"We don't have the right to be number one and get excited about our numbers if we're not going to use our platform for good."
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The Seven Virtues Founder, Barb Stegeman
Credit: Courtesy/InStyle

As a beauty editor, I've interviewed dozens — if not hundreds — of brand founders over the years. Many have inspirational stories of how they started their business in a garage and turned it around into a nationally-recognized brand. And while each story is remarkable, few have struck me like Barb Stegemann, founder of The 7 Virtues.

When I first met Stegemann over Zoom, she walked me through the brand's story and its new fragrance launches. What set her apart from others, though, was how philanthropy and purpose were the core reasons The 7 Virtues exists. So much so, she didn't even allow herself to have a salary until December 2021 — 11 years after she launched the brand.

As many other start-up stories go, her brand launched right in her home — and it nearly failed on the first few tries. But little did she know that over the next decade, her brand would evolve to become Sephora's best-selling clean fragrance brand. Here, she shares the story of The 7 Virtues.

What inspired The 7 Virtues?

My best friend got wounded in Afghanistan by the Taliban while serving there. In the hospital, I promised that I'd take on the mission of peace. But I'm not a brave soldier, so I started writing a book called The Seven Virtues Of A Philosopher Queen, which is now the eighth edition, and it's empowered women to launch companies and run for office — I realized women own the voting power.

So what made you want to evolve The 7 Virtues perfumes into a fragrance brand?

I brought the thesis to life. I started buying the [perfume] oils in Afghanistan and tried to get the farmers off illegal poppy, which is used for heroin — it's critical that they grow alternative crops. My supplier, Abdullah, almost gave up before I found him. So for the following 11 years, we became his biggest orange blossom buyer, and I found that if my supplier was farming orange blossom and rose, the Taliban couldn't go near him and his family. But then in the last six months or so, all the troops left and people had to evacuate because the Taliban took over.

So how did you evolve the brand over the years?

I bought what little oil he had and launched the perfume out of my garage on International Women's Day in 2010. And it was shameful — the packaging was awful. The smell was... well, my daughter wouldn't wear it. Fast forward a few years and we were in some department stores, but then things changed. Gen Z and Millennial kids were becoming the buying power. My Gen X generation was really no longer visiting the stores we were in.

And then Hurricane Matthew hit and I went to Haiti [to volunteer]. But we were in bad shape and too far ahead of our time — there was no "Clean at Sephora" back then. I told my friends there about it and one of them told me about the Sephora Accelerate program. I was like, I'm getting into that program. And then they reached out — I couldn't believe it. I will always be exclusive to Sephora because they saved me. We really cracked the code on how to make a natural scent in the program because I was around the most incredible mentors. And now, we're the number one best-selling clean fragrance brand at Sephora.

Giving back is a huge part of The 7 Virtues ethos. Can you talk to that a little bit?

The DNA of our brand is to help people. And my whole thing is get mad, take a bath, have a nap, and then get mad again. There has to be a way for us to end poverty, end war, and stop going back into this patriarchal cycle of spending billions in bloodshed. For our new perfume, Lotus Pear, we're partnering with Days For Girls in Nepal to end period poverty. I'm so reignited because we're so disappointed with what happened in Afghanistan. And we figured out that many women don't want to be on their period because they're locked in sheds and can't eat with their families, and that leads to having many babies, which then end up going into the sex trade because they can't feed them. So we realized that we could help the war on poverty and sex trade if we ended period poverty. If women can get washable pads, washable underwear, and the boys are educated on why a period matters, get rid of the stigma, then women can run for office and control how many babies they have. And it's a social enterprise, we don't go in and tell people how to live. It's all led by locals.

And we're one of only 21 brands at Sephora that earn the clean plus planet positive logo. Our head office is solar-powered, our cars are Tesla, we hire women. We continue to grow, grow with women, and listen to women about what they want.

Many people assume that you have to have a certain background to launch a successful brand — so what did your professional journey look like?

I was raised by a single mom, we lived on assistance, and I went to public school in rural Nova Scotia, Canada. When I went to college, I showed up with no sheets for my bed and five bucks in my pocket. My roommate gave me sheets and I spent my last five bucks on a six-pack that I gave away, and my life began. I have a journalism degree, and because I networked a lot, many people wanted to share my story — that was a beautiful edge. And then, I joined Soho House (a creative club) where I could be equal. There, we're measured by our creativity, not our pedigree, and that was really important to me. Your network is your net worth, and your network happens when you show up with a case of beer.

What's your goal for the future?

We want to create a movement, and you can't do that and be like "Oh no, they're copying us." So my goal in five years is to no longer be interesting.

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Beauty Boss profiles the brains behind the brands making waves in the beauty industry. From the ideas that first inspire brands to how best-selling hair, makeup, and skincare products are made, find out how these leaders get it done.