Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Growing up with the Ojibwe tribe and Anishinaabe people, Jenn Harper’s dream has always been to change the narrative for Indigenous youth through her passion for makeup. Now, as founder and CEO of B-Corp Certified beauty brand, Cheekbone Beauty, Jenn is changing the way we think about representation in the cosmetics industry. On the surface, they're a sustainability-forward makeup brand. Behind the scenes, they're a company changing the lives and futures of Indigenous communities while bringing more representation into the cosmetics world.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Reflecting on her journey in building Cheekbone Beauty and sustainable color cosmetics, Jenn expresses her hope for Indigenous youth to see and feel their enormous value in the world.
What inspired you to start Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics?
The idea of the company stemmed from a dream I had back in January 2015. In the dream, there’s three Native little girls covered in lip gloss. I woke up, grabbed my laptop, and wrote down ways I can make lip gloss.
Essentially, representation is the initial purpose and idea. I felt there was a gap in the beauty space and in any broadline media. Indigenous people are not always represented in a positive light and the tragic side of our people is only represented. Existing media doesn’t show the authentic real story of why we are suffering in the ways we are suffering.
Culturally, as Indigenous people and in my tribe particularly, it’s innate for us to help our community. I also wanted to embed the idea of giving back into the brand and use a portion of the profits to support Indigenous and First Nations communities.
How do you envision sustainability in Cheekbone Beauty?
I’ve recognized that there’s a ton of room for improvement for sustainability in the beauty space. It is a conversation I’ve been passionate about for a long time an dI invested in this project because there was an opportunity to grow.
I wanted to create products that aren’t going to leave a huge impact on the planet. In building my Cheekbone Beauty, I’m thinking about how we should source ingredients, promote energy efficiency, repurpose materials, and be conscious of our packaging design.
As humans, we love black and white solutions. Unfortunately, when you’re going down this realm of sustainability, that will never be the case. It’s definitely a journey and there’s no endpoint.
How have you learned to prioritize decisions that will help your business (eg., balancing sustainability vs. growing the brand)?
I had to be honest with myself and ask myself why we’re starting another beauty brand. I have openly said to myself that the world probably doesn’t need another brand. However, after lots of thinking, I realized that we have the opportunity to address sustainability and social issues simultaneously.
I’ve seen the transformation with my communities based on the messages I’ve received. I honestly and authentically believe representation is going to save lives. I’ve seen our community across North America starting businesses now at a faster rate than any other culture. Cheekbone Beauty is not going to take full ownership of that, but we definitely have a very large public platform that comes with influence.
We’re Indigenous famous within our communities. Once our brand entered a place like Sephora, it really showed how far we came along. I’m not saying that we’ve finally made it once we went to retail; however, the optics and what it’s doing for the psyche of my people has outweighed so many negatives that I thought about along the way, which is putting another product into a world that we might not need. It definitely lifted the weight of my shoulders.
Regarding sustainability, I think about how we source our shea butter from an East African village and the way we package our products. It may be a $25 or $30 lipstick, but we’re not impacting any human being in a negative way.
We need to fully understand, accept, and recognize the decisions we make and how it’s supporting the people who are involved. It helped me reframe how I feel about adding another product into the world.
How does representation change lives in a positive way? What is the harm in lack of representation?
As humans, we don’t fully understand how representation affects us unconsciously. I lost my brother to suicide in the early days of building this brand. Unfortunately, the rate of suicide among Indigenous peoples is so much higher than national averages largely due to social media and generational trauma.
When my brother was alive, the show Reservation Dogs had all kinds of red carpet experiences. When he was alive, he would send me messages and DMs about any Native person doing anything that was relatively popular or cool. He felt seen and connected to those people and he loved seeing our people succeed.
When we see ourselves succeeding in a space that we’ve never occupied before, it will dramatically change the future for our next generations. They’ll be able to visualize themselves in these spaces and feel seen.
That’s the power in starting my brand. The narratives that we see about Indigenous people are often about struggle and oppression. Even though those narratives are very real, it’s equally powerful to show everyone that a Indigenous-owned business can enter a huge space like Sephora. We have the power to be a part of building and creating this new narrative. I’ve heard people say we can create generational healing and it just takes one generation to change that.
How did Cheekbone Beauty scale across the nation?
Being consistent and waking up every single day with the goal of pushing this brand forward has helped me. When we were building Cheekbone Beauty, we initially started with $500 and everyday consisted of me wondering if it was going to work.
Last week, my team and I were working on some content and reflecting on how small we were and now it feels unreal. Now, we’re at Sephora. In terms of footprint, you can now go on our website and look at a map of where you can find us. We’re in more than 608 locations in the US and Canada. It’s wild to see that visually on a map.
However, I don’t stop to think about how unreal it is too much because there’s so much work to do. Even when you think it’s wild and crazy, I truly believe that if you are passionate about pursuing an idea, it will happen. You just have to keep pushing through. It’s going to be difficult, but consistent work will push you forward.
The hardest thing for me was that I didn’t believe anything like this would be possible for me. That’s how the systems wanted us to believe. But, I’m living proof that this can happen. If you believe in yourself and work hard, good things will happen.
What’s your vision for the future?
We want to expand to other places around the US and globally, and be in people’s minds when they’re shopping for beauty.
I do believe that once someone tries our products and joins our community, they’ll recognize the work we’re doing. We’re not here to make a quick couple of dollars. We genuinely want people to join our community, learn the Indigenous ways of knowing, and help them be a part of a future that is preserving the planet instead of harming it.
We want to pass on that Indigenous way of thinking to new generations. Most importantly, I want my community to no longer have to worry about feeling ashamed and to take pride in where we came from.
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