Cheekbone Beauty founder talks building a makeup brand with purpose

Ontario-based company partners with Sephora for Indigenous Heritage Month to help bring clean water to Indigenous community across Canada.

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Cosmetics have played a powerful role in Jenn Harper’s life.

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“Makeup really has this interesting place in my life,” the Ontario-based entrepreneur explains. “I remember, when I was a little girl, I would sit and smell my mom’s palettes and feel the powders in my hand. I just feel like there’s something about it that’s really powerful.”

Later, battling alcoholism as a young woman, Harper recalls beauty products acting as a lifeline of sorts, grounding her in her then-present day.

“There were some times when I couldn’t leave the house,” Harper recalls. “And it’s only because of the power of putting makeup on or doing a skin-care routine that would make me leave the house because I always felt like crap most days. It was no way to live. It was awful. It was hell.

“It’s like you feel hopeless and in this dark. But there’s some days when it was like, ‘OK, I put lipstick on and now I can go and try to go to work and feel better.’ ”

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As she worked to overcome alcoholism, getting sober in 2014, Harper explored her family history, unearthing painful truths about her grandparents’ experiences in the residential school system.

“I was really coming into my own awakening of who I was and where I came from and my family’s history. So I was learning,” Harper says. “Learning about that generational trauma helped me understand my past, my family’s past.”

It was then that Harper decided she was going to work to change the narrative, for herself and for others in the Indigenous community.

“I was sick and my illness with alcoholism for so long,” Harper says. “I didn’t want to admit that it was a problem because of the stereotypes that exist among my people. And it’s really frustrating now, when I think about it, how long that held me back from getting healthy.”

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During that time of personal exploration, Harper recalls having a dream about Indigenous young women. She vividly recalls they were wearing makeup, specifically lip gloss. With the memory of the dream fresh in her mind, she approached family and friends with an idea.

She wanted to start the first Indigenous-owned cosmetics company.

“When I look back now, it’s bananas that someone with no experience in this industry would even think that they have … the wherewithal to even begin,” Harper recalls with a laugh of that early idea. “But I was really working off passion and this whole idea of why not?

“Why isn’t there an Indigenous-owned and operated brand that’s bringing our ways of knowing and being into this space? And the more time I spent in the beauty industry, the more I realized, oh my goodness, there’s so much room for change.”

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Started in 2016, Cheekbone Beauty is a fast-growing cosmetics company, complete with its own formula chemist at its St. Catharines, Ont., facility, which Harper calls the brand’s “Indigenous Innovation Lab,” where they can create their clean beauty products without compromising on Harper’s mission for change.

“Really the foundation and the original purpose was how can we bring more Indigenous representation into the beauty space?” Harper says of the makeup products that also look to incorporate Indigenous concepts of life cycle and sustainability.

“The beauty space, much like many others, is about how to get a product and sell it into someone’s hands and nobody’s too concerned about what happens to that afterwards,” Harper says. “So we really work from a different angle and are thinking so thoughtfully about, ‘OK, what is going to happen to this?’ ”

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In April, Cheekbone Beauty received its B-Corp. certification, which sees it meet several sustainability and transparency targets by the private certification company.

The Cheekbone Beauty founder and CEO says the brand’s mission to become sustainable isn’t over with the B-Corp. award.

“We understand fully that sustainability is a journey,” Harper says. “There’s no silver bullet in terms of what we’ve seen in the innovation that’s happening in the world. There’s going to be so much more to come.”

In addition to its Indigenous empowerment and sustainability targets, Harper is keen to see her brand shine a spotlight on issues such as diversity, representation and transparency. She says the Cheekbone Beauty social media accounts often field questions from people looking to become a better ally of Indigenous people.

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They’re questions that she’s happy to see herself and her team help to answer.

“We’ve positioned ourselves to be a soft place to land, not only for Indigenous people, but also for non-Indigenous people,” Harper says. “We welcome strange questions. We don’t yell at someone because they feel like they’ve asked a weird, odd question to an Indigenous person. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we also certainly would do whatever we possibly could to find the right answers and resources for people that come to us.”

Because of this openness, Harper says many customers look to Cheekbone Beauty as a resource.

“I feel like because we put ourselves in that position, we’ve really drawn a lot of people into it to make it OK,” Harper says.

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Speaking from Vancouver where Harper was visiting Sephora stores before the launch of the brand’s #GlossedOver campaign during Indigenous History Month, Harper explained how the brand’s latest initiative is working to bring awareness to water contamination issues in Indigenous communities across Canada. 

It’s an issue she says not enough people are aware of — including, at one point, herself.

“I’m an Ojibwe woman. I didn’t grow up in my community, I grew up in St. Catharines, the city where Cheekbone operates today,” Harper says. “I’ve never had to think about water and drinking water. Where I know and now fully understand that there are many communities across the country that have to worry about the water that comes out of their tap. And that just seems crazy when we live in such a beautiful place.”

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The campaign promotes three products made specifically for marketing, aimed at raising the question: “Would you put it to your lips?” The lip gloss formulas feature the names Luscious Lead, E.Coli Kiss and Mercury Shimmer, each a nod to water contaminant issues facing Indigenous communities across the country.

As of January 2022, an estimated 94 — or approximately one in six — First Nations communities in Canada don’t have access to clean water either intermittently or continuously, according to Water First, a charitable group that is working to address these water issues through “education, training and meaningful collaboration.”

Full proceeds from the sale of all Cheekbone Beauty products at Sephora Canada and sephora.ca through June will be donated to the organization’s efforts.

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“What Water First does is it teaches communities about installing and maintaining infrastructure,” Harper says of the group’s action-and-education approach. “It’s not just saying, ‘Let’s throw money at something that we can think about a way to solve a problem.’ They really come to the problem of the water issue with solutions.

“Let’s educate our next generation of Indigenous kids on how to take care of and treat water treatment systems and how to protect the future of their water.”

With the #GlossedOver campaign, Harper hopes to see the impact that beauty products have had on her life further impacting the lives of others. 

“This is makeup doing something that it has never done before,” Harper says. “And this is something that we can actually work on solving — together.”

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