I’m so excited to share today’s interview with Jenn Harper, the tenacious powerhouse behind Cheekbone Beauty. Cheekbone Beauty is Indigenous-owned and Canadian, based out of St. Catharines, Ontario, and known for its high-quality, cruelty-free, and eco-friendly makeup. We spoke for over an hour last month about all things beauty, and it was a brilliant and invigorating conversation—I’m thrilled to be able to share some of it with you today!
Before we dive into the interview, let’s quickly go over the background and mission of Cheekbone Beauty. Founded in 2016 by Jenn Harper, Cheebone Beauty is built on socially conscious and sustainable foundations. Cheekbone Beauty supports the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society (FNCFCS) by donating 10% of the profits to Shannen’s Dream, supporting Indigenous youth and equal education opportunities. Cheekbone Beauty’s Warrior Women Liquid Lipsticks highlight inspiring women in the Indigenous community (like Alanis, named for filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin), while their Sustain line of lipsticks highlight Indigenous languages in their shade names and use 85% less plastic than traditional lipsticks. I’m honestly not sure I can do Cheekbone Beauty justice here; I highly recommend reviewing their media kit document to learn more about the awards Jenn has won, the organizations the company supports, Jenn’s experience on Dragon’s Den, and more!
What is your earliest memory involving beauty products/makeup?
“Definitely, the Cover Girl pressed powder—I can smell it right now. That was my mom’s, and you were never supposed to touch it… but I loved opening it and smelling it, then feeling it on my fingers. It felt so silky, and it had that Cover Girl smell. That’s definitely my earliest beauty product memory.
“And then there was a Shopper’s Drug Mart in the shopping plaza near my house. We would, as 11/12/13-year-old girls just peruse the makeup aisle—and get in trouble, I’m sure, because the people that worked there would be annoyed because we weren’t really buying anything, we were just touching everything.”
Coming from that early fascination with cosmetics—how did you arrive at the idea of founding a beauty business? Why beauty and not something else? Did you come at it from a love of formulation or a love of cosmetics?
“Neither, to be perfectly honest. My background was in the food industry, in sales. At the time I was working for a seafood company—international importers/exporters—I was there for eight years, and in the fourth year I was there I had this dream about Cheekbone Beauty. It was literally… this crazy thing. I had this dream about it, but I had always been looking for a way to connect with my First Nations community and support it somehow—I just didn’t know what that looked like.
“Then, on this incredible healing journey of one—getting sober (I was an alcoholic for many years and then in 2014 got sober)—I had this literal dream. It wasn’t exactly Cheekbone Beauty, but in the dream, there were all of these little Native girls, and they were covered in lip gloss. That’s what I remember the most about the dream. I woke up that night and thought “Oh my goodness. Ok. So I’m going to figure out how to make lip gloss and start a foundation in my grandmother’s name (who was a residential school survivor).” That was the beginning thought.
“In the dream, the most memorable part of it was those little girls with these super rosy cheeks, and they were just so happy—it was the joy and the laughter. And now when I think about it, as a brand, ultimately we’re trying to recreate that joy and happiness with Indigenous kids. Because if anybody knows the history of Indigenous people, a lot of the time, that part is missing because of generational trauma that has affected many of our families, and still affects our families to this day.
“So, I wake up from this dream and have no idea how I’m going to get a lip gloss made or start this foundation, but I started creating what became the beginnings of our business plan. The more research I did, the more I learned that the beauty industry is exactly like the food industry. There are manufacturers, and they make products for every different brand, and it’s all the same stuff in different boxes, and it’s just branded differently. The beauty industry is what?—five, six conglomerates that own everything, so things are probably manufactured in the same facilities. When I learned that, I found out that there are manufacturers right here in Toronto that have been making makeup for 40 years. Maybe it’s not exactly the packaging I want, and maybe it’s not exactly the ingredients I want, but right here, with my $500, this is how I can afford to start Cheekbone Beauty. I didn’t have money for custom formulations, but using those white label manufacturers, I could start. I could buy a couple of products, set up a website, and start selling this lip gloss—and then eventually a liquid lipstick, a palette, and a brow product. As we sold, then we could afford to buy more stock, and that’s literally the beginning of it.
“In those early days, I always knew that I was doing this to test the market. Does anyone care if our brand exists? Do they want this brand to exist? When I think of the beauty space and walk around Sephora… it’s all very segmented—cruelty-free or natural or vegan or hair, etc. They each have their own little section. I could see that the future was definitely leaning towards the green/sustainable/clean area. You could tell that was going to be the future of what the beauty industry would pay attention to. The category I dreamed up was called “socially conscious beauty”, which is about using this high-margin industry to help people. For us as a brand, that is us supporting Indigenous youth and the community, and highlighting and donating for equal education opportunities. The second layer of that is about having less of an impact on the planet. Over 2017 and 2018, I slowly began doing all of the work to figure out how much money I’d need to make a sustainable line of products, and it’s been a long process. We have one product in our Sustain that was launched March 2020—our Sustain lipstick—and we’re still tweaking it. We wanted it to be vegan, cruelty-free, and sustainable. What sustainable meant for us was really honing in on this Indigenous idea of using ancient wisdom. Our idea of success in Indigenous communities is how much you’re actually giving back—not what you retain for yourself. As a brand, that is a big part of our foundation, who we are, and why we do what we do. It’s a huge challenge, but I feel it can be done, and the world is ready for it.”
So it was just you when you started?
“Yes; it was just me and my white label manufacturers. I didn’t have the funding to be bigger—if I was striving to launch with perfect, unique formulations, it wouldn’t have happened. People think you have to reach perfection before you bring something to the market, and I was really trying to prove that you don’t.
“I’ve always been very honest about the white labelling origins of Cheekbone Beauty; that was actually the easy part. The hard part is what we’re doing now, and that’s formulating based on these principles and values we want our company to stand on. We’re working with lifecycle thinking—thinking about the product from harvest to end of life, including the packaging. What is happening to everything? Is it impacting things negatively, or is it neutral? We’re trying to mimic nature, which is 100% self-recycling. We have zero waste goals. I always tell everyone that it is one of those big, crazy goals that may never be achievable, but if you’re always trying to strive for the unachievable, you’ll fall somewhere a lot higher than if you weren’t striving for anything at all.
“And remember—the consumer has the power. The large, multi-million dollar cosmetic businesses could create a sustainable lipstick and do it much faster, and possibly much better than I ever could. If those companies wanted to create a sustainable product, they could—they have the resources to do it. But as a consumer, you decide where you put your dollars, and what you believe in. You can seek out brands that align with your value systems. We are still trying to make a great lipstick and do it as well as the big guys could, but at the same time, we’re really in this to support, represent, and highlight a community that has never been paid attention to by the beauty industry.”
When did you start hiring staff? What was the first job you outsourced? Why?
“We finally started hiring people in September 2019, so I was on my own until then. We call the staff members “customer experience managers”, but they really do everything from packaging, shipping—everything is shipped from our home office here in St Catharines, Ontario. Everything is manufactured in two facilities; the white label facility, and then another manufacturer for our custom formulas for our Sustain line. We’re the ones who source all the raw ingredients, have them shipped to Ontario, check everything, and then deliver them to the manufacturing facility where they’re going to make the lipstick.
“We do have another big crazy goal—I would love to be able to create jobs for Indigenous youth in the Niagara region and create lipsticks here one day, but until we get there, we’ll work with people who are going to work with us. The more I learn about the industry; everyone has different manufacturers who might be making different things, but they all come under your one brand umbrella.
“The first job that I never want to do, and still don’t want to do, but have to do, is the financial side of the business. I absolutely hate cashflow conversations, and Excel spreadsheets make me itchy and want to throw up. But it’s a big, really important part of the business, and understanding where your money is coming from and how much you have to use and all those sorts of things, so as much as I hate it I have to do it. I can’t afford a CFO yet. We do have help with bookkeeping and accounting—an accounting firm does our taxes for us, and a bookkeeping firm keeps track of the numbers and then creates those financial sheets so all I have to do is look at them, so that’s nice!”
So, we’ve talked about how you started with white-label, and now you are working on formulating products. You’re not a formulator, so how did you go about finding a formulator? What has the process been like working with a formulator?
“It was a big challenge. The more I’ve learned about this world, this industry, the beauty world—there are so many different options. I met with quite a few formulators and cosmetic chemists from the beginning and then decided if somebody’s values align with those of my brand. We now work with Jen from The Eco Well—she’s the chemist behind our Sustain lipstick. Jen also does a ton of consulting for us; reviewing and analyzing formulations from our manufacturers, and she’s also a fantastic resource for all things cosmetics. I’ll never pretend I’m an expert in the beauty industry, but I’m here to share the journey with our community. We’re really open about that. Our journey is sustainability—that’s our main focus, and we’re going to tell you why we’re using an ingredient and be really open and transparent about all of those things.”
When it comes to choosing a manufacturer—was it similar to choosing a chemist in that you were looking for an alignment of values?
“Yes, but that’s been really hard. The cosmetic manufacturers in Canada are so busy. It takes so long to get things done and to find manufacturers who will work for you. This industry is exploding. There are new businesses starting up all the time. It’s hard to find someone who is good, who is right for your business, and actually has room for you as a client. It’s really hard to find someone who is compliant and has a regulated facility to make your products. And, of course, the pandemic has impacted everything.”
Cheekbone beauty describes itself as “digital native”. How did you make the decision to start online? Was it 100% online? Do you have any aspirations of having a physical retail location in the future?
“For us, starting online was affordable. We could afford to be online, and we’ve grown online. We also have the most connection with our customers online; when we think about what we’re trying to build, it’s all about our customers and their feedback, so that’s how we knew online would be where we would start and build.
“You do not see indigenous faces in mainstream beauty, so as a founder, reach has always been a goal for Cheekbone Beauty. I miss seeing faces like mine in mainstream beauty. The only way we can get the amount of reach we dream of is through a retail partner, like Sephora or Shopper’s Drug Mart.
“The whole proof of concept was “build it and see if they’ll come.” People are coming, and now we want to make it easier for them to have access to our products.—for those people who haven’t jumped into the online buying world.”
What advice would you give to someone hoping to start their own makeup line?
“Don’t do it! Just kidding. Though, if I knew what I knew now, I don’t think I would. That’s the crazy truth. Just because… it’s such a competitive space. Why did I pick this? Anyway—I picked it because I was truly passionate as a consumer. I’ve always loved cosmetics, I love what makeup can make you feel like. The nostalgia of it. I was passionate about that.
“Be consistent. Nobody needs another lipstick just because there’s another lipstick brand. You better have your differentiating factor. The reason why your brand exists better exceed what is already on the market, but we don’t need just another lipstick brand.”
Thank you so much, Jenn!
Photo credits: Jenn Harper/Cheekbone Beauty