On the front lines with ‘Perfume War’ subject Barb Stegemann

Barb Stegemann has an incredible story to tell. The Canadian businesswoman and sought after public speaker has gone through so many expected and unexpected life changes that Perfume War, a documentary about her life’s work opening at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas in Toronto this weekend, barely contains it all. She has been through so much on a personal level, runs a successful business, and she has used her experiences both inside and outside of commerce as a force for good in the world.

Nova Scotian Barb Stegemann met her lifelong best friend Trevor Greene while they were both studying philosophy together in university. Their relationship was never a romantic one, but as strong as a friendship not bound by blood could get. While on a tour of duty in Afghanistan with the Canadian Armed Forces, journalist, soldier, and human rights advocate Greene suffered a nearly fatal blow to the head from an enemy combatant’s axe during what should have been a routine sit down meeting. The tragic event should have killed Greene, but he survived, wishing that he could continue his mission for good.

Understanding her friend’s passion for the people of Afghanistan, Stegemann wanted to find a way to constructively carry on Trevor’s mission to help the people of the country grow their own legal crops instead of relying on growing illegal and immoral poppy crops for local warlords. Perfume War, directed by Michael Melski with the direct participation of Barb and Trevor, shows how she was able to found The 7 Virtues, a fragrance company that purchases orange blossom, rose, and other great smelling crops that produce essential oils from farmers in need of buyers for the crops they produce.

Setting aside the difficulties of procuring such materials from a country that’s essentially a war zone and where the farmers are generally coerced, threatened, and forced into growing poppy in some cases, Stegemann, who is also a published author, had numerous other problems once she was able to start producing her product. She needed tremendous financial capital to keep the business going, and as part of landing such funding she became the first woman from Atlantic Canada to successfully open up the chequebooks of the venture capitalists on the popular reality show Dragon’s Den. She also had to convince notoriously fickle and chummy fragrance buyers on the retail side to even consider taking on her product, and then it became a battle to get it seen in stores.

Barb, who met up with me over lunch during a quick swing through Toronto earlier this week, doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, with her fragrance farming operations now expanding to the Middle East, Haiti, and Rwanda. For some who has been through so much and works that hard, she seems remarkably composed and calm in person. Part of it might be her love for philosophy, but it’s most likely because she seems like the real deal. She’s a person who loves what they do for a living and how it makes them feel.

We chatted with Barb Stegemann about what it was like participating in a film about her life, how she copes with anxiety, why she stays focused, and what the next chapter in her life’s journey holds.


With everything that you have done and that you’re going to do, I feel like I learned a lot about a lot of different things in this film. When you guys were setting out to make your story into a film, did you think a lot about the different facets of your life and job, and were you guys really careful to make sure you didn’t miss anything?

Barb Stegemann: We knew that the story behind everything was compelling: this friendship, this David and Goliath story on my side, the question of how you take on a soldier’s mission when you aren’t a soldier. There’s a definite “wow” factor when you look back and have to consider how you’re going to come up with this. From there, we knew that the basic story was important, but I really have to give credit to Michael Melski, the director, who took all these bits that could go off into their own stories and threaded it all together. It really was all tied together in a way by Marcus Aurelius because this whole story of our lives began when we were studying philosophy at Kings, and it’s a huge part of my own book, so there was always this sort of unifying philosophy that everything fell under and it brought the story together, and I have to applaud Michael for keeping it all together and threading it in that way because it could not have been easy.

You’ve done so many interesting things with 7 Virtues, your book, and your mission that it almost seems surreal to try and encapsulate it all. You’ve had to deal with getting products exported legally from Afghanistan and ensure fair living wages for people previously forced into growing poppy. You’ve had to go through the surreal experience of being on a reality television show and had to deal with the aftermath of that. You’ve had to try to deal with people at high levels of the retail industry just to make sure that your product is seen in stores at all and can compete with major label designer fragrances with deeper pocketbooks. Any one of those things would be enough to cause anxiety in most people trying to navigate them, and you seem to have done it all spectacularly well!

Barb Stegemann: (laughs) That’s funny, because I do have a lot of anxiety. (laughs) I guess when I was living in poverty as a kid, all I dreamed about having at the time was a loving husband and a boy and girl, and if I could just have that love and a place where I could be strong that I would be alright. It took awhile, and it wasn’t easy, but somehow I got to my modern family, and they’re all a part of this, too. My husband is my anchor, my mentor, and a seasoned businessmen. I met him within weeks of my taping of Dragon’s Den, only about two weeks into the formation of my company, so I often refer to him as the backbone of everything. I’m strong about a lot of things, but if there’s ever an email I don’t want to read because of my anxiety, he’ll read it and tell me that it’s going to be fine. My son works with me, too, and even if we’re dealing with something challenging I’m always with my family, and I remember that being with my family was all I ever dreamed of, and that erases a bit of that anxiety. Plus, I have a great mentor in Brett Wilson, who has loads of business experience and reminds me that I have a good head on my shoulders. We’ve been on this journey, all of us, for six years, so as I aged from 42 to 48, I feel a lot stronger as a result of all that I have gone through and the people who have been with me the whole time. With them, I’ve been able to process things faster than I would be able to do without this mentorship and family package. I do have this cocoon that I can retreat to that most people have. It might look like I’m off conquering the world, but I have this beautiful foundation that I imagined and dreamed of that I ended up getting to have. It’s like that Sound of Music song: “I must have done something good,” (laughs) It’s true! A lot of it is not being alone in all this. It’s neat and cathartic to be around people who can make you laugh, pick you up, and help you figure out solutions to problems.

When you took up this mission and business, did you ever dream it would take you in so many different directions and allow you to gain experience in so many different areas or business and world affairs?

Barb Stegemann: I don’t know if I really think of it that way in those terms. When I was little, I had a dream when I was eight that I would be a businesswoman doing something like this and looking like this and doing something like I’m doing today. At the time, I was obese and poor, but I always knew this day was coming. I just kinda always knew that I would make something like this happen. I had faith, and it didn’t matter if people made fun of me. If that’s part of being connected to your soul, then I guess it is in a very Plato-kind of way when we talk about mind, body, and spirit. I never thought of the outcomes, but I always thought that if I saw something that needs to be done, I would walk on glass to get it done. When you get made fun of so much as I did, you don’t really care anymore about what people want you to do, anyway. You’ve already had to block that off. If you’ve got faith it doesn’t matter if you’re being judged or getting made fun of or being told there’s no hope in hell of you succeeding. You have this wall where you don’t think about the results, but you think about why you’re on this earth, what your gifts are, and how you deliver them. You come up for air from all this and it’s no different if someone wants you to come and give a talk for an organization about what you’ve done or someone wants you to come to Rwanda to help. Sure, they’re all different in terms of their needs, but when you come from my background you learn to treat things similarly because everything means something different to someone else. I’ve lived in trailers and fishing shanties and somehow I’ve stayed in castles, but to me it’s all about the experience. I like the experience. Maybe that’s what empowers me to be a well rounder person, so I can share views without confrontation. I have all kinds of friends from all different kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds and sort of bring everyone together because I always remember what I dreamed and what I came from.

That also forces you to look at everyone like a human being first before thinking of them as anything else.

Barb Stegemann: Totally! That’s all I ever wanted and what didn’t happen in my youth, but in time you can change that. You can command respect by having respect for yourself and respect for others. I hope people can connect with that in their own lives. If you’re facing something, remember to hold onto what your gifts are and be sure to share them with the world. It will help you take on someone like Kevin O’Leary. It helps you be able to cold call department stores that won’t give you the time of day. It helps you with rejection. There’s always 19 “no’s” before you get a “yes,” but don’t dwell on that. Focus on getting to the “yes.” I hope I can give people courage to do the same thing because it’s so easy for other people to make you want to crumble. The way I look at the world is like you’re standing on the edge of a cliff with a bunch of backpacks that you take on. If you have too many, you’re going to tip, and once that happens you can’t mend yourself. You have to know when to take those packs off and which ones you can take on without tipping. Saying no to things and yes to things are something I visualize in that way. That’s my mental thing, and I never want to take on too much that I would crack, but I always want to push myself to keep growing and learning. You learn to do that with people who want to lift you up, love you, and people who won’t undermine you. And anyone who wants to undermine you or make you feel bad about yourself or what you’re doing or they think you’re doing something crazy, remove them! Find people who understand what you’re doing and keep seeking out more and more people who get it.

The film ends by talking about how the business has grown and allowed you to expand into new ventures that can help people in other countries, so as of right now, what’s next?

Barb Stegemann: It’s an exciting time for me! Okay, so I was in Haiti volunteering and training women in business and marketing after Hurricane Matthew in November, and I learned about this social entrepreneur program that Sephora is hosting. It’s an accelerated program based on IT programs. They realized that less than 4% of the CEOs of beauty companies are women, and we need to have more of them. I don’t hang out socially with many entrepreneurs, but that figure sadly makes sense and I learned about the program and I got invited to apply. I got in, and the reason I actually got in was because of the trailer for this documentary! I’m going to San Francisco next week for a week with nine women from around the world where Sephora would give us kind of a makeover for our business. They’ll give six months of mentorship after that. It sounds like Dragon’s Den on steroids. (laughs) You pitch at that time to all these venture capitalists. You might get into Sephora stores. You might find some added investment. You might just end up being a stronger company, and no matter what you’ll end up better on the other side. And this is all because of the trailer for this documentary! You can cold call all you want, but imagine all the help that I can do after this. Imagine how many farmers I can help as a result. It’s so exciting and rewarding.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.