For our first-ever Self Care Sunday, we had the pleasure of speaking with Jenn Harper, founder of Cheekbone Beauty. Cheekbone, a brand that works to uplift Indigenous voices and allow Indigenous people to see themselves in the beauty industry, is making big waves for sustainability in cosmetics. Learn more about Jenn’s story, and how she takes time to self-care below!
Tell us about yourself and the story of Cheekbone Beauty’s rapid growth.
I actually had no experience in the beauty industry, except for being a product junkie, I love anything wellness related. I’m definitely a girly girl when it comes to those things. I was in the food industry for my entire career, which was 10 years in hospitality and 10 years in sales and marketing. Back in 2015, I had a crazy dream about making lip gloss. The funny thing is - I had been for a really long time thinking about how I could connect with my Indigenous community. I didn’t grow up on my family’s reservation, I grew up with my mom in the Niagara region. I was missing that connection and understanding of who I am and where I came from.
I started doing a ton of research and really learned about residential schools 7 years ago, at the age of 38. I was blown away as I had no idea, for lack of a better term, why my family was so dysfunctional and disconnected. I didn’t know and understand why you see and hear the stereotypes. Truthfully, I had a hard time admitting my own battle with alcoholism so I did not want to be “the stereotype”. When I learned this truth it was an incredible “a-ha” moment where it all made sense, and that this wasn’t entirely my fault.
I learned about generational trauma, and how this stemmed from my grandmother’s experience at residential school, and learning that we have this history in Canada and how generational trauma affects many families. If a child was impacted with a trauma, that unfortunately goes on for generations and is passed on until someone decides to heal and raise their children as a healed individual. That gave me freedom, and I was no longer ashamed of who I was and where I came from.
From there, I learned about business, how to build a business, and how to get into the beauty industry. It’s not as hard as people think - putting products on an e-commerce site has really levelled the playing field. We were able to start that way and have since grown and expanded in so many ways.
Maybe it was my naïveté being in an industry wondering, “Why can’t we make product packaging different?” and “How can we use these things I am learning about my culture and how these people are truly are the keepers of the land and the ones who are protecting so many things, ecologically speaking?”. Connecting all those dots together and realizing it is possible to build a business and give back to your community and try to do things in a more sustainable way.
How do your Indigenous roots inspire your products?
For generations Indigenous people have looked to nature and mimic it in so many ways. Nature is absolutely perfect and recycles itself - examples being when leaves fall on the ground and are compostable, the water cycle, and all of these systems and cycles that happen around us naturally that we don’t think about much in urban centres. We know that Indigenous people have always watched that. So we are looking for how we can take those concepts when we are creating and making products, and also how we can use another Indigenous teaching about considering the next generations. How is what we are doing going to impact our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren? It’s about thinking that far ahead and not impacting them in a negative way.
You’re launching at Sephora later this year! What was that milestone like for you and your team?
At the end of the day, it’s always been about reach for us and we think, how can we help every Indigenous kid in the world see themselves in a beauty brand? That requires a global partner, and Sephora is a global partner as well as the largest global beauty retailer in the world.
This brand wasn’t started because the world needed another beauty brand - we didn’t need that. What we did need was a brand and platform to represent Indigenous youth and was pushing new ideas and concepts about sustainability, and getting real and raw about that. It’s so hard to manage the greenwashing that happens, so we needed a brand that would call itself out and say “this is why we did this, and this is how we are going to do things differently”. The more brands like this that are in this space doing this, the more it pushes the giant conglomerates to make changes because they pay attention to the money and the money comes from the people. When the indie brands and smaller brands like us have a little bit of power in the community, and people are asking for better, it does force the big guys to make changes. We don’t need to say publicly that we did this big huge thing, we’re humble - but if we are pushing small changes in our way and that forces the bigger companies to make changes then I think we have done our job.
You have a goal for Cheekbone to be nearly zero-waste by 2023 - are you able to tell us more about that? What has this exciting process been like?
When you have this seemingly unattainable goal at the forefront, it pushes you as a team to push your minds forward and constantly be on the search for incredible partners that are working on really changing the way packaging is made. There are also raw ingredients, and we call those “raws” and where we are sourcing the main ingredients in the products that we make. For years, this industry has relied on petroleum, which does not biodegrade. There are ways, through what is called green chemistry, that you can look for ways to have these products re-enter the planet in a healthy and natural way. We use this concept and we view the entire cycle - from the harvesting of the raws, whether that’s ingredients or packaging, to the end of the product life and what happens along the way. We do not want these to end up in landfills and do everything possible to avoid that. Making sure that we are part of educating the consumer as we begin this path.
For cosmetics of any kind, you have to remember that these are go and travel, whether they are distributed directly to the consumer or to a retail partner, they have to be secure and sealed and meet all compliance standards. As much as we want to pursue more naturally derived ingredients, there have to be some sort of preservative component added to that so we are always evaluating how we can do a better job.
In all of the important work and activism that you do, what do you do to take time to rest and self care?
Number one - stay off social media!
I don’t even call myself an activist. I am a cog in the beautiful ecosystem of the planet and of humanity and that’s all I’m trying to be. I am a mom of teens, and I feel so old to be in this space! The best way to lead anything, whether it’s a big movement or action is just by your example. All I have ever set out to do is try to be a good example to Indigenous kids and give them hope and see that it is completely possible to have a crazy dream and make it all happen. It can be people from our community and we do have a place in this world regardless of the messages that we’ve been sent for decades that we don’t belong or fit in.
What is your best-kept self care/beauty secret?