Indigenous Storytelling – The Inception of Cheekbone Beauty
While many of our long-time followers may be familiar with the story of how Cheekbone Beauty came to be, so many new faces have joined our community, and so we would like to share the story again. Whether it is your first time hearing the story, or your sixth time hearing the story, thank you for giving us the opportunity to pass this story down.
Before we can begin, we’d like to introduce readers to our Founder and CEO.
Figure 1 - Jenn Harper, Founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty
Jenn Harper, an award-winning social entrepreneur, is the Founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics INC. Jenn is from the Ojibwe nation and grew up in the Niagara Region with her mother instead of on her family’s reservation. Throughout her life, Jenn struggled to accept her Indigenous roots and was estranged from a lot of her Indigenous family for a majority of her child and adult life. Today, Jenn is more in tune with her Anishinaabe roots, married, has two children, and resides in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.
In Indigenous culture, storytelling is an integral part of sharing and obtaining knowledge. For generations, storytelling was how Indigenous peoples passed down knowledge, narratives, oral histories, and traditions to one another.
The story of Cheekbone Beauty, then, is a way to pass down knowledge, narrative, history, and tradition from Jenn to you, the reader.
After a battle with alcoholism, Jenn had recently become sober in 2014. One of the things that really helped through this difficult time was using makeup as a method of self-care. We regularly hear the stereotypes surrounding Indigenous peoples – and Jenn would not allow herself to just be another stereotype.
Fast forward to 2015, Jenn was still working her full-time job in Sales and Marketing in the food industry when she had a truly lifechanging dream. In the dream, Jenn saw these little Native girls – they were dancing, laughing and just displaying such genuine joy all while covered in lip gloss. Whenever Jenn tells this story, many people ask if it was a vision considering that Jenn is Indigenous – to which the answer is no, it was a literal dream that changed her life.
This dream triggered Jenn to get out of bed and start writing down what we now know is the Cheekbone Beauty business plan. As part of this plan, Jenn spent months researching and learning about manufacturers and business until the official launch in 2016. Through deeper research, Jenn also uncovered more about her grandmother’s experience in the Canadian Residential School system from age six to sixteen, as well as trans/inter-generational trauma. Here is what Jenn learned in her research – no, the world did not need another cosmetics brand, and it didn’t need anymore lipsticks. However, the world did need more representation. At the time, the beauty space did not have Indigenous faces for the youth to look up to or to see themselves in.
Through both becoming sober and learning more about transgenerational trauma and the way Jenn’s family had been impacted, Jenn had her “a-ha!” moment on how to move through trauma, cope and heal and create this powerful brand that aims to help every Indigenous youth see and feel their tremendous value in the world.
Figure 2 - Jenn's grandmother, Residential School survivor, Emily Paul.
Cheekbone Beauty became a side-hustle in Jenn’s basement, while she continued to work full-time at her job in the seafood industry. To the core, this side hustle was truly a passion project.
Figure 3 - Cheekbone Beauty circa 2016.
Shortly after the inception of Cheekbone Beauty in 2016, Jenn experienced a huge loss in her family. Jenn’s brother, B.J, passed away from suicide. As difficult as it was, Jenn knew she had to continue for B.J. Jenn tells this incredibly emotional story of how anytime there was an Indigenous person doing something cool, he would DM or text Jenn the story and tell her how cool he thought it was – that he saw people in the media who looked like him.
It wasn’t until B.J. had passed and Jenn had seen the premiere of the show Reservation Dogs that Jenn truly realized the importance of representation, and how this show would have been another DM she’d receive from her late brother. So, for all the other Indigenous folks who also share with their friends and families the cool things that Indigenous peoples are doing, Jenn continued her journey.
Here’s the thing with starting a small, side-hustle cosmetics company – there are hundreds of others out there on the market. Coming from Sales and Marketing, Jenn knew that Cheekbone Beauty had to be unique and innovative to stand out in the market. At the beginning, Cheekbone carried private label cosmetics from a supplier who didn’t care to disclose much on their practices.
By August of 2019, Jenn’s basement had run out of space and her garage had also become taken over by product. Cheekbone Beauty had become Jenn’s primary full-time job, and she left the seafood industry.
Figure 4 - Running out of space, pre-HQ.
It was also in 2019 that Jenn appeared on Dragon’s Den (Season 14, Episode 1), where she pitched Cheekbone Beauty to the Dragon’s. Though Jenn did not take the offer she was presented, Jenn managed to receive funding from an Indigenous investment firm, whose values and mission truly aligned with that of Cheekbone Beauty.
The Cheekbone Beauty HQ followed shortly thereafter, with an in-house Indigenous Innovation Lab and a full-time chemist.
Since the inception, Cheekbone Beauty has become known for its high quality, cruelty-free beauty products designed for low environmental impact and maximum wearability. Considering Jenn’s Anishinaabe roots, Indigenous storytelling, such as the incorporation of the Seven Grandfathers Teachings or the Biinad Beauty Standards, quickly became part of the creative process, and can be seen in the naming of products, less waste line of cosmetics, and through our donations to help address the educational funding gap for Indigenous youth.
Jenn started with one employee in her basement, who was a family friend. Today, Cheekbone Beauty employs twelve people. We are constantly growing and innovating and making sure to leave a legacy behind for future generations of Indigenous youth to look up to.
Figure 5 - Plans for CBB.
Earlier in this post, we talked about how sharing the inception story of Cheekbone Beauty was a way to pass down knowledge to future generations and change the narrative surrounding Indigenous peoples and what success can look like for marginalized communities. Here is the narrative that Cheekbone Beauty always wants to share with our community – you can do anything you put your mind to. We operate on an Indigenous worldview where we view our customers as our community, and we gather to share what we have with one another.
Jenn’s dream has always been to change the narrative for Indigenous youth, so that they do not have to feel the way she did growing up, which was an overwhelming sense of invisibility and unbelonging, especially when you don’t see anybody who looks like you in mass media. Instead, the hope is that Indigenous youth will see and feel their enormous value in the world while we develop sustainable colour cosmetics.