Beautiful Representation: Jenn Harper Builds a Brand Indigenous Girls Can See Themselves In
“I don't have any superpowers. I don't have any of these amazing skills. I just have woken up every single day for the last five years and worked on Cheekbone Beauty, and it's little tiny steps every single day. I think the more consistent you are, you will see results like whatever you're working on in your life. It doesn't matter what it is, just be there consistently and you're going to see something happen.” These words of wisdom come from Jenn Harper, an Anishinaabe woman from Northwest Angle 33, in North Western Ontario, founder of Cheekbone Beauty.
She was born in Thunder Bay, moved to Toronto with her parents and then to St. Catharines with her mom. Harper moved back to Toronto to attend university, taking business courses at Ryerson, but dropped out and started to work. She and her husband moved to the Greater Toronto area for his career but ultimately returned to St. Catharines.
“I definitely don't have the traditional path into business or entrepreneurship,” Harper confides. When a friend in high school took a class in entrepreneurship, she asked her what the word meant. Whether she knew what starting a business was called or not, she started her brand after a dream of little Indigenous girls covered in lip gloss. She woke up wanting to learn how to make lip gloss so she could use a portion of the profits to do something to support her community. She wanted to start a scholarship in honour of her grandmother.
Harper was at a pivotal sort of intersection of her life, newly sober after years of battling alcoholism. She was learning about the impact residential schools had on her family, giving context to her experience of a life of dysfunction and family struggles that seemed to have no root cause. When she learned about some other words, intergenerational trauma, it started to make sense.
“When you can put a name to things it's amazing how you can start to heal from that. I began healing and realizing that I'm an amazing human being, half Anishnaabe, half white, I didn't have to choose a side. This is who I am. I am enough,” she recalls. She struggled with not feeling like she was enough her whole entire life and now she finally felt like she fit in her skin.
Not having that sense of peace caused a lot of pain. “I would abuse alcohol because when you don't love yourself, you're not doing things to take care of the gift that's your body in your mind. The more I learned about these things, the more I was able to heal and feel free and live as me,” she continues.
Growing up, Harper struggled at school and felt stupid. “Clearly I'm not. I've just built a company. I’ve got to know something about something… It's unfortunate, because the way the school system is designed, it was designed to make me feel that way,” she recalls. She might have failed grade nine science, but now she owns a lab, employs a full-time chemist and works with sustainability scientists.
“I'm obsessed with learning, I feel like we can all be learning for the rest of our lives. There's no end to that.”
Obsessed with sustainability, she studies it from both Western and Indigenous lenses, blending the two in the products she creates. “There's no silver bullet. There's no one right answer. There's no one package solution for every product that goes into the world. But I'm really grateful that I get to do this work, happy that I get to share it with our communities and happy that I've entered the beauty industry with a whole different view,” she shares.
“Even as a small tiny brand, we're in a space now where we really want to make a difference and that's possible.”
After working in the food industry, she approaches problems from a different angle. She considers her naivete an asset, because she’s not tainted by the way things have always been done. “One of our favourite sayings at Cheekbone Beauty is ‘we'll figure it out.’ And we really have along the way,” she confides.
“I really think it's important that we teach ourselves to believe in ourselves. That doesn't happen overnight. That actually takes a lot of work.”
Her most treasured advice she received was to work harder on herself than her business, build soft skills like humility and empathy, integrity and examine what she brings to the world. She knows she will make mistakes and has to forgive herself for them and move on. “I could go on forever about the amount of mistakes I've made, but just realizing that those are just learning opportunities. They're lessons. Don't sit in them for too long. Take what you're learning from that mistake and move forward,” she smiles.
“We're part of this new story, this new narrative that anything's possible for Indigenous kids.”
If she could tell her younger self anything it would be that anything is possible. She didn’t believe that growing up because she didn’t see that in her world. “There was no representation, there was no way I believed that that was even a possibility for me,” she remembers. That’s something she’s looking to change for Indigenous girls and why she has big dreams of Cheekbone Beauty becoming a global brand. With so many Indigenous businesses out there, she feels youth have so many opportunities.
To stay balanced, she tries to move her body every day, to spend time in nature, prayer and meditation. She loves spending time with her family and giving back to her community through volunteer work. Harper tries to live a healthy lifestyle and eat healthy food to take care of herself so she can keep doing what she does in the world.
She might not have any superpowers. She may not have had amazing skills. But she’s woken up every single day for the last five years and worked on Cheekbone Beauty, taking tiny steps every single day. Jenn Harper has shown that the more consistent you are, you will see results, whatever you're working on in your life. She has demonstrated that it doesn't matter what it is, just be there consistently and you're going to see something happen… and even better: do it wearing great lipstick that gives back to the community!
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.