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Barb Stegemann is an author, activist and entrepreneur. And she smells fantastic, too.
Barb is the founder of the fair trade perfume company, The 7 Virtues, and its collection of three organic scents: Afghanistan Orange Blossom, Noble Rose of Afghanistan and Vetiver of Haiti. With conviction and hope seeping from her every pore, the Halifax-based mom of four is making fragrant changes around the world. Here’s what she had to say about empowering women, body image and Elvis Presley.
Bamboo Magazine: What inspired you to create a fair trade perfume company?
Barb Stegemann: My best friend was wounded while serving in Afghanistan. As he was healing in the hospital, I promised that I would support his mission: the economic empowerment of men, women and children. Then, I read about Abdullah Arsala, an Afghanistan man who was growing legal crops of orange blossoms and roses for his tribe and needed buyers to support his vision. I jumped on board. Since I am not a brave soldier, and I am not a world leader, my way to contribute to world peace is through commerce. Our perfumes are also vegan, paraben- and pthlalate-free, and made in Canada. I’m pretty proud of that.
BM: Why did you launch your first scent, Afghanistan Orange Blossom, on International Women’s Day in 2010?
BS: To wake up North American women. Women own the buying power and need to harness this to empower families in countries that are experiencing war or strife. Recently, we launched our third scent, Vetiver of Haiti. This is a country that is trying to rebuild itself; they need our support, and their vetiver is the best in the world.
BM: How does making perfume help others, thousands of miles away?
BS: We pay above market value for our perfume oils: $10,000 for a litre of rose oil; $8,000 for a litre of orange blossom oil. In an economy where the average annual income is $500, our injection of tens of thousands of legal dollars goes far. Thanks to my amazing suppliers in Afghanistan and Haiti, I see their countries through a brand new lens. I see what is good, what is possible, and what is exquisite. I hope to shine a light on this for others.
BM: Do you work with a perfumer?
BS: Yes, I always work with my favourite perfumer, Susanne Langmuir. She is a genius. She gets my vision, she works with me, and she is just a delightful person.
BM: What was your very first perfume?
BS: My first scent would have been one of my grandmother’s. She was a classic lady, and looked like Marilyn Monroe, or at least she made herself up to look that way. But, I can’t recall the names of the fancy bottles she had. The first scent I actually bought, though, was Fendi by Fendi. It was bold, strong and everything I wanted to be in the ’80s. Now, I swim in [The 7 Virtues] fragrances because they are light, happy and contain empowering essential oils.
BM: Do you have any fragrance memories from childhood?
BS: When I was eight years old, my favourite singer, Elvis Presley, died. I had been carrying a bag filled with my mother’s perfume, and, when I heard the news, I was so upset that I dropped the bag on the ground. I recall thinking: what if I broke the precious bottles? I have always loved fragrance, but never did I think that one day I would make perfume.
BM: Has creating your fragrance line changed your overall viewpoint on beauty?
BS: I am sad about the industry’s use of skinny models and fame. I am on a mission to end the abuse of women. I want every woman to live her dreams, and that means ensuring that every girl knows that her beauty is her power and her dignity. Maybe if we taught our daughters this we would not lose women to eating disorders, prostitution and wife battery.
BM: What are your hopes and dreams for The 7 Virtue’s future?
BS: To grow into new markets and sell our perfume in the UK, Europe, USA and Middle East, so that we can buy more oils from the farmers.