Jenn Harper started Cheekbone Beauty in 2016 because she had a dream. “Sometimes I say that people interpret it as a vision because I’m Indigenous, but it was an actual dream—a crazy dream about all these Native girls covered in lip gloss, laughing. It was joyful,” Harper says.
Harper, who is Anishinaabe, had no background in beauty, but she did have curiosity, tenacity, and a desire to help other members of the Indigenous community. Initially, she worked with a third-party company to develop products she sold directly to consumers, but this didn’t satisfy her. “The more we started to sell, the more questions we would get from customers about things like our supply chain, sourcing and packaging, and we wanted to answer those questions, but there were so many barriers to us getting information,” she explains. “I started to think about whether there was a new way for us to make products that would lead to us being a sustainable brand and business.”
In 2019, Harper found an Indigenous investor, which allowed her to quit her day job working in sales and marketing. She also appeared on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, where she turned down an investment offer. By the beginning of 2020, Harper was ready to launch Cheekbone 2.0—products developed in-house with sustainability, transparency, representation, and giving back at their heart.
In 2020, she launched the first product in the sustainable collection, Sustain Lipstick. The launch was to be March 27, just as the pandemic lockdowns began. “That was pretty dramatic,” she recalls. “I ended up crying in the fetal position in my closet. We had spent the most money ever to bring the product to life, so that was really scary.”
Harper’s tenacity kicked in. She focused on eye products, and the brand grew 350 per cent in 2020, surprisingly mostly from sales of the Sustain lipstick despite everyone wearing masks.
Cheekbone Beauty products are packed with pigments and long-lasting, much of the packaging is compostable and/or biodegradable, and ingredients are vegan and meet fair-trade and clean-beauty standards.
The brand continues to grow and evolve, becoming B-Corp certified and launching at Sephora Canada. But the residual effects of the pandemic, such as supply-chain issues, are causing some pain. Harper thinks there could also be more competition as the bigger brands realize the power of e-commerce and digital.
To raise awareness for Cheekbone Beauty’s products and its social mission, Harper and her team launched a campaign for Indigenous History Month in June. They created unsellable lip glosses containing lead, E. coli, and mercury—three substances contaminating the water supply of one in six Indigenous communities across Canada. Proceeds from the brand’s sales at Sephora that month went to Water First, an NGO that works in water science education and training for Indigenous people. “Our brand has always been about creating awareness, though we don’t pretend to solve the problems,” says Harper, who, besides donating a portion of Cheekbone Beauty’s profits to Indigenous charities, also speaks directly to Indigenous youth about her brand and life. “I just talked to a group this morning, and I told them, ‘I have no particularly superior skills, but I was and am consistent.’ Sometimes I wonder is it the resilience of me from a cultural level? From watching my mom as a single parent being resilient? Is it paying attention to the other entrepreneurs I watch? My husband says it all the time: ‘You don’t give up! You don’t give up!’ Is it stubbornness? Am I crazy?”
But deep down, Harper says, she knows the truth—and it goes back to her original dream. When she lost her brother B.J. to suicide in the early days of Cheekbone Beauty, she thought about what he said about kids needing help. “I know that role models are needed because they were missing for me,” she says. “There are lots of incredible women entrepreneurs that I see as mentors, but there’s something unique about seeing representation from your community.”
What’s next for the brand? Harper hopes her partnership with Sephora can expand into the U.S. Furthermore, having an in-house lab means her team can innovate and look for new ingredients. “We’re working on projects with a local winery, converting waste into a useable ingredient,” she says. “One of the cool things about the varietal we’re using is it’s only available in our region, so it was native to this land long before settlers.”
Beyond that, anything can happen. “It’s about always having a big vision but also being in the moment,” Harper says. “A lot of people can’t do that. But for Cheekbone Beauty and me, movement and transformation are part of the journey.”