. And they had heard of us, so I connected them with Abdullah.

“People said: ‘Aren’t you scared that others are going to go and do this and take your idea?’ But you know what, when that happens, it’s a good day because I’m all alone carrying the torch here,” she says.

Now with the French buyers queuing up to take Abdullah’s products, the Afghan growers have been boosted in a way that Ms Stegemann could never have imagined.

In Canada, powerful scents are banned from the workplace so 7 Virtues fragrances, which are essential oils blended with water and are more subtle than other perfumes, have a lot of appeal.

“We have created a scent that as a product no one can replicate easily. There are no nasty chemicals and we have really become the work-place scent.

The product has become the best-selling scent on Air Canada flights, after Ms Stegemann wrote to the airline’s president to lobby him to include it in the carrier’s retail offerings. This month it begins selling on American Airlines and Ms Stegemann is in talks with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic airline.

“We have to recognise that business has this completely untapped power to change the world. It’s not philanthropy buying from nations in strife. We’re equal, we’re peers,” she says.

Ms Stegemann’s own background has clearly contributed to both her entrepreneurial zeal and her desire to help people.

She was raised on welfare and turned up to college with “just five bucks in her pocket and no sheets”.

Half-Catholic (from her mother) and half Jewish (her father was a Romanian Jewish refugee to Canada), she has no time for old enmities. She says she has more in common with her Muslim suppliers, through their shared ideals and love of Rumi’s poetry, than with many women in her home neighbourhood.

Her ambition in youth was to join the army, with her friend Capt Greene “because I was so grateful for my freedom” but she her hearing impairment prevented her on medical grounds. She spent her 20s, after her completing her first degree, flying as a business-class air hostess and having two children, the younger of whom, Ella, is now 14.

“I never saw [being an air hostess] as pouring coffee. Every day I would think, ‘who am I going to meet today?’, she says.

“It was like a flying boardroom. I would meet people I would never have met on the ground and I would learn from them.”

At 30 she took a second degree, in journalism, and then set up a communications business that worked extensively with municipal government.

Now she is 44, happy and wiser, she says, but still young enough to devote herself completely to her growing business.

Ms Stegemann is dynamic, loud and persuasive but also charmingly modest. Her success with the perfume she puts down to timing and consumer readiness.

“Today’s consumer is really enlightened now,” she says. “The consumer is driving this. I wake up to orders online every morning from people who haven’t even smelled it.”

But it is her energy and dedication that is giving hope to poor farmers in countries such as Afghanistan and Haiti and, very soon, Rwanda.

“Apathy is the enemy,” Ms Stegemann says.

“My job at the end of the day is to make rebuilding sexier than destruction.”

business@thenational.ae