Three years ago, Jennifer Harper had a dream. “There were all of these little Aboriginal girls, and they were playing with lip gloss. It was all over everything, and I woke up and I was like, ‘That’s it, that’s what I’m going to do.'” The Anishinaabe marketing and sales professional, who grew up in St. Catharines, wanted to give back to her community, and that night, she decided she’d do it with makeup—an industry she had never worked in.
And so, Harper started drawing up a business plan for Cheekbone Beauty, a name she took nine months to land on; she chose it because it’s her favourite facial feature and also because First Nations people are known for their gloriously high ones. In December 2016, Harper launched the made-in-Toronto line via e-tail, and she’s now shipping her lipsticks, glosses, contour kits and brow products across Canada, the U.S. and Australia. She’s since found fans in prominent Indigenous women like Ashley Callingbull and Buffy Sainte-Marie (and has even named liquid lipsticks after them).
Aside from a celeb following, Cheekbone Beauty is getting noticed on Bunz Makeup Zone, too—one of FLARE’s favourite sites for breaking beauty product buzz—with comments from people excited to try out the products and support an Indigenous company. “People are buying [the products] because they like what we’re doing,” says Harper. “Then I get these emails saying, ‘These products are amazing, they’re really, really good!'”
But Cheekbone Beauty is far more than a product range. Immediately after conceiving the concept, Harper started searching for an Indigenous initiative to support with future profits. She saw the work Indigenous activist Cindy Blackstock was doing at The First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, so she joined its donation program for small businesses and pledged to give 10 percent of all Cheekbone profits to the cause.
“Education is an answer for so many impoverished and marginalized communities. Once they get educated, anything is possible,” Harper says about supporting the Society and its sub-foundation, Shannen’s Dream, which focuses on equitable funding for First Nations schools.
“I wanted my company to be something that Canadians and First Nations Canadians can be proud of,” she says. “Look at what happened to this Nation of people in this country. My goal is to manufacture my products in the Niagara region [they’re currently made in Toronto] and give opportunities to people who have suffered with addiction.”
Harper herself has battled alcoholism, and her family has experienced intergenerational trauma: her grandmother was a residential school survivor, and her brother died by suicide in September of last year. She realized there was a reason her family was suffering, and she found a way to reconnect with her culture in Cheekbone Beauty.
“To find out these truths and start honouring who I am and where I came from has been healing,” Harper said. “I spent my entire life running away from my Aboriginal culture because I was so ashamed of it. The last four years of my life have been the most powerful, happy, joyful time I’ve ever had.”
Harper has big plans for her brand. Aside from her commitment to The First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, she wants to create an organization named after her grandmother, Emily Paul, and eventually fund university educations for First Nations kids within the next ten years. She also regularly gives back to her community via speaking engagements, in which she shares her story of being an Indigenous entrepreneur. (In fact, her #1 goal for 2018 is to secure more speaking engagements.) Earlier this year, she spoke at Brock University in St. Catharines and was reminded of what drives her.
“This one lovely girl with long blonde hair and blue eyes came up to me with tears streaming down her face,” Harper recounted. “She said ‘I’m Métis and I never told anyone because I was ashamed, and listening to your story has made me want to connect with my culture.’ And this is why I wanted to do this. I grew up being ashamed and that shame caused my sickness. I used to tell people I was Spanish or Italian, and I look in the mirror now, and I’m Aboriginal. There’s no denying that. But it’s such a struggle when you’re half, because you don’t feel connected to either community. I’m so grateful that girl said that to me, because that keeps me motivated to keep going.”
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