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Barb Stegemann produces elegant fragrances from the world's trouble spots

The 'retail activist’ charged $2,000 on her Visa card and made 1,000 bottles of Afghanistan Orange Blossom, selling it out of her garage.

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    Barb Stegemann, creator of the fragrance company, The 7 Virtues.
    Courtesy of Nicole Lapierre
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It was at Barb Stegemann’s kitchen table that Trevor Greene decided to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces. Ms. Stegemann wanted to join Mr. Greene, her best friend, but a mild hearing impairment made it impossible.

In 2006, Greene, who had been part of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, returned home severely wounded. During a peaceful discussion with village elders he had removed his helmet as a sign of respect. A teenager, influenced by the Taliban, had brought an ax down on his head. Doctors weren’t optimistic.

Stegemann was devastated.

Recommended: Young Afghans look forward with optimism

But she was also determined that Greene would get better and that she would, as she promised him, “carry on his mission to make up for not being there.” She hadn’t a clue, however, how she was going to do this.

Then, thanks to a 2008 public radio story, she learned of Abdullah Arsala, a farmer in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, who was growing orange blossoms and roses instead of illegal poppies – and encouraging other farmers to do the same.

The process of distilling essential oils from flowers is similar to the way heroin is made from poppies. Creating fragrances from flowers can be lucrative, but Mr. Arsala was struggling.

“The same people who attacked my best friend were knocking over [Arsala’s] distillery,” Stegemann says.

She made him an offer. She would purchase his orange blossom oil and use it to make a high-quality fragrance under the brand The 7 Virtues, the name of her self-published book.

When her bank refused to grant her a loan, she charged $2,000 on her Visa card to purchase one cup of Arsala’s oil. From that, she produced 1,000 bottles of Afghanistan Orange Blossom, which she launched on International Women’s Day in 2010, selling it out of her garage.

In four weeks, she broke even.

Stegemann makes it clear that what she does is a business – “retail activism,” she calls it – not philanthropy. Her approach is guided by her own childhood poverty. Handouts did little to help “invite my sister and me to the banquet,” as she puts it.

Today her business model emphasizes fair trade. She purchases from distillers in countries that have experienced wars or natural disasters in order to invest in the rebuilding of those communities.

She didn’t introduce herself to Arsala a minute too soon. He had borrowed money from friends and family – though they thought he was crazy because he could have secured a well-paying job thanks to his command of English. “[I was] a little disheartened,” he says. “It’s one thing to have a product, but you need people to buy.”

Stegemann’s initial investment may have been small, but for Arsala it was “a breath of fresh air,” he says. Because she’s been willing to invest in his business, Arsala says, others have gained confidence to do the same. “I’ve got buyers because of her. I have people asking for me,” he says.

And she motivates him. “Some days she sends me an e-mail with something that will make my day,” he says. Stegemann is known for sprinkling her conversation – and her correspondence – with inspirational quotes from philosophers Marcus Aurelius and Socrates, or novelist Mary Wollstonecraft.

“Barb just wants to bring beauty to everything,” says Heather Josey, fragrance buyer at Hudson’s Bay, an upscale department store in Canada. “She wants to make everyone feel connected. You want to be around her because you know she’s only going to do good in the world.”

“Barb’s the first to admit she was raised with very little,” says her business partner, W. Brett Wilson, “which is why she’s quick to [say] that her business is not about charity. Barb’s model lets everyone have dignity.”

Mr. Wilson, a “dragon” on the popular Canadian reality TV show “Dragon’s Den” (the US counterpart is “Shark Tank”), agreed to invest $75,000 in The 7 Virtues just as Stegemann’s first run of Afghanistan Orange Blossom was selling out, despite virtually no advertising. She was at work on a new scent, Middle East Peace, which combined oils from Iran and Israel. She appeared on the TV show seeking a financial investment and “wise counsel,” as she put it.

“The passion for something different was so obvious and so compelling,” Wilson says.

Stegemann’s success on “Dragon’s Den” gave her the confidence to cold-call Ms. Josey at Hudson’s Bay.

Josey remembers that call well.

“I thought she was a little off the wall,” Josey says with a laugh. “But that’s what visionaries are: They’re a million miles ahead of you.” It took three meetings before Josey completely understood Stegemann’s business. “But I knew I wanted to be part of this woman’s journey,” she says. “It’s about rebuilding lives. I wasn’t sure how we were going to do it. It’s different than anything already on the market.”

Stegemann decided early on that the names of her perfumes would reflect the locations from which their ingredients come – and tell a different story than the one we read in headlines.

“In Jalalabad,” she says, “they have poetry festivals during harvest, and they produce this beautiful oil. I’m not going to pretend it’s all perfect ... but there are people there that want to shine a light on what’s good, and we get to be a part of that.”

Stegemann’s fragrances now have been picked up by other top retailers: Lord & Taylor in the United States, Galeries Lafayette in Europe, and Fenwick Bond Street in Britain. She receives calls from distillers of essential oils around the world hoping to interest her in creating a fragrance using their oils. [Editor's note: This paragraph was updated Feb. 15 to reflect a recent change to a different retailer in Britain.]

“I’ll partner,” she says. “You make the oils. You make sure they’re fair trade. You make sure they’re certified. I’ll buy from you.”

She’s done exactly that in Haiti with Vetiver of Haiti (she joined Bill Clinton on a visit to Haiti in March 2013), and partnered again with Arsala for Noble Rose of Afghanistan. She works with distillers in both Israel and Iran for Middle East Peace and a co-op of farmers made up of adult children and widows of the genocide in Rwanda for Patchouli of Rwanda – The 7 Virtues bestseller at Hudson’s Bay. Coming soon is Vanilla of the Congo and a holiday fragrance that will combine frankincense and myrrh from Somalia.

The story behind each fragrance is told on the back of the box.

The light she’s shining on her suppliers is paying off. She recently received the exciting news that CPL Aromas, an international producer of fragrances based in Britain, “is going to buy field loads from my farmers,” Stegemann says. “Isn’t that beautiful? It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of.”

She takes delight in what she’s created but is quick to shrug off credit.

“This is not mine,” she says, “I’m an excellent servant.... There’s something bigger going on. And that’s the way it should be.”

After many years of rehabilitation her friend Greene has regained his cognitive faculties but uses a wheelchair, though he’s determined to walk. Stegemann now has a military uniform of her own. In 2011 she was made an honorary colonel at a Canadian Forces Base near her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

She takes the honor seriously.

“We need to make rebuilding more exciting than destruction,” she says. “We must ... lift each other, partner with each other.

“We’re equals.”

• To learn more about The 7 Virtues, visit www.the7virtues.com.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are three groups selected by Universal Giving that support small businesses and education:

Develop Africa establishes meaningful, sustainable development in Africa through capacity building and education. Take action: Help expand a small business.

The Nepal Youth Foundation is devoted to bringing hope to destitute children in the beautiful but impoverished kingdom of Nepal. Take action: Support former child slaves as they start their own businesses.

Give A Day Global connects international travelers with daylong volunteer opportunities to help its nonprofit partners expand their networks of support. Take action: Spend a day volunteering with youths in Rwanda.

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