Jenn Harper says the idea to launch a beauty brand came to her in a dream nearly eight years ago. "[I saw] Native little girls covered in lip gloss," the Anishinaabe-Canadian says. "What I remember most are their joy and laughter." Harper says she experienced this dream during a time of significant personal change. After an eight-year battle with alcoholism, she had recently become sober.
Amid her sobriety journey, Harper became enamored by businesses making a positive contribution to society (like TOMS Shoes). Learning about purpose-driven companies inspired her to launch one herself. Enter: Cheekbone Beauty, a low-waste cosmetics brand that honors her Indigenous heritage.
Cheekbone Beauty's ethos is heavily shaped by Harper's brother, who died by suicide shortly before the company launched in 2016. Although losing him was painful, his memory gave her hope. "One thing he said to me was, 'Jen, our kids need help,'" she recalls. As a youth worker in Indigenous communities, Harper's brother had insight into their lives and emphasized the importance of making them feel empowered. Harper's company has been striving to accomplish this from day one.
Though she entered the industry with no experience and just $500 in capital, Harper's dedication to building a more inclusive and sustainable beauty landscape has guided her to success. With the support of like-minded investors like Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, she has been able to uplift her community and help preserve the environment.
Harper and her team believe in purposeful product development, basing their decisions around impact rather than industry trends. "We think about bringing products into the world that are necessary," she says. "If we're making something new, we should make it with raw ingredients we can trace to ensure the safety of our customers."
The B-Corp-certified brand is also heavily invested in life cycle thinking. "We thoughtfully consider the end of the life of our products," Harper explains. That's why Cheekbone Beauty's packaging must adhere to specific criteria—like being compostable, biodegradable, refillable, or reusable.
Harper's innate interest in protecting all forms of life is part of her heritage. She says Indigenous people have been concerned about sustainability since before the term existed. Indigenous wisdom, including the seven grandfather teachings, also plays a role in Cheekbone Beauty's sustainability philosophy. According to this principle, the decisions we make today should result in a world that's sustainable for the next seven generations.
With this in mind, Cheekbone Beauty regularly invests a portion of its profits in various community organizations focused on supporting Indigenous people and the planet. They have donated over $150,000 to First Nations Child & Family Caring Society (FNCFCS), Shannen's Dream, and the Navajo Water Project.
Harper's emphasis on intention and integrity has allowed her to produce products she's proud of. Cheekbone Beauty has specifically become known for its lip products and eye pencils. The Sustain Lipstick ($26)— a buildable satin vegan lipstick—is formulated with shea butter and ingredients derived from vegetable feedstocks. Each shade of this small-batch, hand-poured product is named after the word for earth or land in an Indigenous language. And in true Cheekbone Beauty fashion, the website includes instructions on how to dispose of its packaging, which is 85% compostable and biodegradable.
The brand's Sustain Complexion Pencil ($20)—made with FSC-certified sustainable cedar and completely biodegradable—is one of Harper's favorites. "They are the most incredible multitasking tool," she says. "It's not a foundation, concealer, contour, or a highlighter. But, it can do all of those things. The product is so illuminating and creamy that it melts into your skin."
Cheekbone Beauty's product lineup also includes standouts like the Sustain Eyeshadow Pencils ($19), Mascara ($26), and Blush/Bronzer ($19). While the brand's core products have been a hit, Harper is excited to expand into new categories. This November, Cheekbone Beauty will launch a primer. "I'm excited about it because it will contain 99% all-natural ingredients, preserved naturally," Harper says.
Outside of product planning, Harper is focused on finding new ways to approach sustainability. Upcycling, the process of transforming by-products, is one method she's currently exploring. "We've partnered with a local winery called Henry of Pelham," Harper notes. "We're taking waste from their grapes and turning them into active ingredients that will go into a future product we're making."
Harper is also concentrating on Cheekbone Beauty's plans for growth. "We want to be a global brand," she says. The brand's products are currently sold via its website and Sephora Canada. However, this October, Cheekbone Beauty will finally make its American retail debut, becoming available in J.C. Penney's BIPOC beauty marketplace (created in partnership with Thirteen Lune).
Harper knows her company has the power to change the world for the better and is committed to doing everything she can to make the biggest impact. This past June, Harper witnessed the influence of Cheekbone Beauty firsthand. During a trip to Toronto's Eaton Center, she had the chance to meet a customer's 12-year-old daughter. "That little girl will never wonder [if her dreams are possible]," Harper expresses. "She knows she can build anything. She sees someone who looks like her, comes from the same community she came from, and has a brand in Sephora. On a psychographic level, Cheekbone Beauty is empowering our next generations."