"Follow The Reader" is our new series featuring unconventional leaders and trailblazers. This month: business mogul Barb Stegemann.

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Credit: Nicole Lapierre

“You have no right to keep your gifts to yourself.”

Barb Stegemann, best-selling author and business mogul, casually blew my mind when she looked me in the eye and made this declaration. It resonated so deeply that it almost felt accusatory. As I would learn over the course of our conversation, the statement captures her voracious appetite for both entrepreneurship and life quite well.

Raised in poverty and bullied as a child, Barb has overcome many obstacles to reach her goals. Her Halifax-based company, The 7 Virtues, sources fair-market, natural, essential oils from nations rebuilding after war or strife. With those oils, she makes fragrances that become part of the solution to building peace through trade with Afghanistan, Haiti, the Middle East and Rwanda.

She’s a fascinating woman with a lot to say, and we became fast friends over wine. Here are her wise words:

What has been the most rewarding thing about carving your own path?

I’m a very easy-going person, but at the same time, I’m a control freak. I don’t like being told that I have to be at a certain place at a certain time; I don’t do well with that kind of structure. My creativity isn’t on a schedule. If I’m feeling creative at five in the morning, I like to go work, but if at two o’clock I want to go for a walk with my husband, I have the freedom to do that.

The beautiful thing about creating your own business, your own life, your own plan is that the day is yours. When that shift takes place, the anxious feeling of not quite fitting into the structure of your own life dies down. I love that liberation because I never feel like I’m at work. I think a lot of people who don’t have that hear their anxious voice saying, “It’s not fast enough, it’s not good enough”. But we have to remember that our life is our wealth.

In your opinion, why aren’t more people following your model of doing business in countries that are trying to rebuild?

I think people have bought into too many myths: the myth that you have to travel to these countries, the myth that they’re too expensive, the myth that they’re corrupt. I feel strongly, though, that the locals who are trying to better their lives through business shouldn’t be penalized for their circumstances.

Though these countries are trying to rebuild, our job isn’t to tell people how to pray, how to read, how to live, or how to love. Our job is to make sure they have security and to shield them from oppressors. Fortunately, we’re in a position to help: when you trade with pre-qualified suppliers, there are assurances that your money goes right to them.

While I do visit the majority of our supplier countries, it’s also important to remember that it’s still possible – and very easy – to work with merchants and to run your business successfully without traveling to an unsafe location. That said, the real failing is that many entrepreneurs haven’t been curious enough to go and learn more about these countries. If they were, they would eventually fall in love with them.

Is there anything that you feel female entrepreneurs in particular are in a position to offer the world?

We share deeply, we’re very nurturing, we can handle 1,000 things at once. It’s just the way it is. We’re also very community driven and we strive to create things that solve people’s problems. There are pros and cons to this, though, because we have a tendency to Band-Aid nurture.

For example, say a school is suffering financially. Women will stop everything they’re doing to go bake brownies that they can sell to raise money, but that doesn’t fix the fundamental issue. We need to join the school board so we’re in better positions to get at the root problem. That’s the switch we have to make.

Also, when we look at the big problems that bother us, we have to move away from volunteering and towards monetizing. This isn’t meant to knock volunteerism – I’ve been a volunteer all my life – but we need to understand when it’s time to turn volunteering into a business idea that can really change people’s lives. When women can make that switch, they’re the best because it gives them the financial means to take care of their own families and the time to support others.

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Credit: Nicole Lapierre

What has been the most difficult or painful life lesson you’ve learned to date?

As a woman, I wasn’t taught what a strong partnership looks like. You meet someone, you’re young, they’re kind to you, you kiss, you think you’re in love, but that’s not enough. No one taught me what real love and respect in a relationship looks like, or what it means to seek someone who wants to grow old and change with you. I was married at 23 the first time, and no one told me that was too young, but my current husband and I are setting a much stronger example for our children about what it means to be part of a true partnership.

You’re a fragrance expert – what’s your favourite scent?

I’m obsessed with orange. Our first scent was an orange blossom from Afghanistan that reduces anxiety and gives me a sense of peace. I can tell everything about a person when I know which scents they like most. Interestingly, government employees have some of the highest levels of depression in our country and those who buy our scents often say that orange blossom is their favourite.

What’s your favourite thing to do in your downtime?

I love making candles, which is something we’re getting into. I find the scents and the process so therapeutic. Similarly, I love to cook because you can just turn off your mind and let your body work. The answers to all of my questions seem to become clear when I’m standing there cutting vegetables. That also happens when I work out, which I do every day. [“Except today…” she laughs, and we flag the server for more wine.] Anything that quiets my mind helps me get to a place where I can resolve issues faster and with greater ease.

What's your earliest and fondest reading memory?

My mom used to be a school teacher and she often read to us. Winnie the Pooh was always a favourite of mine and my son reminds me of Christopher Robin grown up. All of the characters have their challenges, but Christopher Robin is this great friend, a little angel, who loves and takes care of them all. My son is like that. It’s also the book I find most relevant as an adult. If you look at the approach to being afraid and being brave, it’s still so pertinent.

What's your all-time favourite book?

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. I looove that book. That’s the key to what I call “living your service” on this earth. It’s when we give too much of a fuck that we can’t reach our goals; we let other people, or our own doubts, get in our way. Part of the problem is that we’ve been taught to ask for permission, but I don’t ask for permission anymore.

What's next on your reading list?

I have a French Agatha Christie novel that I want to read when I’m in Quebec. I like working on my French, which I studied as a kid, and I’m excited to break out my French dictionary again. I associate that with my youth.

What books do you think other people absolutely need to read?

  • Meditations by the philosopher Marcus Aurelius, which is all about how to lead a meaningful life.
  • Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl – there’s a lot of depressing stuff about the Holocaust at the beginning that’ll make you cry, but it’s good to cry.
  • 12 Years a Slave by Soloman Northup, which I’m reading simultaneously in English and in French. The opening line about being born free just stops you in your tracks. It’s very important to understand freedom and to try and grasp the feeling of someone taking that away. For many of us, it puts our lives into context, but there is still oppression going on all over the world. Even in here in Canada.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is one of the coolest books. I had it on a plane and the pilots were laughing at me like, “Really? Do you really need to read that?”, but I still find this kind of stuff so exciting. I always want to learn one more thing. You should never lose that lust for learning, even if you’re doing well.

What’s the one thing people should know about you?

I think the saddest thing on earth is a lost dream. When there’s a little girl in Afghanistan who is more than likely never going to realize her dreams because we have failed her, the system has failed her, patriarchy and corruption have failed her, I find it heartbreaking. Those of us who are lucky to live in more stable countries have no good reason not to live our dreams. We can’t be selfish with our gifts.

Read more "Follow The Reader" content: Vivica A. Fox: storyteller, leader, hustler