I had the pleasure of interviewing Barb Stegemann, the founder of The 7 Virtues Beauty Inc., a social enterprise that sources organic, fair trade essential oils to support farmers in nations rebuilding after war or strife. She is the author of the best selling book, The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, a woman’s guide to living & leading in an illogical world. Barb is a graduate of the Sephora Accelerate program, a wife and a mom to two Gen Zed/Millennials.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?
I began by writing a book to empower women after my best friend Captain Trevor Greene was wounded serving in the forces in Afghanistan. I realized women had the power to reverse issues of war and poverty, and I wanted to empower them to launch companies, end bullying and run for office. Then I brought the thesis to life when I read about Abdullah Arsala in Afghanistan, who was growing legal orange blossom and rose crops to offer farmers an alternative to the illegal poppy crop, which is run by the Taliban. I knew with our buying power as women, we could help him to liberate farmers and their daughters, wives and sons from the oppressive opium warlords.
What is your definition of success?
My definition of success is not monetary — it’s not measured by the Return on Investment or the ROI. My measure is the Return on Love, the ROL. What have we done to empower others? For me, knowing our farmers in Rwanda can rebuild after the genocide with earnings that are up to three times the average income and our farmers in Afghanistan no longer have to grow illegal poppy — these are my measures. It’s knowing we are in Sephora’s new Clean Beauty space because our fragrances are made without harmful chemicals and women with allergies can finally wear perfume again because our scents are hypoallergenic. And it’s knowing we recently helped Bill S-214 get passed in the Senate in Canada to end animal testing with the Cruelty Free cosmetics act — this was a huge measure for us. We were even asked to support the same bill in California and it is now under review by the governor. We have more power than we realize to build a better world, and it’s very rewarding knowing we are recognized as having “power” and we are using it for good on every level.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I received the APEC Women and the Economy Summit award for my business model for the entire country of Canada. They flew us to San Francisco where Melanne Verveer, Global Ambassador for Women, presented me with the award. I had just written a column on her and her great work for our local paper. She was the former Chief of Staff for First Lady Hillary Clinton. I gave her EA copies of my article, which Melanne loved, as well as books for her, Hillary Clinton and President Clinton with a bottle of our Vetiver of Haiti for President Clinton because of his work in Haiti. About six months later a book arrived in the mail from President Clinton. I was worried he was sending me my book back so I drove around looking for a dumpster to throw it in, because I protect my joy. I could not find a dumpster so I put it to the side of my desk and about a month later felt strong enough to open the package. It was a copy of his book, “Back to Work,” signed to me! A couple of months later, I received an invite to go to Haiti on a trade mission with President Clinton and other high level CEOs. I posted on Facebook and asked my friends whether I should go. They said YES, respond now because you are probably not supposed to be on the list! My cheeky friends.
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
I began early, before anyone really knew the word “social enterprise.” We were unique and did very well, then retail started shifting and my children and their gen zed/millennial generations were owning the buying power. They were really the demographic that shared my philosophy of empowerment, but my original perfume line was aimed at Gen Xers and Boomers (my daughter would not wear my original line!). So I had to adapt and stop doing business like it was 2010. If I had not done the Sephora Accelerate and created our brand new contemporary Peace Perfume collection, I don’t think we would have the same success. We’ve already sold out three of our top SKUS in the USA on Sephora.com.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think the fact that our beauty company was born out of my best friend’s mission of building peace really does speak to how our social enterprise has empowerment and dignity built into its DNA. I was never that girl who wanted to create a beauty company. I was a journalist. But when my friend’s mission of peace was interrupted due to his injury, I had to carry on the torch for him.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Moisturizing candles with organic, fair trade shea butter from Ghana, organic coconut oil and natural soy wax. No paraffin, which is sadly even in candles that say soy on the packaging. Candles only have to have 51% soy to label them as such. Additional ingredients can be anything from palm oil, which is destroying forests, to paraffin, which is very bad to breath in. I want to see more transparency in beauty, and we can only do that by leading by example.
Is your company working to be more sustainable? If so, how?
Everything we do is sustainable from our packaging, which is all made from recycled paper, to our supply chain, which provides a higher, fair wage to our farmers.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Be a motivator. Get excited and spend time with your employees. I consider everyone on our team to be my friend and our families all hang out together. We are not just a business, we are a movement.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes, my mentor, Will Chung from the Sephora Accelerate program. He is the Director at Sephora Canada online and truly one of the wisest, most generous people I know. He flew in for the week of our Sephora boot camp and attended classes with me even though he has a busy schedule. He still mentors me and I can call upon him for guidance on anything. I feel very blessed to have that level of expertise. I consider Will to be a dear friend too.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our company is a social enterprise that was built to empower families by providing jobs and dignity. In my volunteer time I speak at schools, sharing our story of triumph over the pain of my best friend’s injury. It’s a reminder that our hands are never tied and we can always find some good to come out of our pain.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
- Always sign a contract. Always, always, always. It will protect you and your supplier. Always write up a Purchase Order. Again, it protects you and your supplier.
- Never go into business with friends. Never, ever. It will hurt the friendship. You can become friends with your amazing employees, but never hire old friends.
- Let go of your old ideas. The only way to move forward in changing times is to truly let go of your old ideas. I was still doing business like it was 2010 and the world had changed since we started. When I let go of my old ideas and did a complete rebrand — all new scents, all new packaging and all new distribution — our sales increased tenfold.
- If you see a need or problem in the world and you think you have the answer, even if you don’t have the expertise, DO IT! You don’t have to be a chemist to design perfume — you hire a chemist, you get in the lab and you learn to create excellent products so you can compete with household names. Trust that you don’t have to know how to do everything, just focus on your mission and hire the right talent to get your vision to reality.
- Have a personal mission statement for your life. Not just your company. Your personal mission statement will help you stay on track on your personal journey. I did this and my work is not work. I travel to Haiti, Rwanda, India and around the world to support our farmers. I sit in their homes and hear their stories, and know we are making a difference for the better. This is my life’s plan and it does not feel like work at all. If you have a personal mission then your personal life and work are so intertwined it is like one fabulous journey.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
An army of female social entrepreneurs to end this senseless cycle of war and poverty.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The Beginning is Always Today.” — Mary Wollstonecraft (considered the mother of feminism). I live by this quote. It’s never too late to start. Just begin. And then in one year from now, you will look back and be astounded at your success. So many people have ideas and don’t take action on them for various reasons, but if you begin today everything you dream of will happen. But you have got to take action.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
Oh my, now I am nervous. I would say Portia de Rossi and Ellen Degeneres. Portia donated funds in Ellen’s honour to save the gorillas of Rwanda. We supported the gorillas in Rwanda and got to sit in the forest with the gorillas in their natural habitat. It changed our lives forever. I would love to talk to them about this and our work to end cosmetics testing on animals in California. We helped pass the bill in Canada and are working on bringing the Cruelty Free Cosmetics Act to California as we speak.