The 7 Virtues is a social enterprise beauty company based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They believe in rebuilding countries, but not in the way you think. Not with wood, cement, and bricks, but with jobs, empowerment, an opportunity to create and learn skills to enrich their own communities. Their fragrance collection is created with essential oils from nations that are rebuilding including Haiti, Afghanistan, The Middle East and Rwanda. It all started by sourcing essential oils from a supplier in Afghanistan who provides seasonal employment for his tribe and community. Every time 7 Virtues purchased legal essential oils from Afghanistan, they were providing a needed alternative to the illegal poppy crop which causes instability all over the world.
Since this first partnership in Afghanistan, the company has continued to grow and through the matchmaking partners at Building Markets they eventually found a supplier in Haiti and Rwanda. The goal of The 7 Virtues is to encourage other businesses to do trade with business people in Afghanistan, Haiti, The Middle East, Rwanda and other nations experiencing strife as a part of the solution to building peace.
When The 7 Virtues traveled to Rwanda to meet with their supplier they were blown away by the progress. Rwanda is the first country in the world to have a female majority government and is now the fastest growing, least corrupt country in all of Africa. The 7 Virtues sources its organic patchouli essential oil from farming co-operatives in Rwanda, so they may buy school uniforms and build homes for their families. According to The 7 Virtue founder, Barb Stegemann:
Jobs and dignity are crucial to maintaining peace in areas that have experienced war and strife. We encourage businesses to do trade with nations rebuilding. Buy their saffron, buy their soaps, candles, essential oils, buy anything that will empower families to buy books and shoes for their children and take it to market.”
Q&A with Barb Stegemann, founder of The 7 Virtue.
How did your friend who was wounded in Afghanistan inspire you to start your company?
My best friend, Captain Greene inspired me by leaving the comfort of his home in Canada to go and serve in the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. He could not sit back and watch the images of oppressed women, he felt he had to do something.
He was sitting in a peaceful shura discussing how to bring clean drinking water and health care to the families of the village and a man who did not want to see his community have free thought or free will struck my best friend in the head with a Taliban axe.
We went on a long healing journey in the hospital and I promised him I would take on his mission of peace. Realizing as a woman, I did not have a way, I am not a brave soldier, and I am not a world leader, so I created a new way to empower families to grow legal rose and orange blossom crops for essential oils for our fair trade fragrances. I found my supplier who was also on a mission of peace and he needed a buyer. I connected with Abdullah Arsala through the Canadian International Developmental Agency (CIDA).
How long and how difficult was it to set up your ethical supply chains with various international farmers?
It is not difficult to set up if you go through the kinds of groups I work with who have already have pre-qualified suppliers and often they have done much of the studies and background work to prove it is economically viable for the community. I have worked with CIDA, Building Markets and the Clinton Foundation. There are other groups like this, depending on where you live such as US AID, UK AID, there are many government and non-government groups that are set up to do the work on the ground in these countries. The next step is the farmers and suppliers need buyers. It takes me about a year from concept to shelf with each new fragrance and supplier.
The women in Rwanda seemed to have a great influence on you. The only government in the world with women as the majority leaders has to be something that really intrigued you to help more women in social enterprise?
Yes, sitting with these women who survived the genocide and had everything taken from them, now many of them living with HIV and to see them growing patchouli oil and building homes and smiling, you just want to do anything to ensure their dreams are realized. Rwanda is an excellent example of why we need 30% minimum female representation in government. They set that quota and exceeded it with 64% female representation and as a result they are the fastest growing, safest country in Africa. It’s very inspiring to see how they reversed themselves from the horrific genocide to a place of peace building and growth.
In your experience how have you seen business heal relationships and bridge hatred after civil wars in some of these countries?
Every supplier and farmer is very special. This is really a journey of empowerment and friendships. I think of how fragile life is. Abdullah, our supplier in Afghanistan was about to give up before I found him. I was struggling too, the banks would not give me a loan and I needed to help him realize his vision of growing legal crops instead of the illegal crop. So I went on CBC’s Dragons’ Den and got the investment I needed from my investor W. Brett Wilson. And business is the best way to build peace and heal and end hatred. ‘Money talks’ as the expression goes, but in a different way in the world of social enterprise, not in the corporate sense. When I pay a supplier on time for his oils, he does not care what my gender is, or my faith or where I live. So you can see how powerful employment is as a result of doing good business.
My supplier is Muslim, I was raised half Jewish and half Catholic and I end my notes to him with Insha Allah and he greets me with Shalom. It’s really quite lovely to be living pluralism in real time through business. Being different and loving one another for our differences, but just importantly seeing that we are all really more alike than different. We all want to provide books and shoes for our children in a safe environment. We can’t allow manipulative fear mongering stop us from our service to others and shining light on those brave people who are rebuilding.
You have a documentary coming out next year called Perfume War, can you tell us a little bit more about the film and its mission?
Yes, the documentary Perfume War is launching in 2017. The mission of the documentary is to create a movement of retail activists who will find new ways to create solutions through social enterprise to empower others. It follows the journey of my best friend Captain Greene and I and our suppliers around the world. You may want to have some kleenex ready. It’s definitely a feel good documentary with solutions to some of our challenges told eloquently through the lens of award winning film maker, Michael Melski.
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