By D. Vienneau 

Named a 2019 Chatelaine Woman of the Year, Jennifer Harper is the proud founder and owner of Cheekbone Beauty, an Indigenous-owned cosmetics company that is making a difference—not just in the way we look but in how we view ourselves and our communities. Established in 2016 and based out of St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, Cheekbone Beauty is known for high-quality, cruelty-free, and sustainable products and packaging that make a positive impact in more ways than one.

What sets them apart from other cosmetic companies is that they exist to empower Indigenous youth. It is at the core of everything Cheekbone Beauty does, from creating products like the incredible Warrior Women lipstick collection to supporting Indigenous education through humanitarian causes.

Harper, who is Anishinaabe, is the driving force behind the success of Cheekbone Beauty, and, like many entrepreneurs, she thrives on challenge. The saying “third time’s a charm” holds true for Harper, because after two unsuccessful auditions for the hit CBC show Dragons’ Den, she was called into the den on her third attempt. Her appearance on the show solidified her place in the industry, and two stakeholders outside of the Den stepped up to the plate with funding to propel the business forward.

Harper has received several awards in addition to Chatelaine’s, including the Social Enterprise Award at the 17th Annual Women in Business Awards and the Social Enterprise of the Year – Ontario Award through Startup Canada.

It has not been an easy process building this company. In the early stages of Cheekbone Beauty, Harper suffered the loss of her brother B.J. His suicide, although extremely difficult, has continued to motivate her, to push the boundaries of her brand while giving back and empowering Indigenous youth.

Keep reading to learn more about Harper’s journey and how Cheekbone Beauty is making its mark as a social enterprise in the cosmetics industry.

SAY: Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood?

Harper: My parents met while my mother was going to school at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. My mother is non-Indigenous, and my father is Ojibway, Anishinaabe from Northwest Angle 33 First Nation (also known as Dog Paw) located in Northwestern Ontario. I was about 3 years old when we moved to Southern Ontario, and I have lived in the Niagara region ever since.

My parents split soon after moving to Toronto. Growing up, my relationship with my father was very dysfunctional, partly because he struggled with alcohol. When I got older, I decided to end the relationship because I couldn’t be around him when he was like that anymore. I was about 19 years old when I made that decision, and it wasn’t until I was 36 years old that I started speaking to him on the phone. I was 40 when I finally saw him for the first time in 20 years. A lot of things started to change when I studied the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) final report in 2015.

SAY: What changed and how has it impacted you?

Harper: When I was younger, so much of how I felt stemmed from shame, and what shame does to people is it creates barriers between family members and barriers for yourself, which doesn’t allow you to learn about who you are and where you come from. When I started studying the TRC, it was the most eye-opening experience because I really had no idea what my family went through. When I was younger, I wish I would have known why it felt like my family was so dysfunctional—now I know there was an underlying reason for it.

Not that it justifies people’s behaviour, but one thing I know for sure is we have to end the blaming and the shaming of the families we come from. Understanding all these things—including the dysfunction on my mother’s side of the family—has helped me come to terms with who I am. Today, I am grateful for a good relationship with my father. I accept both my parents and love them for who they are and the amazing people they have become despite their circumstances.

I am thankful for my entire life, all the highs and all the lows, because I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today without those experiences.

SAY: What advice do you have for others who may be in the same position?

Harper: What I really want to share with Indigenous youth is that we can flip the script in our minds. We can decide to look at it from the perspective that is going to make us proud of who we are. Knowing my grandmother and everything she went through—in residential schools for 10 years—she comes out of there after being regularly physically punished for speaking Anishinaabemowin, and today my entire family speaks our language fluently. She basically said, “Regardless of how you’ve treated me, I am going to go back to my reservation now that I am done here, I am going to teach all my children our language, and then my children will teach their children our language, and it’s going to live on, and you’re not going to kill our language.” I am so honoured to come from this kind of woman.

SAY: What inspired you to support Indigenous youth through Cheekbone Beauty?

Harper: I was once an Indigenous youth, so I feel like I understand their situation, their feelings. It is really important that we help one another. Our business model is based on community and the idea of sharing. All youth need is the support of a loving community, and that’s why we donate to and partner with causes like the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society’s “Shannen’s Dream” program and the Navajo Water Project. We also recently launched the seasonal GIVE Box from which a portion of the proceeds are donated to an Indigenous not-for-profit organization. In the near future, we hope to be able to launch our planned Indigenous Youth Scholarship Fund.

SAY: We read that all your life you have been made to feel ashamed of your cheekbones. This, no doubt, played a role in developing the company name. Can you expand?

Harper: My experience is part of why we exist, and it certainly influenced the name. I don’t ever want an Indigenous person to feel ashamed of who they are. My husband is Irish-Italian and my daughter has acquired all of the dark features from both of our cultures, and when I look at her, I don’t ever want her to not see herself or find somewhere where she fits in and feels comfortable—this is part of my hope for Cheekbone Beauty, to be relatable to all youth and to help them see their value.

SAY: What is the driving force behind Cheekbone Beauty?

Harper: My brother’s suicide. That is the constant companion that is painful, but it really drives me to keep going when I feel like giving up.

SAY: What were you doing professionally before launching Cheekbone Beauty?

Harper: I’ve been in the food industry pretty much my entire life. I spent the first half of my adult career in hotel and restaurant management in boutique-style hotels where I loved creating amazing customer experiences, which is something that has easily translated into Cheekbone Beauty. I eventually transferred over into food service sales, and in 2011 I started with a large seafood company where I focused on providing fresh seafood to hotels, restaurants, casinos and resorts, and I really built an amazing career doing that job.

The last eight years was focused on encouraging my customers to buy and think about sustainability issues when it comes to food. My career has always had this thread of doing things better and using sustainability as a model, which I find interesting when I look back.

I worked there full-time for three years while building Cheekbone Beauty on the side—I was essentially working two full-time jobs, which I don’t recommend because I was really burnt out. It was pure passion. I only left there in August 2019 when I was finally able to start paying myself through Cheekbone Beauty.

SAY: How do you source and manufacture your products?

Harper: I am very hands-on when it comes to creating new products. I source all the raw ingredients, which come from around the world depending on what we are looking for. They are then shipped to our headquarters (my home office) before going to one of the two manufacturing facilities we use in the greater Toronto area. The products then come back to our office where we package the products (in biodegradable packaging). Our goal will always be to be the last people to touch the products before they go out to the world. We don’t use a fulfillment centre because I don’t want to lose that personal touch. I want to continue to provide the most beautiful customer experience, which includes adding a pink feather to every order, a unique symbol of thanks and a reminder to pass on kindness.

SAY: What’s next for Cheekbone Beauty?

 Harper: Right now, we have a new foundation/contour stick in the works that we’ve been able to develop with funding through the National Research Council of Canada. This funding is so important because research and development (R&D) projects are a very expensive and important part of operating a business.

I am so excited about this R&D project because I have not seen anything like it in the market! It is based on the idea of a circular economy, so taking plant and agricultural waste (that would otherwise go into a landfill) and converting it into the main raw ingredient in this new foundation. I think what we’re doing is pretty innovative. We’re not the mastermind behind the conversion of the waste into the raw ingredient, another organization is, but I’m extremely excited to be partnering with them on this project.

SAY: What are you most proud of?

Harper: I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to do this work, and I am proud of how far we’ve come. When you start this journey with an idea, you don’t know if anyone else is going to care about this thing that you care about so much. I’m proud that we’ve been able to get other people to care about Indigenous youth, maybe as much as we do. I want Indigenous youth to remember that if you don’t give up, you cannot fail.