Welcome to My Story, our weekly series dedicated to creatives of colour and their paths to success. By championing these diverse stories and backgrounds, we hope that our understanding of the cultural conversations around beauty and fashion will expand and that respect for our differences will flourish.
Meet Jenn Harper, the founder of Cheekbone Beauty, a made-in-Canada cosmetics line of colourful lipsticks and lip glosses, plus complexion products, focused on low waste and sustainability: think biodegradable packaging and sustainably sourced ingredients. What’s more, 10 per cent of Cheekbone Beauty’s profits are donated to the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, a non-profit organization providing reconciliation-based public education, research and support to promote the safety and wellbeing of First Nations children and their families. Formerly a sales professional, the idea for Cheekbone Beauty – which was established in 2016 and puts Indigenous youth at its centre – came to Jenn in a life-changing dream. Here, the entrepreneur shares, in her own words, her brand’s ethos and how she turned past trauma and struggle into do-good triumph.
On the dream that sparked it all:
“I was a serious alcoholic for many, many years and got sober in 2014. Then, in January of 2015, I literally had a dream about making lip gloss — and I don’t dream very often. The highlight of that dream was little Indigenous girls with the rosiest little cheeks, and they were laughing and just so happy. So I jumped out of bed that night, grabbed my laptop and typed up what I now know is called a business plan (I did not know that’s what it was called back then). That was the beginning of it. I took 2015 and 2016 to learn as much as I could about entrepreneurship and the beauty business, from product development to supply chain, market research and marketing. I didn’t go to business school. I just literally read over a hundred books between those two years.
Going through this insane experience of getting sober and getting my own life together, I thought about the ways I wanted the world to work: How could I be a real force for good and for positive change? How could I take money and put it towards good causes? How can I rethink how to operate? It was an opportunity to build a business that I did not yet see in the world and incorporating all of those ideas right into the business plan. I always talk about how I wouldn’t be where I am today without all the trauma and pain in my life. I had to go through that in order to get here now. I’m a grateful, recovered addict who wants to be a good role model for Indigenous youth, for my own family, for my own children. And I want to show that you can use business as a force for good.”
On learning and growing from one’s traumatic past:
“[That dream] came after me having my own struggles and searching for a long time on why it is that my community constantly struggles. And when I learned in 2015 about the residential school system and the impact that it had, which is called transgenerational trauma, it all started to make sense. Many Indigenous families are still impacted by the residential school system — a system that tried to eradicate Indigenous people of their language and practices. Learning that was really humbling because I used to just think there was something wrong with me and something wrong with my family. It gave me a true understanding of how big of a role that played into the person I had become because of my family history, but also the opportunity to realize that change is possible for so many of us.
I want to share with Indigenous youth that, yes our lives are imperfect, yes we can make mistakes along the way, but we can overcome a lot of those traumatic experiences and turn out on the good side of it as better people. We can be better citizens, better community leaders. We can be better parents and families. That’s all possible. I want to represent Indigenous views and stories, and I realize how important it is to be vulnerable and share that part of myself because somebody who is struggling may hear your story and take something away from it. And the truth is, when I was struggling, I would listen to other people’s stories and find empowerment in them by thinking, ‘Well, if they could do that, then maybe I could too?’ That’s the whole hope with my entire brand. Like The Warrior Women collection is ultimately this platform of incredibly inspiring, strong Indigenous women that we want our Indigenous kids to see and think: if you can see it, you can be it.”
On the importance of being able to tell your own origin stories:
“In mainstream industries, I don’t think Indigenous people have ever truly been highlighted, unless it’s an appropriated version. We see this in sports teams, in Land O’Lakes butter, even in stories like Pocahontas where nobody even got the story correct. And there is this Hollywood version of what it means to be a native person in North America. It’s unfortunate that our stories have never really been told from us, by us — the true stories. So, I’m just glad that Cheekbone Beauty gets to be a part of the storytelling.”
On helping Indigenous youth:
“We aren’t just building a brand that’s about selling lipsticks. The real power of our brand is truly about creating this space for representation for Indigenous kids and creating awareness around the unequal funding for Indigenous kids. We’re doing our part by doing what we can financially and, to date, we’ve donated just over $8,000 to The First Nations Child & Family Caring Society. And altogether we’ve donated well over $25,000 worth of products and cash to organizations as a whole that exist to improve and enhance the lives of Indigenous youth. For us, it’s really important that these kids’ education is taken care of and that people understand that they deserve an equal education, just like the rest of the Canadian kids.”
On her brand’s social media visuals:
“They are all of our community. We repost anyone who has purchased our product. We repost pictures along with community members’ thoughts around products. You’ll notice that we’ll make a comment in the caption about what shades they’re wearing, but then we let people express themselves in their own words. Our entire social media strategy is about letting people have this space to share their stories with the rest of the world.”
On the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement:
“Business has just skyrocketed. It’s become super overwhelming, and I honestly believe that the Black Lives Matter movement has played a giant role in our success. I will forever be grateful to the community members that have really propelled this and made the entire world stop and pay attention to something that should have been paid attention to far, far, far earlier. These movements also help us to make better business decisions as well, like who’s going to be working here? What does our board look like? Things that are super important. Even as an ‘awakened’ brand, we also can be learning and listening, because there’s so much more awakening to do.”
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