This article was originally posted on January 18, 2020 on the Innovate Inclusion website.
Jennifer Harper is the Founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics, a successful online business known for its high-quality lipsticks and for its focus on Indigenous empowerment. Cheekbone Beauty has a dedicated social media following of people who identify with the brand’s positive messaging of diversity and inclusion.
I reach Jenn at her home office on the Wednesday after American Thanksgiving, the weekend of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
“It’s so busy right now! We sold more products this weekend than any year before – we’ve even completely sold out of some lines,” she says as we get started. “It’s a great problem to have, though. We’re growing quickly.”
Jenn is friendly, positive, and extremely open about her journey. It’s clear that she’s passionate about her business, which was born out of a very personal story.
Jenn, who is Indigenous, grew up in Niagara with her Caucasian mother and had minimal connection to her Indigenous heritage or community. She says she often struggled with her identity as an Indigenous youth, especially because she was unaware of the history of residential schools or transgenerational trauma until about ten years ago.
“In 2008, I started to pay attention to the way media talked about the First Nations community. It was always so negative, and was often about stereotypes such as alcohol addiction. It perpetuates shame, which causes you to not want to talk about things. I have had difficulties with alcohol, and so did my dad, and other members of my family. A big part of my healing has been learning to talk about my struggles and not feeling ashamed of them.”
“Growing up as part of Generation X, I didn’t have a ton of female role models and definitely no Indigenous ones. I also didn’t learn a lot about entrepreneurship at school; I don’t think I could have named more than one entrepreneur from my generation who had built a business or a company.”
Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics was born out of a desire to improve Indigenous representation and to support Indigenous youth. Jenn firmly believes that a business can be both successful and have a social cause. She donates 10% of Cheekbone Beauty’s profits to Shannen’s Dream, which supports the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society. The company also often features Indigenous models in their branding.
“I just want people to feel how much we love Indigenous youth, and how much we love each customer and how grateful we are that they order and purchase our products. Every dollar allows us to grow and move forward with the business. I have so much heartfelt gratitude and respect for all of them.”
Starting the Business
I ask Jenn how she knew starting her own business was the right move for her, rather than joining an existing organization or non-profit.
“I think I always had the entrepreneurial spirit,” she says. “During my career, although I was working for companies, I was always in independent roles. I did sales for a while and became familiar with hunting down business and dealing with a lot of rejections. That definitely helped me get started. Now that I’m a business owner, I’ve also become knowledgeable about other aspects of business such as supply chains and distribution.”
“I had a good start thanks to the Native Women’s Association of Canada. In 2016, I attended an online mentorship program through NWAC where I had the opportunity to learn everything a business operator needs to know. At the end of the course, all of the program participants got to meet and share our stories. Surrounded by other Native entrepreneurs, with all that support, I knew then that I was on the right path.”
She started with just $500, a gift from the NWAC program, and used it to register her domain and open a small Shopify store. Jenn made sure to post on social media every day from her smartphone, no matter what, which organically grew into the following the company has today.
Jenn admits that there have been challenges along the way. It can be difficult to explain her business model to potential investors or collaborators who are extremely focused on the bottom line; it’s hard to quantify the positive social impact Cheekbone Beauty’s brand is having on Indigenous youth and young people in general. She’s not afraid to share her story, though, and over time has built up a strong business network.
“I’m not afraid to talk about my struggles. When I went on Dragon’s Den, even though I didn’t get the investment that I was hoping for, I showed that I could stand on a national stage and talk about myself, be vulnerable, and act as a role model for the people watching. I was willing to take that risk because our youth need to see us try.”
“Everyone deserves to see their face represented, no matter whom they are or where they are.”
What’s next for Cheekbone Beauty?
“One of Cheekbone Beauty’s next projects is a sustainable lipstick line with better packaging. As Indigenous people, we always ask ourselves: How will what we’re doing today affect the next seven generations? This new line is speaking to that. It’ll be out in March 2020!”
Any advice for other entrepreneurs?
“My personal advice is that we should be working harder on ourselves daily than on our businesses. Unless we are whole and well, we’re not going to be any good to anyone else – including our company.”
And for aspiring entrepreneurs, Jenn says: “Just keep going. The key is consistency. You can start with something smaller and prove that it can work before you scale up. You don’t need to go big right away… Show up every day, and always do your best.”