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Indigenous Leaders: Representation matters for this cosmetics creator

Putting representation, sustainability first has positioned Jenn Harper's Cheekbone Beauty for international success

The world is beginning to take notice of Cheekbone Beauty

CEO Jennifer Harper, a member of Northwest Angle #33 First Nation, said the company is finalizing plans to enter the hyper-competitive cosmetics industry in the U.S, inking a deal with retailer JC Penny that will see Cheekbone available in 600 locations across the country in 2023.

That’s in addition to her current partnership with global retailer Sephora.

“We recognize that we've come a long way as a small business, an Indigenous business,” Harper said.  “But there's so much more to do, and there's so much more to grow into.

“I didn't start this with a small vision or dreams. I want to be a global beauty brand.”

But to compete in the global market will be no easy task. American analyst Statista estimates that skincare products alone will generate $177 billion (USD) worldwide by 2025. The U.S. market — controlled by a small group of multinationals like L’Oréal, Unilever and Estée Lauder — generated $89.5 billion in 2018.

The competition is stiff, but letting consumers set their own individual definition of beauty is what separates Cheekbone from the pack, Harper said.

“It feels like such a superficial industry at first glance,” Harper said. “But the more you get to know other beauty founders, and companies like Sephora, it's really this idea of just feeling comfortable, and feeling amazing in your own skin.”

For some, makeup could mean a complete transformation of how they look, while for others it may mean just adding a dab of lip gloss, or applying “a little help here or there.”

“Ultimately it's an industry that’s about a feeling and creating that feeling within each individual and letting the makeup or the skincare have the power to make someone feel a way about themselves,” Harper said. 

“And that is a really individual process.”

Carving out space as an individual is something Harper knows about. She faced her own struggles — including a bout with alcoholism — but Harper said the simple, daily routine of applying makeup became her lifeline.

“Having to go to work and face the world, knowing that deep down, I have all of these things happening, just putting on makeup, and doing a self-care routine was how I faced that one next day.”

The realization — and her ability to face the next day — gave her the time and space to learn about entrepreneurship, eventually gaining a foothold in the cosmetics industry.

Cheekbone now employs eight full-time staff at their St. Catharines operation, as well as running their own laboratory, called the Indigenous Beauty Innovation Lab.

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But as she worked her way through the industry, and Cheekbone began etching a name for itself, Harper came to another realization: people represented in cosmetics ads didn’t look like her.

“That's where the idea of representation became really important to us as a brand,” Harper said. “Because Indigenous faces need to be seen in this industry, as well.”

That led to further questions, including pushing others to question what the definition of an Indigenous “look” could be. 

“If it was a scale, the scale is really large and wide and long and there's no one ‘look,’” Harper said. “So it's just this whole concept of truly being an inclusive brand and to create a space where people just feel seen, because so many different faces are represented.”

That identification of Cheekbone as being truly Indigenous became a foundation for the company, Harper said. They’ve even established the Biinad Beauty Standards — Biinad from the Cree word for ‘clean’ — as a guideline for creating sustainable products.

“We've taken our Indigenous roots and added it into how we make and create everything,” Harper said. “Using concepts from Indigenous wisdom as well as western science to make and create products, and to think of how we're putting products into the world and how we want to be a part of a new way of doing business.”

That includes being honest with the consumer about raw ingredients and packaging, and their impact on the environment. It was an approach that partners at Sephora bought into, as well.

“Right away, at that first meeting with Sephora, they were on the same page,” Harper said. “They were like, ‘look, you know, you've created a great brand, but the products are somebody else's, and that will never work.’”

“There's no uniqueness here. What are you going to do that's going to change the industry?”

The question became a catalyst for Harper to begin a search for investors — like Vancouver-based Raven Indigenous Capital Partners — who would focus on building Cheekbone into a sustainable brand.

“Over the last few years, we built a lab and operate a cosmetics lab here at our headquarters,” Harper said. “We now employ a chemist full time and we work with other scientists focusing, helping us understand and focus on sustainability.”

The process begins at the harvesting of the raw ingredients, Harper said, and continues until the end of the product's life cycle, including its packaging.

“We do not want anything to end up in a landfill,” she said. “How do we work backwards to make that happen? What can we do differently? We’re laser-focused on that concept of not impacting ecosystems in a negative fashion in any way.”

What becomes of lipstick, face creams, and makeup, once they’re washed down the drain, is probably not on most consumers’ minds, Harper said. But that’s something Cheekbone is trying to change.

“There are ingredients that will never biodegrade, like silicones, for instance. They will never disappear from the planet,” she said. “If we're going to be here, and if we're going to be representing our Indigenous community, I think we should do this authentically.”

“That truly means being sustainable. Because if there's a culture or group of people that are sustainable, it's certainly Indigenous people.”

Her Indigeneity is something that Harper wears proudly. Cheekbone recently took part in the #glossedover campaign with Sephora and non-profit Water First to raise awareness of the lack of clean drinking water, especially in remote communities. 

In full-colour ads, designed by Toronto-based company Sid Lee, cosmetic products appear artfully displayed, but on closer look, the products have gruesome labels, like Luscious Lead, Mercury Shimmer and E. Coli Kiss. According to Sid Lee staff, the ad features a line of “unsellable lipgloss inspired by contaminated water.”

“The problem is so big that obviously no brand thinks that they can solve it,” Harper said. “But there's ways where a brand can recognize the power that they have in terms of a platform.

“In Canada, at the very least, people are listening to what we have to say, and this was an issue that many of us on our team felt really passionate about.”

The goal, Harper said, is to help educate Indigenous youth about their own power. To that end, Cheekbone is offering up its second scholarship — the Cheekbone Beauty Scholarship Fund — for Indigenous youth in Canada or the U.S. attending postsecondary schools.

The first scholarship was given in 2021 to Saskatchewan law student Jodi Hancheroff.

In a blog post, Hacheroff said the scholarship allowed her to focus on her studies and volunteerism without worrying about financial barriers.

”Law school carries a heavy workload and with the volunteer commitments that I have made, my spare time is precious,” Hacheroff wrote in the post. 

“I have worked part-time in the past alongside law school, but it is too taxing, and I find that if I’m not careful, it takes away from my studies. Therefore, the Cheekbone Beauty Scholarship Fund and other such scholarships greatly alleviate the financial stress that comes with postsecondary.

“I am humbled to be afforded such a privilege.”