Last week, I attended a Sephora launch in Toronto, Canada. There I reconnected with social entrepreneur Barb Stegemann, whose perfume line bears the tagline "Make Perfume Not War." I first met Stegemann on the set of Dragons' Den (the precursor to Shark Tank). At the time, she had only one perfume, made from ingredients grown in Afghanistan and purchased from Afghan farmers as an alternative (and more lucrative) cash crop to the illegal poppy. 

Stegemann's philosophy was simple: give people a better choice and they will take it. According to Stegemann, her social enterprise "is not about charity, it's about empowerment, dignity, and jobs." And she should know--hers is now a leading product in more than 100 Sephora stores, and her business is growing at more than 40 percent year over year.

The Obstacle Is the Way

At the launch were several other notables, including rock star Bif Naked (pictured above with Stegemann). While these two women, each a huge success in her own right, have lots to teach us, the real lesson for me came when I sat down with them to talk about how adversity had shaped their careers. They both talked about how their real success only came once they turned their adversity into their advantage--something I knew a lot about personally.

For the first three decades of my life, my severe ADHD was the greatest limiter of my life.  Grades 1-7 were spent in the hallway since educators couldn't attend to my needs. Later, even after addressing my learning challenges, my ADHD cost me both a career in engineering and a career in law. Success for me only came when I learned not just how to overcome my adversity, but how to lean into it, turning perceived limitations into  superpowers. Addressing the limitations generated by my neurodiversity wasn't enough. I had to "turn my obstacle into the way" and harness the advantages ADHD offers (e.g. high energy, quick wit, creative).

Much has been written about the philosophy of stoicism made famous by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Interpreters of Aurelius argue that obstacles don't inhibit success--they create success--the obstacle becomes the way. This as true with Barb and Bif as it was with me.

From Poverty to Perfume

Stegemann was born into poverty with a hereditary hearing impairment, and she believes that these two challenges are also her two greatest gifts. 

"My hearing impairment taught me to read body language," she said. "90 percent of our communication is nonverbal. It helps me in everything from sales to life. It helped me on Dragons' Den to read the body language of potential investors." And it helped Stegemann close a great investment deal, thereby not only overcoming her disadvantage but by harnessing it.  Regarding her poverty, she said: 

When I was a kid I used to wonder why I was sent to such poverty where the mice chewed my blankets. But now that I am older, I realize that it shaped me. It made me a social entrepreneur. When people dropped off the food hamper at Christmas, we didn't want charity, we wanted to be invited to the banquet and included. I feel the same way about social enterprise. It's not a charity, it's about empowerment, dignity, and jobs.

From Record Failure to Rock Star

The same is true for rock star Bif Naked, whose music has been featured on soundtracks for shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Moonlight,The West Wing and Celebrity Deathmatch

Born to teenage parents at a private school in India, Naked's early career trajectory was forever changed when she signed her first recording contract at age 23. She was given a lot of creative freedom to write songs about being raped, losing a baby, and even girl-love, but it all came tumbling down when the record label closed its doors, leaving her without an ability to get the record out. 

According to Naked, "No one in Canada was willing to release it," and her manager was repeatedly told that this "tattooed girl artist would never get on the radio." For Naked, it seemed over, but it wasn't. She had to not only overcome this obstacle--she had to turn the obstacle into her path. And that's exactly what she did.

She and her manager formed Her Royal Majesty's Records and released her record to great success, and then toured in 20 countries. From there Naked went on to record and release another nine albums, and continued to tour the world to support them. And, for 24 years, she has never stopped making music. 

What's the Lesson Here?

All successful entrepreneurs have a high  adversity quotient (i.e. internal resiliency). But the very best go further. The very best entrepreneurs don't just cope with adversity--they turn it into a long-term, sustainable, competitive advantage. So if you are struggling with an obstacle, step back, reframe the situation and ask yourself, "how can this limitation become an advantage?" As Aurelius is oft quoted: "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

Published on: Feb 27, 2018