By Khera Alexander
Jenn Harper had no intentions of becoming an entrepreneur. In fact, she didn’t think that was something that was even possible. And then in a dream one night, Jenn was visited by happy, smiling Indigenous girls wearing lip gloss. This dream was vivid, and it sparked an idea in her that she didn’t think of previously: to build a beauty brand with a purpose.
“Wanting to recreate this joy for those Indigenous kids that were in my dream was essentially the foundation of how I began this journey,” Jenn says.
Jenn had already done a lot of work on herself: she had overcome personal struggles, recovered from alcoholism, and learned more about who she was, her culture, and the lineage from which she descended. She was ready and determined to work on building her business, Cheekbone Beauty. She wanted to make a positive impact, invest in her community, and run a business that would do its part to help the environment — not hurt it.
Jenn also wanted Cheekbone Beauty to be a symbol of representation and something Indigenous youth could take inspiration from. Jenn had experienced the intergenerational trauma of North America’s colonial past and current settler colonial environment that has harmed Indigenous nations. “For many years, part of my addiction came from this deep shame of actually being an Ojibwe woman,” she says, adding that she wanted to do her part to subvert the miseducation and share more positivity for the next generation of children. “Can we change this narrative for our kids? Can we give them good stories to see? They don’t have to be ashamed of who they are and where they come from, and they can use their wonderful, incredible gifts, all these things that are innately Indigenous. It’s an amazing culture with really powerful teachings and stories.”
“It’s not about this Western view of, how much can I attain for myself? An Indigenous view of success is about how much you can give back to your community, and thinking about our actions today and how they impact the next generations.”
Jenn started with the basic steps: gaining an understanding of how products are made, what a supply chain is, and what channels she could use for sales. She wanted to create high-performing beauty products that were cruelty-free and without harmful ingredients. As she progressed, industry experts encouraged her to focus on profitability only, but Jenn continued to push forward in her pursuit of being of service to others while building Cheekbone.
“I fought all of the pushback from business advisory boards and mentors saying, ‘No. This is the only reason I’m doing it. And if we can’t weave that in as part of the foundation, then it’s not going to work,’” she said. Little by little, Jenn built Cheekbone Beauty from the ground up and on her own terms, tapping into her culture to inform some of her decision-making. “It’s not about this Western view of, how much can I attain for myself? An Indigenous view of success is about how much you can give back to your community, and thinking about our actions today and how they impact the next generations.”
In business since 2016, Cheekbone Beauty is still a young brand — but they have already made significant strides aligned with their three sustainability pillars: Economic good, educational good, and environmental good. “We add it into every part of the business,” explains Jenn.
Their SUSTAIN Lipstick line, for example, has a tube that uses 85% less plastic and is made of biodegradable paper — and once it’s used up, the packaging can be separated by the consumer for recycling and compost. Each shade is either named after the earth, the land, or after the word that means “on the land or earth” in one of the over 7000 Indigenous languages. Plus, “For every one that is purchased, there is one going back to an Indigenous youth somewhere in some community.”
They also sell a Give Box seasonally, featuring both Cheekbone items and natural and sustainable products from other North American brands, with a large portion of the proceeds going to a charitable cause. “Usually in spring and summer, we’re planting trees. Last spring, we got water and solar power to a family from the Navajo reservation in the United States. We’re always just looking for streams of giving, different ways that we can add that layer of giving into everything that we do,” Jenn says.
Cheekbone Beauty has been able to invest in Indigenous communities by donating over $108,000 to a number of causes. One of these initiatives is Shannen’s Dream, an organization that works in tandem with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCS) to address educational disparities between Indigenous youth and non-Indigenous youth. In the future, Jenn has plans to create a scholarship program to help fund the education of Indigenous students.
On the environmental front, she has goals to eliminate single-use plastic products, provide refill options, and have all packaging be biodegradable and compostable by 2023. The company is also looking into a recycling initiative to safely dispose of their products. “Internally, we’re trying to figure out what it could look like if we could create some kind of program where we’re the ones taking back the product, so that our customers know something really positive is happening with that product at the end of that packaging life,” Jenn says.
“The reality is, in every situation, it’s not black or white. When it comes to a sustainability journey, every choice is different for every product.”
Jenn credits her business’ success to being directly linked to how much Cheekbone values giving back. “When I think about the success in such a short time that we’ve had in the growth, it’s certainly because people feel how important that give back is to us,” she says. For any business that also cares about sustainability or being purpose-driven, Jenn points to authenticity and communication as key to success.
“A business has to be very transparent about their supply chain, how they operate, and how they source products and ingredients,” advises Jenn. “With our SUSTAIN Lipstick, we were open and honest about that process, making sure that the organization is giving the right information to support the consumer with the product at the end of its life, and anything there in between.”
Jenn can empathize with any customer that may feel overwhelmed when attempting to shop sustainably, but wants for people to find what works best for them. “The reality is, in every situation, it’s not black or white. When it comes to a sustainability journey, every choice is different for every product. Plastic, glass, or aluminum, they all have a place, and that’s why it’s hard,” Jenn says. “It’s up to each individual consumer to decide on the consumer they want to be, and then do the research,” she says.
For consumers who are skeptical of the difference they can make as an individual, Jenn encourages thinking of your efforts as part of a community.
“It takes one person to start building that community, and be a part of a community, and share what they know with the community,” says Jenn. “We can’t do it alone. We just can’t, and that’s why we need each other. We need to find people that you connect with and realize, even though you are on your own, and though you’re making those small steps and changes, then it’s going to be about your example and you spreading that into your community.”