Barb Stegemann is a presence.
Cliché has it that some people have the power to ‘light up a room’ with their personalities, one can’t help but think that if Barb were connected to the power grid she’d produce enough electrical energy to keep a decent sized city glowing well into the night.
Tall, athletic and casually glamorous, Barb seems like a body in perpetual motion: a restless and inquisitive soul forever on the search for new experience and outlets.
When we meet for the second time at a café in London’s Selfridges department store, she is in the midst of saying farewell to a writer from The Telegraph, a British newspaper that will carry an interview with her to coincide with the launch of her perfume range The 7 Virtues at the mammoth store later in the year.
Barb embraces the young woman like an old friend before saying goodbye, slightly British and coy the journalist retreats, smiling, happy, perhaps a little overwhelmed.
She has been ‘Barbed’.
It’s a feeling I recognise all too well. The first time I encountered Barb face to face was in her capacity as an Honorary Colonel for the Royal Canadian Air Force. We had met on line and she invited me to hear her address an event to promote Anglo-Canadian trade.
She was billed as the ‘inspirational’ speaker, as so many decidedly uninspiring individuals often are. Barb though met and exceeded her billing. She was truly inspiring, engaging and motivating, setting out the story of how she came to be involved in the perfume industry and birth of The 7 Virtues.
It’s a story she refers to today “Of course you know how important this is to me. You know the reasons why I’m doing all of this.”
The catalyst for The 7 Virtues was a traumatic, near tragic, event.
Her best friend, a member of the Canadian military, was working to build community relations in Afghanistan, “fighting the battle to win hearts and minds” as Barb puts it, when he was attacked by a radicalised sixteen year old boy at a Shura, an Afghan version of a town hall meeting.
He suffered an axe wound to the head, the second intended blow would certainly have killed him had it not been prevented by the other Afghans he was meeting with.
‘It very nearly did kill him. It was touch and go for a long time.’
There followed a year of frequent visits to the hospital, providing support to Captain Green and his family.
It was during this time that the idea for The 7 Virtues formed, “I was determined that out of this terrible event something good should come. Something that marked the sacrifice of my friend and the other Canadians and international forces working in Afghanistan and, of course, benefited the Afghan people themselves”.
That idea was for a new kind of social enterprise a ‘not just for profit’ company that would take the natural resources of the Afghan people and make them available to Western consumers in an accessible form. So the essential oils of rose and orange blossom, both of which improbably flourish in the mountainous country’s terrain and are, as Barb comments, “deep and complex like people” would become a range of perfumes.
Barb is no dewy-eyed Pollyanna though and knew that “We had to pay a premium for the product if we were to persuade people away from the poppies”. Cultivation of the flowers from which opium and in turn heroin is produced is still a mainstay of the Afghan economy.
Fixing a determined stare on me, one I sense might have been deployed in many a negotiation, Barb becomes deadly serious “These people have nothing. Growing poppies pays multiples of what other crops do. It’s simple economics when you have families to feed, children to clothe”.
To realise the dream of trading ethically to put it bluntly, as Barb characteristically does “We needed money. Fast!”
So began the next chapter of The 7 Virtues story and the one which has perhaps garnered her the greatest public recognition in her native Canada.
Of her appearance on ‘Dragon’s Den’, the Canadian version of the BBC tv series in which budding entrepreneurs pitch ideas to a panel of unforgiving business ‘experts’ in the hope of securing their personal investment, Barb is, as ever, disarmingly straightforward.
“I had to do it. There was no other option, no other funding. You know I really went out and prepared for that pitch. I even ran it passed other potential funders who were enthusiastic, generous with their time and their advice but just wouldn’t or couldn’t come up with the cash.”
The Dragons’ did though, and Barb found herself in the unusual position of having to choose between a clutch of investors all willing to buy into her dream.
This is where Barb’s inner steeliness came to the fore. Apparently unflustered by her new position of strength she turned tables on the Dragons setting them a challenge. Which of them would be the most forthcoming not only with their money but their time, business expertise and connections?
“I wanted more than a silent investor, I wanted a true partner, a mentor.”
And this is what she has found in her relationship with her Dragon, W. Brett Wilson (left), who she says has become a ‘true friend and a great champion of the brand’.
We touch on some of the troubles that have beset winners of other business-themed television shows, on the ongoing and very public employment case then being pursued by a past winner of Britain’s edition of ‘The Apprentice’ against her mentor and employer Lord Sugar (a case that Sugar will ultimately win).
Barb though has nothing negative to recount on her experience “…it has been entirely positive, within hours Brett was opening doors for us, getting us into places and help forge deals that could have taken forever otherwise, if they’d happened at all”. And then, more quietly “…it’s as much about what you put in, what you ask for as what your mentor can do for you, it’s a two way – an organic – thing”.
I suspect that much of the truth lies in this statement, it’s Barb’s infectious enthusiasm, her determination and abiding sense of mission that has made this happen as much as any reality television fame and external investment. It might have taken longer, but I suspect The 7 Virtues’ success would always have happened with Barb at the helm.
And that success has been truly dramatic.
The company’s brief has expanded from Afghanistan to encompass other war zones and places of conflict, so in addition to ‘Noble Rose of Afghanistan’ and ‘Afghan Orange Blossom’, they now also have the wonderful ‘Vetiver of Haiti’ and ‘Middle East Peace’ a light, crisply refreshing citrus blend that sources its ingredients from Israel and Iran.
“By working on [the perfume] Middle East Peace, we really were giving peace a chance. Forging relationships between suppliers in very different parts of the world. Allowing them to be people. The result is fantastic, our most popular fragrance.”
“It’s a very positive story, but then I gravitate towards positive stories.”
As is The 7 Virtues own tale, it’s grown to become the best-selling fragrance line on board Air Canada’s fleet, is available across the nation at Canada’s The Bay chain of department stores, where it’s competing with the big boys, finishing once as high as sixth in terms of brand sales.
“Yep, and all that with no marketing budget, no celebrities, no big ads… we do things differently!”
Another example of doing things differently I remark is the Custom Blend Box, which launches on United Nation’s International Day of Peace, the 21st of September, today in fact. It actually invites consumers to layer The 7 Virtues scents, something some of the other established perfume producers would never dream of doing.
Barb laughs uproariously, her head craning back, her eyes flashing, “Really? Is that against the rules?” Evidently delighted she goes on “That’s me, the rule breaker.”
“But you know, the idea actually came from the ground up. It was suggested to us by the people who sell our products at The Bay. They came back to us to tell us they loved the individual fragrances but that together they were just magic and that the customers were crazy for some of the mixes.”
“And you know they were right! I love the vetiver, but have you tried it with Middle East Peace? It’s a totally different fragrance, it rocks!”
So the Custom Blend Box seemed like a natural way to give the customers what they wanted.
I’m reminded here of perhaps the greatest saleswoman the fragrance and beauty industry has ever seen, Estee Lauder, she too had an unerring sense of what the public wanted, the humility to listen to her sales staff and the flexibility to change her product range to meet the needs and desires of customers. Not bad footsteps to follow in.
I wonder if The 7 Virtues would go as far as changing the actual scents if that’s what the customers wanted.
“Oh, we’ve already done that. Messages got through that customers wanted the rose note to come more to front in Noble Rose and that though people loved the vetiver it could be too smoky. So I worked with our perfumeur to make it happen. A little less carnation in Afghan Rose and more amber less, incense in Vetiver of Haiti. And I’m so pleased with the results, The vetiver is so much softer, I love it!”
Another rule broken I laugh, perfume houses are never happy to talk about reformulation, scarcely ever admit to it. Barb’s eyes widen again, that same gently iconoclastic glee flushes her face.
“One thing I’ve learnt is that up to the age of 40 you’re a rule breaker, after 40 you’re a game-changer. What’s the difference? Mainly age and how others perceive you. But I like to think that game changers break the rules that need to be broken.”
Other dictats that Barb can do without include having sales assistants spraying unsuspecting customers as they go passed “I want people to try our products because they want to, not have them forced on them” and trading internationally without all the travel.
“When people first heard about our work in Afghanistan they would say ‘Oh my God you’re so brave! Afghanistan, isn’t it incredibly dangerous?’ But I’ve never been to Afghanistan. We live in such a connected world today that it’s not necessary for me to travel to trade with people.”
Yes, the internet has been a major factor in allowing The 7 Virtues to have a global footprint without the carbon footprint to match, but Barb is equally enthusiastic about the role of government agencies and non governmental organisations that have done much of the enabling work that has allowed her venture to prosper.
“You know our governments and NGOs are investing huge amounts of money and doing the most fantastic work to encourage economic development and help producers in countries all over the world. It’s time for business to step up to the plate, because government can’t do this alone. What people in places like Afghanistan need now are business opportunities. They want to trade, to make money, for their communities to prosper. The want the same as people everywhere.”
She goes on to talk eloquently about how easy it was to find producers and source suppliers in some of the most infamous places on Earth. Thanks to the work of other bodies, including buildingmarkets.org The 7 Virtues was able to locate quality assured producers and form relationships with them quickly. “Building on the work of others and demonstrating their success through our own”.
They are relationships that have lasted, “We’re still working with all our original suppliers”, though the size of orders may change and new suppliers may be added to the list, Barb feels it’s important to show that trade provides “a sustainable and long term solution to poverty”.
Real success will come though when “What we do becomes boring, because everyone is doing it.”
Barb’s vision, set out in her best-selling book, is of mutually beneficial trade building a more equitable and prosperous world. She has strong views too on the role of women in constructing that future, “Women are the only natural majority, and we make up the vast majority of the world’s active consumers. If we could harness that collective spending power, just think of the change we could make happen.”
It’s a big manifesto, part of what her buyer at Selfridges has dubbed ‘retail activism’ a term that Barb has taken to heart. “I’d never heard that phrase before, but it sums up what we do ‘Retail Activism’, I like it.”
The Selfridge’s launch, then some point in the future, now in full flow (go and catch them all this weekend at the Oxford Street store if you’re in London, I’m assured ‘the stand rocks’) is occupying Barb’s mind as is her son’s possible upcoming move to London.
She switches between the two topics and host of others with undimmed enthusiasm, all of which makes her great company and an entrancing conversationalist. But what, I wonder, is she like to work with? How does she get along with her perfumeur?
The trademark laugh bursts forth again “That poor woman! Oh, I mean we get on great… now. But I think I must have been the most demanding client ever. I mean she works for major company’s and has her own brand and yet here I was, this little two-bit operation and yet I’m sure I was calling her more than all her other partners combined… you can imagine.”
And yes, I can, working with Barb must be an exhilarating, exhausting, but very, very rewarding experience.
On rewards, she talks about the benefits that a regular income has brought to one of the Afghan communities that she works with. The number of lives that have been changed by their work. Then goes on to recount a typically rebellious tale.
“But the sad thing was they weren’t able to see the end result of their work. Perfume is still banned in Afghanistan, like lots of luxuries or ‘frivolous’ things it’s not permitted under the country’s Islamic laws, so we can’t get an export license to send our fragrances back to where they came from. But via a friendly [unnamed] diplomat, we got some bottles through under the cover of diplomatic baggage and our partners could finally see where their product ended up. It was such a great moment.”
Talking about the quality of the raw materials that come from her suppliers, Barb is even more passionate than usual “What they produce is of the highest quality. Simply some of the best essential oils in the world. Working with these people is not a compromise. They have great – the best – stuff to sell. At the end of the day we are a business and we have to get the best for our customer and I’m convinced that’s what we’re doing, we’re just doing good at the same time.”
It’s a mantra that Barb is now bringing back home to Canada, she tells me with evident satisfaction that she has been able to move production of The 7 Virtues to her home province of Nova Scotia, where she herself has returned to live after many years in British Columbia.
“You know, I come from very humble beginnings, so I’m so pleased to be able to bring something back to where I come from. It’s not huge, but it’s a start.”
This encapsulates Barb, she is a woman not about empty words or easy gestures, but practical steps that deliver positive outcomes.
She lives in the real world.
Walking through the vast sales rooms of Selfridges we talk excitedly about where the launch might happen, of possible locations for the stand. Would it be better by the escalators at the centre of the Perfume Hall? Or away from the mega brands, cutting its own dash somewhere unlikely, in the book department perhaps?
“Wherever we are we’ll be just fine. It’s just great we got this far.”
Saying goodbye to Barb in the hazy sunshine outside the store’s enormous bronze art deco doors, we embrace.
I’ve been ‘Barbed’.
As she wanders off to explore London by foot I smile to myself… yes, she and The 7 Virtues will be just fine.
But I’m not amazed they got this far, with Barb out front it was almost inevitable.
Have a splendid weekend, and if you’re in town why not mosey down to Selfridges!
The Perfumed Dandy.
Barb also has her own site with more about her incredible story and the range of activities she’s involved with.
Of course, you can also browse on line and buy the whole The 7 Virtues range at Selfridges