For Jenn Harper, starting Cheekbone Beauty was a dream — quite literally.
In 2015, the Anishinaabe-Canadian was working in sales and marketing in the food industry when the idea to make lip gloss came to her in her sleep. She jumped out of bed to jot the idea down, and the spent the next several months researching manufacturers before launching her makeup brand in 2016.
Harper's middle-of-the-night epiphany came just a few months into being sober after an eight-year battle with alcoholism, and fully comprehending the ramifications of Canada's residential school system (established to assimilate Indigenous people into European culture) had on her grandmother, a survivor, and the rest of her family.
Confronting the generational trauma head on, Harper created Cheekbone to give Indigenous people a much-needed space in the beauty industry where they feel seen, and as a means to give back their communities. Through the brand's charitable initiatives, monetary donations, product donations, or project donations are made to Indigenous youth to provide them with the tools they need to achieve their own goals.
Cheekbone also celebrates Indigenous people's deep connection to nature and the land they live on, with its focus on using sustainably sourced ingredients and minimal waste packaging. The brand's fan-favorite SUSTAIN Lipsticks come in a tube made with 85% less plastic, plus biodegradable paper printed with vegetable dyes to ensure the materials don't have a negative impact on the land it's going back into. The brand has a goal of becoming zero waste by 2023.
Ahead, Harper shares her inspiration for Cheekbone Beauty, why there needs to be more representation for Indigenous people in the beauty industry, and the importance of using sustainable ingredients and packaging.
What inspired Cheekbone Beauty?
The idea for Cheekbone Beauty came to me in a dream in the middle of the night in January 2015. Prior to that, I was battling alcoholism for eight years. I got real with myself, knowing I was about to lose everything if I didn't get sober. My husband wasn’t going to stick around any longer and he was going to take our kids. A few months after getting sober, I had this dream to start the business and I jumped out of bed in the middle of the night to write down the idea. I wanted to make lip gloss and start a foundation in my grandmother’s name. She was a residential school survivor, which I really only learned about in the last couple years. The schools were the systematic assimilation of Indigenous people, with the goal of trying to transform our people into becoming more European or “refined.” This caused so much damage to our people, which we now know is called generational trauma. My grandmother was there for 10 years without going home for summers or anything and I can only imagine how being there would change someone’s soul. She became an angry woman who then in turn became an alcoholic herself, and passed it onto my father, brother, and myself.
My brother committed suicide right before I launched Cheekbone Beauty in 2016. When I learned about the massive ramifications of what the residential schools did and the negative impact they had on my family, I was already knee deep in research and building the business. I always say it’s a horrific, painful companion, but it’s a daily reminder of something my brother said to me before he died: Indigenous kids need hope and help. My business was unlike anything he had ever heard before, because it highlights Indigenous people and supports them with portions of the profits. I have an insatiable desire to succeed because of him, plus a global group of Indigenous people around the world who have all been negatively impacted by colonization to some degree.
How did you get the brand off the ground with no experience in the beauty industry?
While I was still working my sales and marketing job in the food industry, I would research how to go about making beauty products at night. I learned that the beauty industry has a number of manufacturers that will make products for you and it’s all about putting a brand on them. I knew that wasn’t how I wanted the brand to exist forever, but it was how I could afford to start it. While I started off using white label concepts in the beginning, I always had the dream of making more sustainable products later on once I got enough funding to really execute my concepts.
Why was it important to make Cheekbone's lipsticks as sustainable as possible?
When I think about sustainability, there’s of course this huge environmental side to it, but sustaining our people is just as important. I started working with a cosmetic chemist in 2018 to see if it was possible to create the products I had envisioned. This chemist really is specialized in looking for more sustainable ingredients, which isn’t always the case in the beauty space. She was able to help me through a Western scientific lens, while I came to her with this traditional ecological knowledge and what it meant for our people. We’ve done a really good job of marrying the two approaches so they coexist. Ultimately, we base everything at Cheekbone beauty on what our ancestors have done historically. We know they constantly watched and mimicked nature without wasting anything. As a brand we can’t mimic nature perfectly, but we do our best to try.
We don’t want things to end up in landfills, so we started with lipstick because I thought it would be the simplest thing to do, but it isn’t at all. We used biodegradable, compostable paper packaging for the lipstick. We tested it in our home gardens and in eight weeks it was fully gone. The paper itself uses vegetable dyes because we’re constantly thinking about how something that’s composting is going to impact the land it’s going back into. We did have to use some virgin plastic for the tube because we couldn’t find a post-consumer source.
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Why do you think Indigenous people are often left out of the beauty industry and how do you hope to change this narrative?
There are a few reasons. I fully realize that business are about making money and if they are looking at something like market share, Indigenous people are only 5% of the world’s population. So, personally, through a business lens, I understand why there may not be a focus on indigenous people, but I also know that businesses are not only missing out on the beauty of the people but also the importance of representation. I’m really adamant about talking about this part because representation can literally save lives. I say that as someone with a family member who committed suicide and who knows that suicide is an issue among many groups of people that feel underrepresented in society. There’s an important need to address this as a society and figure out how to help all groups of people.
Secondly, the world is in big trouble if Western society doesn’t focus on environmental issues when it comes to sustainability. Indigenous people are the ones protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity and we’re only a small percent of the population. That is massive and you have to ask yourself why and how we’ve done that. We as Indigenous people have an innate connection to the land, earth, and water. The importance of paying attention to brands that have experience in sustainability is going to be really important for the world going forward.
Shop Cheekbone Beauty’s Fan-Favorite Products
Available in six shades including burgundy, red, and mauve, Cheekbone's SUSTAIN Lipstick is made with sustainably sourced ingredients and come in tubes made with biodegradable paper and 85% less plastic. The shade names pay respect to the over 7000 indigenous languages, and are named after the words for earth and land.
To shop: $26 each; cheekbonebeauty.ca
Your Brows Eyebrow Gel
This easy-to-use gel is designed to streamline your daily brow routine. The rounded spoolie brush is the ideal shape for filling in, sculpting, and tinting brows — or all of the above. It comes in three shades plus clear.
To shop: $16; cheekbonebeauty.ca
Cheekbone's lip glosses are lightweight, but extremely hydrating thanks to vitamin E oil. The high-shine formula also offers major color payoff, whether you opt for rich berry or your-lips-but-better nude.
To shop: $16 each; cheekbonebeauty.ca
This best-selling palette comes with a trio of shades to contour, highlight, and add a touch of color to the face. The four available colorways come with all matte shades or a mix of matte and shimmer.
To shop: $40; cheekbonebeauty.ca
Warrior Women Liquid Lipstick
Each shade of Cheekbone's liquid lipstick is named after an Indigenous woman working to better their community and the world. The brand honors women across the globe in a number of fields like law, music, activism, and environmentalism to further empower Indigenous youth to follow their own dreams.
To shop: $24; cheekbonebeauty.ca
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