Women Who Lead

The Peace Broker: 7 Virtues founder, Barb Stegemann, on How Businesses can Make Meaningful Change

Barb Stegemann is on a mission to change the world. Here, the Canadian entrepreneur shares her thoughts on social enterprise, business cavalries, and why the charity model doesn’t work.

After a dear friend was gravely wounded in Afghanistan during a mission to liberate the country’s women and girls, Barb Stegemann was compelled to step in to continue his pursuit of peace. A journalist by trade, she first wrote a book—The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen : A Woman’s Guide to Living & Leading in an Illogical World—and parlayed its success (and moniker) into a fair-trade fragrance brand in 2010. In places like Afghanistan, where the illegal poppy crop’s lucrativeness far surpassed that of the local rose and orange blossom oils, Stegemann realized that she could harness the buying power of women to reverse the cycle of war and poverty. “I began to understand that the missing link to building peace was economic development,” she says.

After an initial buy-in on Dragons’ Den, the success of the company—and that of her producers in Haiti, Rwanda, Iran and across the world—took off. Now, The 7 Virtues is sold throughout North America and as of last year, on Sephora’s shelves. The business has proven that investing with a social conscience comes with big returns. What’s more, Stegemann is attempting to ignite what she calls a “business cavalry” to do trade with rebuilding nations. “I want to see an army of peaceful buyers making change, bravely taking risks, launching social enterprise and adding it to their supply chain,” she says. “It’s more important than anything to create this movement.”

Here, the entrepreneur shares her thoughts on the effectiveness of social enterprise versus charity, the need for more “cathedral thinking” in positions of power, and the philosophical teachings she’s weaved into her leadership approach.

Start a social enterprise, not a charity

“Business truly is the fastest way to break down barriers, form bonds between people and build peace. And social enterprise is very much rooted in the way you would run any company. So for me, when I see this current wild west of social enterprise, including the ‘buy one donate one’ approach, I don’t believe charity should be the model. If the beneficiaries don’t earn a meaningful paycheck, then they can’t ever get out from under it—the charity only serves to make us feel better. I believe in jobs and dignity. It’s about making sure these people earn three times the income over the next crop. It’s about ensuring that they have purposeful employment.”

Believe in the return on love

“I really want to see more businesses realize that the return on love is as important as the return of investment—the two go together. With social enterprise, there has to be a little more patience by the investors because there is relationshipbuilding and the required homework to find the groups that you want to support. It takes longer to build that company, but I think in 15 to 20 years, every company will rebuild in some way to change the world for the better, especially because the consumer that dominates will demand it. Young people—millennials and Generation Z—are already driving it. It’s my generation that needs to be educated. Over time, the young people will lead, they’ll be creating the companies and their messaging will get out. Until then, one of my pillars is activism: leading by being vocal, making change, and empowering our followers.”

Embrace cathedral thinking

“Cathedral thinking—I love this concept. It comes from centuries ago when an architect would design a cathedral knowing that it wouldn’t be built 400 or 600 years. He’d never see the cathedral to completion, but he knew it was important to have the vision. When it comes to things like corruption within countries, we need our world leaders to be employing cathedral thinking within their four- or eight-year terms. Those of us that are activists really need to speak loudly and use cathedral thinking and say, ‘I know this is a daunting task, but we’re willing to start now.’”

 

Define success as having really toughed it out

“People have this notion that 7 Virtues is the ten-year overnight success. They think, ‘I see it in Sephora and all over the US and Canada—you’ve made it.’ But I don’t want anyone to think that, because we make it look easy, that it is easy. The company is this little hot air balloon that sort of stumps along the ground and then finally takes off. You have to go through all of the changes in launching a company, in surviving that first-year 80 percent failure rate, and then reinventing as the world and demographics change. I want people to know that there will be really big challenges, but you can weather them. It was practicing the stoic wisdom found in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War that’s helped me to become what people now call me: a game changer. I’m honoured—you don’t get to be called that unless you walk on glass.”

 

Settle into self-assuredness

“If an idea is worth doing, 20 percent of people are not going to like it. But who cares if someone doesn’t like your idea? I am very, very fierce about protecting my joy—no one touches it. And I don’t really have to defend my ideas because I’ve done the homework, I’m confident in my curiosity, and I ask a lot of questions. That’s how I live. It’s like a muscle: you have to rip it so you’re able to push up. It’s the same with your character. If you can’t handle it, if you want to crawl into the fetal position crying, because someone didn’t like your idea, then don’t lead. Go follow. That’s okay, too.”