Jenn Harper Featured in The Globe and Mail
Welcome 2023! Cheekbone Beauty is starting the year off strong with a feature on our Founder and CEO, Jenn Harper, in The Globe and Mail.
In an article titled "Cheekbone Beauty's Jenn Harper draws from her Indigenous roots to disrupt the industry", authors Karl Moore and Jennifer Robinson dive deep into the humble beginnings of Cheekbone Beauty.
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art by @chiefladybird
Jenn Harper spent 12 years working in sales and marketing before embarking on her own business venture. In 2015, the Anishinaabe founder launched Cheekbone Beauty, a cosmetic brand that has been gaining buzz since appearing on the CBC show, Dragon's Den. Today, Ms. Harper is carving the path for female leadership in the beauty world, and reimagining its products through an Indigenous worldview.
Can you introduce yourself?
I am Jenn Harper, an Anishinaabe Ojibwe woman from Northwest Angle 33, which is a northwestern Ontario Treaty 3 territory. That’s my family’s home reservation, though I never lived there. I’ve only visited my family, and my dad lives there. He and my mom met when my mom was at Lakehead in Thunder Bay. My mom is non-Indigenous, and her family is third-generation Irish-Canadian with East Coast roots. They didn’t stay together very long after having me. My mom took a job in St. Catharines in the Niagara region where we ended up moving. I stayed here. I was raised here and had my family here. My husband and I raised our kids here. Thinking about building my company, I thought it was a great location because we’re close to Toronto and the U.S., yet we still get to feel like we’re not in the city and have the luxury of heading into nature if we feel like it.
How do you balance health and your wellness while managing a company?
I was told early on that I should be working harder on myself every day than I do on the business, and I can really see the power of that advice. It is taxing and challenging – emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually – so my daily routine starts in nature, in that wooded area across the street from where I live. I walk to work, and I walk home for lunch every day. Fitness is a huge part of my life as well. When you’re building a brand, creative time and space is important. When you’re in the day-to-day operational things, and with urgent tasks and emergencies happening, it’s hard to stay creative. That early morning time and then that lunchtime walk is super helpful.
How did you get the idea to launch Cheekbone Beauty?
A big part of my story as a founder is that the brand only exists because of my sobriety. I had battled alcoholism for many years. I was at a seafood company when I would spend nights and weekends working on Cheekbone. On Nov. 26, 2014, I got sober, and two months later I had this insane dream about native little girls covered in lip gloss. They had the rosiest little cheeks. I woke up that night at two in the morning, grabbed my laptop and started writing. This is truly the foundation of our brand today – this idea of creating a product and use a portion of the profits to do something good within my community.
At first, I had the idea of a scholarship fund in honour of my grandmother, Emily Paul. I was newly sober and started learning about her experience at residential school, which I had no clue about. Even as an Ojibwe woman, I had lived 38 years with no knowledge of the residential-school system. I started to learn about it through the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015.
After having this dream, I read a hundred books on business entrepreneurship and about my Indigenous culture, the residential-school system and its impacts. It was a way for me to connect. I felt like I had the answer as to why my family felt dysfunctional.
How did going sober align with building your brand?
I’d been trying to get well for about eight years. I went into rehab in 2010 and then relapsed, before finally getting sober in 2014. That year, I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I understood my brain and how it was working: I created a pathway to celebrate with alcohol and be sad with alcohol. I realized I could overcome addiction if I could create a new pathway because that’s what this book, based on neurology, was teaching me. That’s what I decided to do, and I became obsessed with building Cheekbone Beauty.
What made you want to share your sobriety journey?
It’s something that I would have never dreamed about sharing publicly. It wasn’t until I got well and started realizing how powerful it was for me to hear somebody that had this problem and overcame it. Addiction is a serious issue within First Nations communities, and it’s a big issue in my family. I felt like that if I talked about it, it might help somebody, and it’s the only reason I started to share it. Being vulnerable has helped me heal even further. I’ll celebrate eight years of sobriety this year.
What sets Cheekbone Beauty apart from other brands?
We would never ask Lancôme if they were just for French people. Indigenous people make up 5 per cent of the population, so if we are going to be a brand that’s about growing, we need a bigger audience than just our community. However, our roots will never change how we make decisions or how we create products. Everything is based on my Anishinaabe roots, and that’s what makes our brand special.
We’re not only bringing in incredible ingredients that come from all the beautiful plant medicines that our planet offers, but it’s this idea of sustainability, which no other culture brings to the forefront as much as ours does. When I think of where the market is going, I think that that’s where our power lies.
What makes a business Indigenous?
I love this question because, obviously, I am Indigenous by blood, so that makes it Indigenous. But we’ve gone extra lengths to create a company structure based on the “seven grandfather teachings.” Companies have missions and visions; ours is helping every Indigenous person see and feel their value in the world, while creating sustainable colour cosmetics that don’t end up in a landfill and are made for every human.
These teachings are broken down into our core values, which are the three pillars of humility, love, respect. The idea of business is generally transactional, but we look at all transactions from the perspective of love, meaning that with everything we do, we never expect anyone to give us anything back. We’re doing it out of the concept of giving out love freely. Then, we incorporate the teachings into how we work as a team and how we communicate with each other. As long as I’m at the lead, this is how we operate.
Is there a difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership?
Everybody can lead with love and a connection to earth. But if I’m going to be honest, I believe that culturally it is this way of being and knowing that makes how we look at resources completely different from a non-Indigenous perspective. It’s not about commodities and how much we extract without looking at what it’s doing to impact the next generations
How does Cheekbone Beauty put this worldview into practice?
It’s about doing business and doing good at the same time. We just became a B Corp certified company this year, which means we now a legal obligation to people and the planet. It took over a year to vet our entire supply chain, our operations, our team, what we pay people, our partners and ethical sourcing practice.
We take things further by using the teaching called “two-eyed seeing” from Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall. From the harvesting of raw ingredients to the end of the life of the product and packaging, we don’t want that to end up in the landfill or negatively impact our ecosystems. Some items never biodegrade. You can wash your face, and these items are going down our drains, into our waterways and harm aquatic life. We work to make sure that those ingredients are never used.
What is your goal for Cheekbone Beauty?
The goal is that like some Indigenous kid can wander into a Sephora in Australia, in Brazil, and see Cheekbone Beauty and know that another Indigenous person built that brand and know that they’re going to not think that they can’t do anything that they want. Our kids are going to grow up in a completely different world and be whatever the heck they want because they’re seeing their people do things like this.
How can non-Indigenous people be better allies?
Listening is so powerful and important to engage with your local Indigenous communities. As humans, we always want to jump right in to help others. Maybe it’s just about listening first. I feel like if we did more listening, we might have a better understanding of each other.
What is your advice to Indigenous youth?
I don’t have any great skills. I’ve just been consistent for six years. I’ve woken up every single day and done something to push the Cheekbone Beauty brand forward. Showing up and getting things done every day and not giving up, I think, is what’s made us a successful business.
About the Authors
Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal. Jennifer Robinson is a resident physician at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, and is an Algonquin woman of the Timiskaming First Nation.
About the Artist
The art featured in this article was created by Chief Lady Bird (@chiefladybird on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook). She is a Chippewa and Potawatomi artist from Rama First Nation and Moosedeer Point First Nation.