Jenn Harper Is Leading A Cosmetics Revolution

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This piece is part of Trailblazers, a four-part series that pairs Toyota Corolla vehicles with Canadian luminaries for a journey into their past, present and future.

Meet Jenn Harper, sustainable beauty maven, values-driven entrepreneur and proud Anishinaabe woman who lives in the Niagara region of Ontario. In 2016, despite no experience in cosmetics, Jenn founded Cheekbone Beauty, a line of high-quality, vegan, cruelty-free cosmetics designed for low environmental impact, from ingredients to packaging. She’s also on a mission to give back to her community, making sure Indigenous people feel seen and supported.

How did you get your start? Tell us how you found your calling.

Well, I had this crazy dream. Not like a life epiphany—an actual, literal dream of two little girls who looked like me when I was small, with the rosiest cheeks. They were playing with lip gloss, smudging it all over their faces and giggling hysterically. There was so much joy there, and I woke up so happy. It was suddenly clear to me that this was somehow going to be important to the rest of my life.

"There was so much joy there, and I woke up so happy. It was suddenly clear to me that this was somehow going to be important to the rest of my life."

At the same time as that dream, I’d been learning more and more about my grandmother who had come through a residential school system. I wanted to start a foundation for her and my people, to do something to give back some joy that’d been lost, and Cheekbone became my way of doing that. I also wanted to make a sustainable beauty company that stayed true to my Indigenous roots and history. Indigenous people are the world’s OG sustainable people. We represent a small percentage of the population but protect much of the world’s biodiversity.

What have been the catalysts for growth in your life and career? 

I had no experience in the beauty industry, actually. I came from a food service background, and then a hospitality background, and when I had the idea for Cheekbone, I was actually selling seafood, of all things. Lo and behold, it turns out the beauty industry and the food space have lots in common: it’s all about quality of ingredients, better suppliers and great packaging. I did a lot of research into the ingredients of my makeup and its packaging and didn’t love any of it, to be honest. I started to ask questions about what ingredients were in the products I use, and if they were safe or natural. I found out there was zero transparency in the industry. That’s what I wanted to change.

Tell us about your most challenging moment, how you got through it and what you took away from it.

I only had $500 to start, which is not generally enough to start a business, but it’s what I had to work with. Plus, I was still working my full-time job, which I kept for the first three years we were in business, to fund Cheekbone. I chose a manufacturer in the Toronto area and we launched our first product on our online store in 2016. But the truth is, I wasn’t happy with it, and the suppliers and manufacturers weren’t as good as I wanted them to be. I got so frustrated that, in 2020, we decided to open our own lab. Now we have our own chemists, our own formulations and we make our products in our own facilities. The world didn’t need just another lipstick brand; we wanted to do things completely differently.

"I got so frustrated that, in 2020, we decided to open our own lab."

Was there a breakthrough moment where you thought, I’ve made it!? Tell us about it. 

Now that I know more about the beauty space, I look back and see how we were complete trailblazers to do what we did. We hand-picked and sourced our products and packaging with ingredients that are completely sustainable. Our lipstick, for example, comes in biodegradable paper made with vegetable inks so that the tube is gone once the lipstick is gone. Yes, I’m trying to sell lipstick, but I’m also trying to teach the world to internalize the idea that everything should be used and nothing should be wasted. We sold 30,000 sustainable lipsticks in 2020, and then 125,000 the next year. Those numbers proved to me that people are ready to embrace our ideologies and think about the generations to come.

Is there such a thing as a typical day in your world? What does it look like?

We have a team of eight at the lab and office. Usually, the day starts bright and early with our packers and shippers getting the new orders ready. The customer service team gets to work responding to shoppers. I’m busy these days with interviews, working with the marketing team to get the word out about Cheekbone and what we’re about. Then we’re always planning and strategizing for the future, as well as making content for social. It’s not enough to just make a product these days; you need to tell a story and build a brand.

How do you stay connected to what’s most important when life gets busy and overwhelming?

I have the unique privilege of receiving notes and e-mails from Indigenous youth who finally—finally—feel seen in the mainstream media. And the beauty of Indigenous culture is that we come in all shapes, sizes, colours and tones. We are inclusive without even trying. I’m reminded of this every single day when [I read that] an Indigenous kid sees themselves in our brand and feels just a little bit better about being themselves in the world.

"I have the unique privilege of receiving notes and e-mails from Indigenous youth who finally—finally—feel seen in the mainstream media."

What do you do to unwind and recharge?

I spend time in nature, read books and enjoy a nice bath. And naturally, I love experimenting with new products [in my free time], which actually does double duty as skin care because they have so many high-quality ingredients and natural oils. I’ve found when you use high-quality ingredients in makeup to begin with, you don’t need expensive skin care at night to combat all the issues caused by putting cheap, chemical-filled makeup on during the day.

What motivates you to keep growing?

I’m motivated every time someone reaches out to tell me they love the brand and our products, but it’s important to me to always be doing better and better. I try to listen very carefully to the customer, and if they haven’t loved something, we want to know why and how we can do better. I’ll look at the ingredients and think, Does this really need to be here? What ingredients can go? Can the packaging be even better?

What are you most looking forward to this year? 

We’re thinking a lot more about skin care lately, including two items we are really excited about: primers and finishing sprays that actually improve the way your makeup looks throughout the day. But longer term, when I think about how there has never been a big consumer brand—ever in the history of the world—that’s been owned by an Indigenous person, my goal is to become that brand. I know this is huge, lofty and massive, but I’m going to work hard every day to try to get to that place.