subscribe for free

Season 2, Episode 2
Advocating for Representation with Jenn Harper

Jenn Harper (she/her) is the Founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics, Inc.. Cheekbone Beauty is a digital direct-to-consumer brand helping Indigenous youth see themselves in a beauty brand while using the concept of Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) in the brand’s ethos and in developing products. Cheekbone Beauty’s mission is to help every Indigenous youth see and feel their enormous value in the world while creating sustainable cosmetics. Cheekbone Beauty is a B Corp Certified company committed to meeting and exceeding high standards of transparency, employee benefits, and charitable giving not only to staff but to supply chain practices. 

During Cheekbone Beauty’s infancy, Jenn endured a heavy personal loss with the suicide of her brother B.J. This loss, though difficult, has remained a driving force behind the desire to see Cheekbone Beauty succeed with its mission, to empower Indigenous youth. In addition to Cheekbone’s mission, she strives to educate as many people as possible about the Residential School System, and the effects it has had on her family and friends through decades of generational trauma. She speaks regularly to university, college and high school students about social entrepreneurship, empathy and the history of her First Nations family. 

Website | Instagram | Facebook | LinkedIn | YouTube | TikTok

NOTE: Feminist Founders is a listener-funded podcast. Your contributions enable us to continue bringing you these important conversations. To support the mission and to receive bonus content from this episode, sign up for a subscription.

Discussed in this episode:

  • How Jenn’s Indigenous roots inform her understanding and practice of feminism
  • Jenn’s journey away from and back to her Indigenous family
  • The power of representation for empowering others like you
  • The role residential schools played in her family’s history and in inspiring her
  • Why Jenn doesn’t believe in luck, and how sobriety helped her take a big chance on her business
  • How being naive about the industry was a benefit, and helped Cheekbone Beauty end up in JC Penney and Sephora
  • The moment that Jenn knew her work around representation was making a difference
  • How Jenn is integrating her Indigenous roots and commitment to visibility for her people into Cheekbone Beauty
  • The benefits of B Corp certification
  • Starting the business with $500, 3 products, and a Shopify website
  • Securing financing with a values-aligned funder to grow the company
  • Starting where you are, and growing with an eye toward the values you want to exemplify
  • What she’d change if she started her business over today
  • How Cheekbone Beauty is part of her brother’s legacy
  • The ways she honors her heritage in the names and ingredients of her products
  • The story behind the name of Cheekbone Beauty

Resource mentioned:

Learn more about accountability coaching with Becky Mollenkamp

Becky Mollenkamp:

Hi Jen, thanks for joining me.

 

Jenn Harper:

Hi, how are you?

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I’m fantastic, and I’m really excited to chat with you. I put on lipstick for the YouTube viewers.

 

Jenn Harper:

I have like nothing on today, actually.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Funny, because makeup is not really my thing, but I’m so excited to interview you because I love the way that you seem to be showing up in the world with your business. I want to start though, as I always do, by asking you about your relationship with feminism.

 

Jenn Harper:

I definitely don’t feel like I have one, but then I was thinking about it and like maybe I do, but I didn’t know that I do. Do you know what I mean? Because obviously I’m super passionate about women being in places that they’ve never been before, having equal opportunities. I have a daughter, you know, who’s in her first year of college, and you recognize all the things that were missing when you were there, that the new opportunities are new and different for her, so the world is ever-changing, but maybe not fast enough, and then recognizing that probably has a lot to do with feminism and the people, and the women, in particular, who were here a long time ago, and anything talking about these things, like I didn’t stop to think about it until I saw the title of your podcast. So thank you for making me stop and wonder what my relationship is with that.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Around these parts, if it isn’t intersectional, it isn’t feminist. And I know that you have a deep dedication to the Earth, which is a big part of what that means. When I think about feminism, it’s prioritizing people and planet before profits, still making money, but that we’re really thinking about people and planet first. And I know that you care deeply about people, and it sounds like you’re finding lots of ways to give back. So I just want to reflect back to you that while you may not have felt like feminism was something that you were a part of, I think you’re doing it, right? You’re doing intersectional feminism without even maybe knowing it.

 

Jenn Harper:

Without even knowing it. And here, you know what’s really interesting, the deeper dive that I take into my culture as an Indigenous woman, a Native woman. My tribe is Ojibwe; we are called the Anishinaabe people. You would have found us around the Great Lakes for thousands of years pre-colonization, before this is North America. And when I look at just I think the cultural practices and the values and principles that came from my culture that I see and recognize is one they’re a matriarchal society. So the value in place of a woman, which relates a lot back to birth and bringing life into the world and even, you know, Indigenous people use the term ‘Mother Earth’ and for the reason that this is viewed as feminine and like a mother because it’s really the birthplace of all things that came on the planet. And so that’s there, if you look at the belief system and the storytelling that surrounded this, our cultures, and not just like from my tribe, but in particular, a lot of indigenous nations and tribes around the world, they share the same historical stories that still play a very important role in many Indigenous people’s lives today. And when I thought about that and looked deeply at that, it sounds a little bit feminist.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Sounds a lot bit feminist, and I love learning a lot about matriarchal societies. I’ve done some reading on that and want to do more because I do know that a lot of Indigenous societies were, or maybe even some still are, really more grounded in that matriarchal lineage and I think that’s fantastic. And I think it’s a great place to start is talking about your Indigenous roots because I was surprised given everything I’ve been doing seen about your company today, as I was digging a little deeper and learning more about you, I was surprised that you were estranged from your Indigenous family for most of your life, like your child and into your adult years. And so what was that journey, as much as you’re willing to share, back to those roots? What was that like? What brought you back to your roots and what has made it take such a big hold of your life now?

 

Jenn Harper:

It’s so interesting. I feel like my dad and I had an estranged relationship and so, therefore, I was disconnected from that side of my family, which is my Ojibwe heritage. And so awful when I look back now as an adult that as a teen, I made a decision to really just walk away from him, which in turn, I walked away from all of them. And I what a disservice I did to myself. And I and I recognize that we make those decisions sometimes without really thinking of, I think, the greater consequences. And, you know, when you’re hurting and you feel like the pain is coming from one parent or both, it’s almost just like the cutting off thing feels easier. And, you know, so much years now in therapy and on this healing journey, really recognizing that, you know, sometimes…it’s like when you’re young, you don’t want to dive into the pain, but really that’s what we’re supposed to do, like go through it, not like cut it off. Cause cutting it off, um, means really in my mind, I look at it as you’re just going to bleed until you fix it, right. And heal it. And so unfortunately did that. And so I knew of my family. I had a relationship with them when I was younger, and I was 19 years old when I decided that, you know, because of the dysfunction, the alcoholism that I saw, I really didn’t want anything to do with that. And tragically, I myself became an alcoholic and got sober in November of 2014, and then had the literal pop out of bed middle-of-the-night dream with three native little girls covered in lip gloss. And that is literally the the beginning story or the origin story, if you will, of Cheekbone Beauty. I woke up that night and it was so real to me that this was gonna be sort of the next chapter of my life. Like I was doing everything I possibly could. And you have to remember, I don’t come from the beauty industry. I was actually selling seafood. Like that was my job. But in sobriety, I think a lot of incredible and crazy, wild things can happen because I can’t believe that I thought I would even have the audacity now when I think about it to enter an industry that is so competitive, that I knew nothing about, but I had this idea of these kinds of products I wanted to see in the world, and ultimately it was about uplifting and empowering Indigenous people through this concept of representation, which was really missing in the beauty space, but also missing in many industries, really in media at large, and represented in a positive light. Because for many years the media loves to tell our sort of sad, sorrowed story, which in fact, in many cases are true. You know, we have a lot of poverty on our reservation systems. We have a lot of violence, a lot of addiction, suicide, you know, which impacted my family and my story greatly as well. However, what I learned along the way is that we also have these incredible stories. We have these incredible, this rich history that I’ve, you know, feel finally so connected to. And I think me personally disconnecting myself as mentioned earlier was such a disservice because I finally feel, after rebuilding my relationship with not only my dad but my aunties, my uncles, my nieces, and my nephews, that I finally feel like a whole person because I’ve accepted who I am. I lived in great shame for many years because of those stereotypes and that narrative that we are poor, addicted, violent. Um, all of those things that we weren’t smart, we’re not worthy. I actually believe that for very much a big part of my life. And it’s probably why I stayed in, in my own addiction so long. Um, but on this journey, it’s been powerful to watch me transform, to watch my family transform and really recognizing that, you know, as an Indigenous woman, as an Ojibwe woman, I am so proud that I now get to be like a positive story, like we got, and that’s what happened in those early, I was like, could we flip this narrative? Could we talk about generational healing versus generational trauma? Like what happens when we all start to do well? And if one of us starts, then that does create this like effect of more people wanting this. And when you see yourself, you can absolutely envision yourself being successful. If you see people like you being successful, and it’s very strange because you would think, well, all human groups have sort of layers of success in it, but it’s, there’s something really interesting about seeing someone really like you. Like not just a woman, not just an Indigenous woman. Now they’re like an Ojibwe woman, and they came from a reservation like you did, and they’re seeing your success and watching you change your life, that there is such great power in that. And I personally, I think I wanted to know that existed, but now coming sort of looking at it, having some years past and really, you know, thinking about the messages, the mail we receive just about how much our people have felt seen because of a beauty brand. Like it almost seems insane, but it’s been an incredible journey and me reconnecting to my family over these last, it’s like seven, eight years now that I’ve been able to do that. And it’s just been truly magical. And I wish I did this so much sooner. And it’s so hard because you don’t, you never wanna give someone the advice of like cutting out a family members the wrong thing to do. And I’m sure we all have reasons why we do those things, but it was certainly harmful in my case. And it’s also about learning boundaries, right? And not necessarily that you have to cut people out completely, but they’re in your space based on your terms, essentially where it’s healthy and you can heal at the same time as trying to mend relationships and, and learn about who you are and where you come from. Cause if you’re not connected to your family, you certainly, there’s a lot of empty blank spaces and gaps. And what I know now as a mother, it’s having the answers for your children about their histories and they want to know about all parts of their family, in my kids case, from my husband’s side of the family they love learning about that, and then they love learning about our side of the family.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yeah. And I don’t want to focus on trauma. And I want to say that I read that you learned about your grandmother’s experience in a residential school and that was part of the impetus for you to move towards sobriety, like understanding some of that generational trauma was important in your own healing process. And I also think now that you’re a pretty big advocate or a voice for speaking on residential schools and that history and what that has meant. 

 

Jenn Harper:

Yeah, absolutely. So this was really created by state and church. And you can imagine now when you are older and understand how these systems operate, it was really a business, right? And at the same time, for state it meant, oh, these people lived here and there was always treaty issues and land issues and how can we assimilate them really into a more European way of living? And I think ultimately, bend and change their minds about how they were living in order to attain land. That’s really, I think, what it all boils down to. So these schools were created. And much like you think of a Catholic school system today, or I don’t want to just call out one organization because I think there were others involved, but a church-based school system, and these Native children, Indian children were taken from them, from their families at very young ages. My grandparents were six years old. It’s kind of like boarding school where you’re never leaving though, until you’re old and assimilated, like that was the whole concept. And so even during the summer, my grandmother, Emily, was not going home to our family. She was taken at six and didn’t go back to our reservation until she was 16 or her home community until then. And obviously just loaded with all kinds of trauma, right? And so we know what happens in trauma. And now I recognize, oh my goodness, my grandparents struggled with addiction and violence, and that was just passed on to my father, and ultimately passed on to me and my siblings. And the beautiful part of understanding that is now, okay, we have the knowledge that happened. And I always say this, I’m like, this is my family’s personal story, so I never want anyone to be like, I know everything now about Indian boarding school because every case is different in how it affected every family, but the overarching issues tend to be very similar, which is these negative impacts that they’ve had. And so what we’ve learned from this is when, and we know when children face trauma, that is going on until somebody decides to end that trauma. And it generally takes, you know, they say a generation to fix it just as much as it took a generation to start it. And so I believe in my heart that by being the one individual in my personal family’s case, that I hope to end the trauma that goes on in our family. And then my children have to make the decision to want to end it as well.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And that was what helped you find sobriety. And within like a year, it sounds like you had this dream because I want to talk about your business. And the dream of these children and, you know, covered in lip gloss made you wake up and say, I need to start a beauty business. I don’t know if you read more into that beyond it just being a dream or if you feel like there was…

 

Jenn Harper:

I actually don’t because I don’t, I just, you wouldn’t, I’m a firm believer in that it’s just like, it’s just, it’s a situation of the entire circumstance, or you know what, I’ve had people tell me the complete opposite, so everyone can choose how they view this, but I think just because of my maybe analytical brain, as much as I believe, and I feel like I’m a very spiritual person, I was like, it was just like, I’m newly sober, and I’m in this space where you, if they, if you look at sobriety and listen to people in these first years, especially, there’s this whole kind of phase, which they call like the rock star phase, where you feel like you could really accomplish and do anything, and it’s kind of insane. And I think being in that space, learning that this was my grandparents’ situation. And also, so in Canada, at that time, our government, the Canadian government actually has a, I want to say quite possibly a better relationship with our Native Canadians than I have seen what happens in the U.S. Like there’s not a lot of, I think, admitting of all of the wrongs that were done and sort of the… So Canada has done a great job and they did an entire six-year study on what the residential school system or the boarding school system did to Indigenous people in Canada. And that study final report came out this year that I had that dream as well. And so I feel like it’s just like, you know, timing and circumstance. This is just how this happened. And even when people, when I talk about the business, I’m like, it’s, it’s really, I always, I don’t even like the term luck, because I know that, like, that’s just about timing. You know what I mean? Like, I was working hard, and then the right thing happened. And I never liked, I don’t like to think that’s luck because I’m like, you worked hard to get to that and you were in the right room at the right time with the right people there like that, you call it what you will, but I was just like hard work, meeting opportunity. That’s how I view it with the right opportunity. And so this dream came at just like the perfect moment in my life. And yeah, it is kind of crazy. And I think that whole idea when you’re in new sobriety of thinking that you can do just about anything, I think that’s exactly where I was and I ran with it. And if you know me and my personality, that’s kind of always who I’ve been. I’ve been like go big or go home kind of person. Like I would never like, I always like dive. It’s like, I don’t know, say I’m renovating a room. It’s like I spend and become obsessed with like every detail of like, it’s just, it’s kind of my personality, which could be a flaw in many cases, cause it’s kind of crazy that you have this dream and then I’m running with this idea that I can start a company. And it’s so interesting, another really side note and when entrepreneurs, and if there’s a lot of business owners that listen to your podcast, we all have these ideas and in the early stages and sometimes we start to tell family and friends, and they could actually be probably the worst people we could wanna tell this to because they’re going to be like, well that’s if that idea was gonna work, somebody else surely would have tried it. There’s a whole bunch of reasons they’re gonna tell us why we shouldn’t do it and it’s too risky. Very interesting, not one person in my life said that this was a bad idea, but this is the reason why: I was newly sober, and I literally think my family and friends were like, she’s not drinking, just like let’s let her think she’s starting a makeup company. Because nobody said anything to me at all in a negative way, which was incredible, because I had no one saying that this is nuts, you shouldn’t do this, which people who loved me probably should have said that in those early days, right? Just because that would have been the right thing to do. What do I know about this industry? And now being here, recognizing how absolutely hard this truly is in this giant, competitive, crazy landscape of the beauty industry. But again, it’s the, you know, the…It’s just how things had worked out and I feel like it’s really interesting how they all kind of roll and play into one another.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Well, and I love that earlier you said ‘the audacity to start this company.’ I love that word because I think we should all be more audacious, especially those of us who have historically been made to feel like we need to be small. Like hell yeah, we should be audacious. And I think that’s great. And I was wondering what gave you that audacity, but it sounds like it was a mix of sobriety, and no one telling you shouldn’t, right? Like not having the naysayers. So that’s great. I don’t know if that’ll work for everybody, but that’s wonderful. But you just mentioned it’s not an easy industry, and without any knowledge. And part of me thinks maybe not having a history was helpful, right? Because you didn’t, weren’t bound by all of the things that you would think you’re supposed to do or the way it has to be done. So that might have been helpful. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, how your naivete, for lack of a better word, about the industry, how that served you, and then also, you know, some of the things that maybe you had to learn the hard way.

 

Jenn Harper:

There is absolutely a formula and a right way to start this kind of business because now I’ve seen it and I would have been like, let’s do it that way. But I think the delusion and the confidence that came with that gave me the ability to have these conversations with people in this industry that are in very high positions in these giant organizations that I probably never would have been able to if I actually knew. Do you know what I, like it’s almost, I don’t know, I feel like, this is probably so wrong to say, but I feel like, you know, those scenarios where they’re like men think they can do just about anything and women are always the ones, well, I don’t have enough qualifications for that job. It’s always about the job and men are like, oh, I’ve got 10% of this, let me give it a shot. I think I can do it. That’s literally, I think how I was thinking. And I was like, I was so passionate and excited about this concept of representation in the beauty space and the kind of products we wanted to bring into the world. And that gave me this just like really bold confidence that possibly the industry people had never seen. And maybe me with that kind of confidence had them believing that what I was trying to do and create was going to be wonderful. And I think literally pushed and kept like having those moments because it ebbs and flows entrepreneurship, and then it could be not going well and then I have a moment where I get a yes from one of those executives and then we keep going and we go on. I did learn a lot about product development in the early days and really how products should be made. But not knowing how it should have been done actually helped me have a, I think a view of it that we’ve created now at Cheekbone Beauty, which no indie brand in this industry actually builds their own lab and hires their own chemists or scientists. They traditionally go and do this all outsourced and to go to like what they call like turnkey manufacturers and chemists, and they’ll like design the packaging with you with their marketing team and it’s like a whole, it’s almost like a fashion house if you will, but for beauty, right? And they’re doing it step by step with you. We completely didn’t do any of that. We were like, let’s make our own formulations in this little tiny lab that we built, and let’s then see if the formulations work and then let’s go to partners that will sort of large-scale make the formulations for us, and then we’re designing our own little box and we’re designing our own component. We were doing every little thing completely different how the industry normally does it, and I think that is what has made us unique and attractive to organizations like Sephora.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And I haven’t mentioned that yet, but you have expanded to the point now where you’re available in, I don’t remember how many 15…

 

Jenn Harper:

JCPenney. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

JC Penney and Sephora. I don’t that hasn’t made its way to the US yet.

 

Jenn Harper:

JCPenney is only in the US, so we’re in all the JCPenneys in the United States. There’s 609, and then we’re in the Sephoras in Canada. We’re not in every single one. We’re in 60, and there’s about 100 in the country.

 

Becky Mollenkamp 

Yeah, it’s amazing for somebody who came out of, like you said, selling fish, you wouldn’t expect that. And you said one of the things you think was so beneficial, the confidence of a mediocre white man, that takes us all a long way. Like we could just all learn to develop that. That would be huge. 

 

Jenn Harper:

How did this like, Ojibwe chick get the confidence of a mediocre white man? Literally, that’s hilarious. I love it. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

You said that you think one of the reasons that perhaps they were willing to listen to somebody they might, that you wouldn’t normally think of coming to this industry was because of your passion, this passion around visibility. And so I know that one of the things you said is you wanted to make, we wanted to help indigenous people feel seen in an industry that has historically not made them feel that way. I’m just wondering if you can remember because you said, you know, you’re not wearing makeup now, but I’m wondering about your childhood experience with makeup and the beauty industry. Did you feel, like have you always felt that exclusion? Was that something that was like palpable for you from a young age or that came later?

 

Jenn Harper:

No I think I’ve always felt like there was no one that really looked like me. I remember for the first time in like the 90s when the supers were out and there was like Helena Christensen who had more of like a wider face. She still had really light eyes, but I was like, oh my goodness, or even Cindy Crawford I felt like had a little bit deeper of a skin tone and then Naomi Campbell, but there was like nobody else that was like in that space, but and so certainly not growing up. But here’s, I think this is what’s really interesting, what I’ve learned about representation as we’ve built the brand is, this is something that on a psychographic level, I don’t think we recognize how important or powerful it is. Like, I don’t think we know how powerful representation is, or the ability to feel seen as a culture, as a subculture, as like, you know, a kid that loves, I don’t know, like I’m just trying to think there’s so many different subgroups where kids these days, there’s like so many unique groups of people. And once you feel like you have a circle, like it can be life-changing and life-saving. I’ve said that before and I think the best way I can share this is with a story. We launched in Sephora Canada and we got to go around the country and do like what Sephora calls eventing. So you’re in store teaching clients how to use the products. And this happened, and that morning I remember walking into the one mall, and I didn’t know that Sephora was doing this, but they had paid for this massive billboard. It was like the size of a transport truck in the middle of the mall. The mall is one of those malls that are like four stories and you can see the sky kind of as you look up, but they put billboards around the top. And it was like our branded picture and it’s like ‘Cheekbone Beauty now available at Sephora.’ As a young girl, I remember going into this mall with my dad and you know having more negative experiences. Like I remember once being, he was being accused of stealing something. Like there was just really negative experiences as a native person. And I still thought, oh my goodness, like, wow, that morning I’m sitting there, I’m like, I can’t believe I have a brand that’s available in a store like Sephora. And, you know, I didn’t ever think that would be possible. I never, even as a little kid those ideas would never even creep into my mind, like that I would own a brand or a business, like just didn’t exist. And so we’re at the eventing portion that night in Sephora and we’re talking to all kinds of clients. And then this little family comes in, and it was this 12 year old girl and her like 10 year old brother and her mom and her auntie. And you know, I’m Ojibwe and I can tell that they’re Ojibwe as well. I’m just like looking at them and like, oh, they’re totally Anishinaabe. And she was so spunky, this little girl. She already had the confidence that I couldn’t imagine having at 12 and having a great conversation with her. And she’s telling me about her TikTok account and how she had to shut it down because she was getting too viral. And her brother’s like, no, you weren’t. But anyway, they were just being normal kids and having a great time. And I was driving home after that event that night and I was like, oh my goodness, this is it. This is why this matters because those two kids are never gonna wonder. Like now we’ve just given them the ability to only imagine what they could do with their lives because they just met a woman who looks like them, who comes from the same kind of community they come from that owns a brand available in Sephora, which is like the largest beauty retailer in the world. And I can only imagine or see what the futures are gonna be for our next generations because so many different groups of people are feeling seen and represented because of this idea where we’re recognizing the power of being represented and we’re dismantling the groups of people who are in powers of position, right, that like didn’t want people to feel seen because maybe they really knew how incredible that would be for all of us. And so I am hopeful and super grateful that I got to be a part of creating something where I know that we’re supporting next generations.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Well, Jen, I’m not sure how you don’t think you’re a feminist because that was the most feminist thing I’ve ever heard. It was wonderful. I loved everything about that. When you talk about your Indigenous roots and the ways you’re integrating that into the company to try to contribute to that visibility, what are those things? How is that integrated into your company? 

 

Jenn Harper:

So in many ways. One, when I started building, I was like, okay, I’m in charge here. Like of every company I’ve ever worked for, you’re thinking of all the horrible bosses, the horrible people, like all of those sort of the bad scenarios and how do you sort of rewind and make it so that those kinds of situations don’t happen in a work setting where like, you know, a toxic work culture, a toxic boss, like what can we do to mitigate that? And you know, every company has core values. And not saying that like this is perfect or we’re ever going to eliminate all those things, but we’re really gonna try. And so we created our core values, and our business model is literally based on what we call our seven grandfather teachings from our Anishinaabe culture. And so the seven like love, humility, respect, those are the three that we’ve had as our main core values, and then courage and curiosity we’ve incorporated into another one. And these are just and then we define and describe them so that when someone’s on-boarded into the team, they recognize the kind of business we’re trying to build. And things like humility, I think, are really important and had been left out in business spaces for so long because that had been perceived as a weakness, where I think it’s probably one of our greatest strengths as human beings is the ability to recognize we don’t know everything and we never will. And there’s likely someone you work with in a position higher than you and in a position lower than you that knows a whole heck of a lot about a subject that you don’t know anything about. And really this concept and idea that everyone is superior to us in some shape or form, right? And so just recognizing that and knowing our own limits. And I think as a team, I’ve constantly sort of verbalized this and how important that is for all of us to just really come to spaces and meetings and connect on this level of like just understanding that we want to learn something from everyone we’re engaging with, and I love that that’s so ingrained in our organization in our culture and then obviously how we make and create things and put products into the world. So a big part of this is owning this category that we feel at Cheekbone, we have literally been the first ones here in carving out. And so we want the term Indigenous beauty, we want this category to be known just as well as you would think Korean beauty, which is like epic glass skin or like French beauty, like red lipstick and perfume. And then you think Japanese beauty and that’s incredible skincare. And then like Ayurvedic beauty, which comes from India and it’s all about rituals and traditions. And so for Indigenous beauty, we want to be known for sustainability. Like Indigenous people are the OGs of sustainability. They have been looking at these issues and been connected with them for so many years around the planet. And if you look at the media, who are the people in all of these communities that are the ones, whether it’s protesting a pipeline, or, you know, talking about the Amazon forests and what it means when we’re cutting down ancient trees and like how it’s truly indigenous communities around the world that have been taking care of these things. And I’m not making this up, National Geographic actually has a quote that talks about we indigenous people only make up 5% of the global population, but we’re the ones protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity. And so what that actually means is from a cultural level, we literally view all living things and have this innate relationship with all living things. And so at Cheekbone Beauty, we’ve taken Indigenous ancient wisdom, married it with Western science, and we use that in the lab that we built and we call like the making and creating of our products, we do this through an Indigenous lens or worldview, right? But also in a modern way. And so I think that’s what really separates us uniquely from what exists in this space. Our goal is to like, we have, I just started an indigenous beauty collective and there’s four brands there that I know that they’re doing things in this very holistic way and we want more to come into this space and truly understand that there is a better way to make products. Let’s not do things how they’ve been doing them here, but let’s use our indigenous history of how to make and create and put wonderful products into the world.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I love the collective idea and the rising tide lifting all boats. It’s not about competition. It’s how can we all do better and there’s room for all of us. That’s beautiful. And your first line that I read in 2020 was a low-waste line of lipsticks. So from the beginning, this has been the mission. And now your company, I think everything you do is like vegan, cruelty-free, with a real focus on sustainability. You’re also a certified B Corp, which I’m assuming relates to that mission. So tell me a little bit about the B Corp certification, because we’re gonna do a little bonus, some tips on that at the end. And for subscribers, you can subscribe to Feminist Founders and get the bonus tips about sort of what to know if you’re going into getting B Corp certified. But I’m curious if you could just talk a little bit about what motivated that decision and how that’s been beneficial to you to be certified B Corp.

 

Jenn Harper:

Yeah, so when I started, like, when I had that dream, the funny, interesting thing is when I was selling seafood, always interested in sustainable seafood, I could probably sit here and still have an incredible conversation with you about aquaculture and how there’s really good and bad versions of that, and there’s better ways to find and store sustainable seafood. So it’s always been a part of sort of who I am and what I love to talk about in my own life, like different steps, always taking the small steps, you know, reusable water bottle, like all that. Those are things that have played a big role of who I am. And in the early days, I recognized that, you know, the B Corp community, a huge brand that I’ve been a massive fan of for a very long time, Patagonia, was B Corp certified. And it’s just the community. It’s not just like a certification where you write a check, here you go, now you’re B Corp certified. The background and the amount of work that they do to vet an organization and their supply chain is very, very real. And I love this concept of that we now have a legal obligation as a B Corp member to people in the planet before profits, which was really important and it aligns so well with the Indigenous value system that we built the company on.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And aligns perfectly with being an intersectional feminist who prioritizes people and planet above profits. I think at the end of this, I’m going to have fully converted you so that you’re gonna be just out there saying, leading with being a feminist. Awesome. I think that it’s important for people to think about that because it is a massive undertaking, as you just mentioned. And so for people who are interested more around that, we’ll do some bonus content on that. So subscribe to the newsletter to talk about that. I want to shift gears a little and talk about financing because I think for people, that’s always something that’s very interesting on how founders go about financing their companies, especially someone like you who’s doing product because I haven’t had as many product focused people on here. But you know, you’re talking like you said, building your own labs, I’m assuming that’s greatly increasing your startup expenses to go that route instead. You’ve got packaging, you’ve got product, you’ve got staff. You know, this isn’t something that you can usually do and scale in your bathroom, like making your own lip balms. So tell me a little bit about that as somebody who was new to the industry, which makes it more difficult to get funding because people are gonna say, why you? How did you go about that process of financing this business from the start?

 

Jenn Harper:

For the first three years, it was literally like bootstrapped. I was just like paycheck to paycheck adding some of my, you know, weekly funds to the business. Not spending a lot because we didn’t start out like that. We were actually doing… The barrier to entry in the beauty industry is actually quite low. And there’s a lot of manufacturers out there that will make products for you and you can put your logo on. So from 2016 to 2019, that’s literally how we had started. It was in that two-year period between 2016 and 2018 that I started to really listen to my customers and everybody wanted to know where everything was coming from, why we were using so much plastic. And these were all questions that I was like, yeah, this isn’t exactly how I wanted to start the business, but I do not come from generational wealth. And literally was part of an Indigenous entrepreneur woman’s program. It was a 12 week-program. And at the end of it, they gave a check for $500. So that’s literally how I started with that $500 check. I bought a couple of those products from a private-label manufacturer in Toronto, Canada, and took a couple of pictures. It was a lip gloss, a brow product, and a contour kit. Put them up on the website that I made from Shopify, and that was literally how we started. And so about a year and a half in, I made the decision to start seeking funding because I knew it wasn’t the way we were gonna go on and exist. Because when I started asking that manufacturer in Toronto and that partner about ingredients and packaging, one, they would ghost all the questions. And then I started to recognize that they were probably not aware. And unfortunately, a lot of the ingredients that were they were using were things that I think can fall under the, you know, Health Canada regulations, but we’ve all learned that there is ingredients that none of us really want in our products for various reasons and have proven to be harmful to humans and the planet. And so we went down this path of like, how are we going to get money to do this the way we want to do this? And thankfully met Raven Capital, which is a social impact fund that literally was a startup and they are indigenous led from Vancouver, Canada, around the same time we were. And again, meeting them, they heard me speak on a panel, they saw the passion and what we wanted to do with the brand and they believed in it. So we got funding from them in 2019, an initial investment of $350,000 as what is called convertible debt. So that would convert to equity at some point, which it did in 2020. And then we went and got more money from them to keep growing and building and they have been our partners since. And then for our innovation, like most governments, I encourage all entrepreneurs to try to check out and find out how where you can get support. And because we’re working on a really incredible innovative research project, we had some government funding for our research project, which is we extract right now active ingredients from waste from the waste region. We are an agricultural region in the Niagara Peninsula, and we are taking waste from fruit and extracting active ingredients that can go into future cosmetic products as an ingredient. And we did this pathway because I recognized that in this space, anyone can copy your formulations. But I thought if I make an ingredient, they can’t copy that, right? And so what we wanna do as a brand is own some IP or trade secrets that no one can just copy our products because we have our little sort of secret recipe dash at the end that is made by us.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And where are you at, if you don’t mind sharing, on annual revenues at this point?

 

Jenn Harper:

So we will complete this year just over $2 million and are on a path to continue to double that year over year for the next… We actually just were creating a deck for the next three years and then we’ll see even a larger growth period when we launch fully at Sephora USA.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yeah, I mean, that’s huge. I just want to share that because I think people often look at somebody who’s in that place of, okay, they’re in seven-figure revenue or what, you know, and getting distribution in these big stores and thinking like, that’s an amazing story, but I could never make that happen. But this started for you $500

 

Jenn Harper:

And that first year, I think we only did like $125,000.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

But off of a $500 investment, that’s pretty impressive, right? And I think it’s also important for people to hear that you can evolve your business over time. I mean, your value set said, I want my business to look like it is now, but your life circumstances didn’t allow you to build your business that you have now. And that is something that took time and you had to give yourself some grace to say, I’m not gonna start it perfectly.

 

Jenn Harper:

It’s totally changed from what it once was. It’s not even the same company. Yeah, I love that you brought that up.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yeah, because I think that so often I hear from people, like there’s all of this, they don’t think they can take action until it’s exactly the way they want it to be, until it’s perfect. And guess what that does? It keeps you from taking action. It going back to that confidence of the mediocre white man, I think that it’s important to say, sometimes good enough is good enough for now, but it is that commitment in the eye on where you wanna go and having that guide you in the right direction. Because you could have just as easily said, ooh, look at me making a hundred thousand off of 500. I can just keep doing this and get loaded doing something that’s not values aligned. And instead you said, no, I’m going to build it towards where I want to go. I just think there’s some really good lessons in there for people to hear. And so I just really want to call them out to make sure people are hearing those lessons from you, because it’s huge.

 

Jenn Harper:

Yeah, no, that is, it is huge. And I had to like, there was a moment where I was like, this isn’t the actual products I want to put out. Like I knew that. And it was really uncomfortable for me because I knew the version of the brand that I really wanted in the world, but I just had to stop and be like, okay, let’s just see if this works. Cause I think the interesting thing as a female founder, I didn’t ever want to take anyone’s money unless I proved the concept first. And that’s kind of like, I was like, let me see if there’s proof that this brand can exist. Because I think my, my career had led me that I’m sort of, I lean heavily, obviously, in this sort of the marketing side of things. And so I’m like, let me just see if we can create a brand. And if this brand works, then we’ll focus on the products, right? Because these were good products. They weren’t awful, they just weren’t exactly what we wanted, right? When we knew in terms of sustainability. I will attest, and I’ve said this, if I could go back, because I feel like we confused our customer in many, many ways, because we had to transform all of the language, how we speak, all of those things because the sustainability factor, being 100% vegan, all of these things became really popular and it wasn’t who we were in the beginning. And so that transition had confused some of our customers and you can see that in our numbers that there’s many that were sort of pre-2021, we call it when we finally, I think, or pre-2020, that’s not the same customer base now. And that’s a lot of hard work, but those were pivots that had to happen. I f I look back, I don’t think no one would have ever gave me money. So it probably might not have ever worked if I chose to do it that way as well. Right.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yeah, there are two more things inside of that. One, sometimes growing pains have growing pains, you know, that growth period of changing means that you will lose people, but you will gain the right people. And two, it makes me think of an episode from season one, where someone was talking about kind of putting the cheese on the broccoli, like sometimes we almost have to sneak these things in. So you know, you might not have gotten the funding had you shown up the way you really wanted the company to be. And you kind of snuck the broccoli in under the cheese, which that’s okay too. I think that’s something for people to mull over around how you might do the, take some of these lessons and apply it to your own business. So thank you for sharing those things. Something else that I read in your story was that your brother died by suicide, and that was while you were in the process of growing your business. And I lost my brother to a heroin overdose, so I know somewhat of what that experience is like and how much it can completely shift your life. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about going through that grief experience while you were in growth mode on a business. I mean, that’s a very, those are, it’s very challenging. I lost my brother at a time when I was able to sort of take time off to just go and grieve. And when you can’t, how did you manage that time period? And how did it affect the way you run your business?

 

Jenn Harper:

We hadn’t quite launched yet. So we were set to launch that September, and he passed away September 20th, 2016. And so I held off and then I decided to launch on my sobriety date, which was November 26. And we were e-commerce. When I look back, it’s like no one even like it was like my friends and family that were showing up at the website the first day it launched anyway. But yeah, it was gutting and honestly probably the most painful experience of my entire life. But without it, I literally will honor my brother with the success of this company because my passion just became even greater after losing him. Recognizing you know, from his words when he was alive and I told him about the business, he said, ‘Jen, our youth need hope and they need help, and I know that this company you’re building is going to be great.’ Those are literally the words that have been the driving force behind the whole brand, and why I haven’t given up because there’s many things that have happened along the way where if I didn’t have a why like as powerful as the one that my brother BJ gave me, I don’t think I would keep going. You know, I feel like sometimes it would have just been too hard and I can throw in the towel. But with the weight of his words that just can’t happen, and I am super glad grateful for his support while he was alive. And I really, I look at this as like this constant companion of pain, but it’s absolutely been the driving force and I will always honor him with the success of the business.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yeah, I was talking to somebody else who had lost a sibling recently and we bonded over our gratitude for what their deaths did for our lives. And I think it’s something that people who haven’t been through a loss like that, a parent, a sibling, a child, somebody incredibly close to you, what that does to you and for you. And I think it can be hard for people to hear you say, you know, like, I It’s very strange to say like you have gratitude for it. But I think of that as part of the legacy of that person to think, if I didn’t, if I wasn’t grateful, if it didn’t allow that to make massive change in my life, I wouldn’t have been honoring them and it wouldn’t contribute to their legacy. Yeah, so I love that you’re able to share that.

 

Jenn Harper:

And he has three children and I’ve always want them to know that there was meaning behind his existence.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I feel that deeply. My brother had two children and, yes, they’re part of his legacy, but so is my child. I don’t think I would have had my child if I hadn’t lost my brother. So is my business, so is the good I’m doing in the world. All of those are also part of his legacy. And I mean, what a legacy you’re creating here. That’s beautiful. Tell me about your vision. You just mentioned your deep why. What is your vision for your company? It sounds like there’s growth ahead.

 

Jenn Harper:

Yeah, so we’ve always wanted to be a global brand. I want, you know, some Indigenous youth in New Zealand, Australia to see our product on a shelf and know that another Indigenous person did that. And that’ll take global scale, which is really, really hard. We’re still only in like Canada, the US. So of course, from our e-comm, I know every e-commerce business distributes around the world, but you know the percentage is obviously super, super tiny. We can all have like one fan each country but, like, obviously the focus is Canada and the United States right now but yeah we want this to be a global brand. I know I’ll need a ton of help to do and make that happen but I’ve always had huge aspirations for it. And what I love about our team is everyone that comes on to Cheekbone, they just feel this. And it’s the people that have stayed. Obviously we’ve had to let people go and people have left but the ones that have been here, it’s like they have so much passion for this, like just as much as I do almost. And that’s what it’s going to take really to take this to those places. And so that is our goal. We have this, the mission hasn’t changed. It’s this concept of helping every Indigenous person feel and see their value in the world while we craft sustainable color cosmetics that don’t end up in a landfill and are made for every human being.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

You mentioned the color. I just want to throw that out to you because I think that’s another piece of that honoring of your indigenous roots is that part of it is the kind, like it informs even the colors that you’re choosing and that those are grounded in your traditions. Is that right? Well.

 

Jenn Harper:

Well, like our naming conventions in the types of ingredients we choose. Like we really try to do a lot of storytelling and product storytelling through how we make the products and what and why we’re using it and why the color is named this for this reason. And so that is like the, my culture is literally incorporated into every aspect of the brand.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Then tell me what does cheekbone beauty mean to you? What is that name? What is the story?

 

Jenn Harper:

Yeah, it’s kind of a funny story. I was like in my seafood sales rep job driving around my southern Ontario territory and spent a lot of time listening to podcasts. And so there was a podcast, I think it was How I Built This with Sarah Blakely, founder of Spanx. And she was talking about naming Spanx, and how the K sound is extremely memorable. She was a comedian in one of her past lives, careers, and the audience always remembers the K sound, and why there’s big companies—Kodak, Coca-Cola—Nike, all this, right? So I became obsessed with a K, and one day I was driving and I’m like, Cheekbone, oh my goodness, there’s a K. I love cheekbones on every human being. Like, I always have. Got home that night, and like looked up the marketing research on it. And it was like people with higher cheekbones are perceived as more trustworthy. And I’m like, oh, you’re a new brand. Obviously you wanna build trust. And then I was like native people and like, we are known for having prominent higher, wider cheekbones. And like, this is perfect. And so that was the word and I love it. And grateful that Canada had denied our patent, our trademark patent, or what is it? It’s from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, but Canada kept denying it. And when US approved it, then Canada approved ours here. So I was like, thank you United States of America, and your Patent and Trademark Office because you helped Canada approve ours here.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I’m honestly surprised it was available, so that’s amazing that it was. When it is, then you know, it’s meant to be. I’ve done a couple trademarks. And when they’re available, you’re like, Oh, this is it, then this is what it’s meant to be. That’s awesome. You mentioned that podcast, I’m going to try and find it, and link it in the show notes for people. But that brings me to sharing a resource. Is there a resource that’s been particularly helpful, maybe a book or podcast in your journey of building a business?

 

Jenn Harper:

So I want to share like two books and one is called “Braiding Sweetgrass,” which is just, it’s like an epic love story towards plants. And I think if no one has this understanding of this innate relationship that Indigenous people have with living things, when you read that book, you will fully get it because the writer is insanely talented, Robin Wall Kimmerer, you’re gonna just in her words understand this fully if you read the book called “Braiding Sweetgrass.” And the second from a business perspective that I read for 10 years straight while I was in my seafood selling career, I haven’t read it in many years, but I did for a 10-year period and, it was The 7 Habits book, which is literally an old business book by an old white dude. I think his name is Dr. Stephen Covey. But I’ve just found it so like incredible about the hardest thing, you know, we have to do in work settings and building companies is working with people. And I can tell you that this is just such a great book when you think of negotiations, like just the concept of win-win, like how are both parties and just sometimes in life, like little, like begin with the end in mind, like how when, you know, when I wanted to create products that weren’t ending up in a landfill, we start at the end and how do we work backwards. I think it’s just an incredible book with just simple, basic things that just help you get along better with other human beings.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I read “Braiding Sweetgrass” a year and a half ago, maybe something like that. And it’s really, you’re right, the writing is just beautiful. And it does make you feel a connection to Mother Earth in a way that we all need right now. Right. So I think it’s a definite must read. The last thing I want to talk about is charitable giving. I want to ask you about an organization that’s doing good in the world. But first, I know Cheekbone is really dedicated to giving back in a lot of ways and that philanthropy is a big part of your mission. Talk to me a little bit about that, about why that matters and what do you have a particular focus area for your giving back?

 

Jenn Harper:

Yeah, so we as a B Corp are committed to giving 2% of our revenue. So no matter what you’re buying from Cheekbone Beauty, 2% of the revenues are going to causes that matter to us. One is 1% For the Planet. So it’s causes that are based on an environmental impact. And then second is to our Cheekbone Beauty Scholarship Fund. So every year we give out scholarships. This year we’re going to be giving out 10. Our first year we gave out one, and the second year we gave out five, and this is our third year. And that’s what the other one percent is committed to and we chose scholarships because. You know when I think of why I started and looking back at this really like this educational funding gap that was on schools on reservations versus schools off, both in Canada and the US it was dramatic. And how, you know, no kid is going to have a love for learning if their institution or the place where they’re learning isn’t fostering that love by having the right tools required to teach. And unfortunately, the schools on reservations are so underfunded and it’s helping kids feel like they don’t matter. And it, because it’s so evident and there’s huge discrepancies. And so there was, there was that. So we always supported causes that were supporting education. And then as we grew as a brand, you know, we know that it’s hard for people to, to have the right amount of money to go and seek the changes they want in their lives, and if education is the path—and whatever secular or education they choose—we want to be able to support that. So that’s why we chose that. And you know, I think an educated mind is a powerful mind. We’ve heard that many, many times before.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I like to make a donation as a thank you for my guests’ time to whatever organization is meaningful to them. So I don’t know if I can donate directly to 1% For the Planet

 

Jenn Harper:

I think you can, yep.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Then I will do that. And I will encourage listeners to do the same as a way of thanking Jenn for her time here today. And again, if you wanna learn more about B Corp, and just a few tips for getting started on that path or what to expect with that path, then make sure you subscribe to the Feminist Founders newsletter, and the link is in the show notes because that content will be coming out to subscribers and we are about to go record that. But in the meantime, I want to say thank you for your time for being on this episode, Jenn.

 

Jenn Harper:

Thank you so much.

Recent Episodes

Recent Episodes

Nichole Beiner Powell-Newman FF

Nichole Beiner Powell-Newman FF

ALL EPISODES | NEWSLETTER | BOOK LIST | YOUTUBEsubscribe for freeAPPLE PODCASTS | SPOTIFY | GOOGLEAUDIBLE | TUNE IN | DEEZER | YOUTUBESeason 2, Episode 15Fighting for Accessibility with Nichole Beiner Powell-Newman Nichole Alcántara Beiner Powell-Newman (she/her) is...

Mai Moore FF

Mai Moore FF

ALL EPISODES | NEWSLETTER | BOOK LIST | YOUTUBEsubscribe for freeAPPLE PODCASTS | SPOTIFY | GOOGLEAUDIBLE | TUNE IN | DEEZER | YOUTUBESeason 2, Episode 14Creating Inclusive Communities with Mai Moore Mai Moore (she/her) is an Award-Winning Social Impact Leader,...

Elisa Camahort FF

Elisa Camahort FF

ALL EPISODES | NEWSLETTER | BOOK LIST | YOUTUBEsubscribe for freeAPPLE PODCASTS | SPOTIFY | GOOGLEAUDIBLE | TUNE IN | DEEZER | YOUTUBESeason 2, Episode 13Revolutionizing Business with Elisa Camahort-Page Elisa Camahort Page (she/her) is a fractional executive and...

Recent Episodes

Nichole Beiner Powell-Newman FF

Nichole Beiner Powell-Newman FF

ALL EPISODES | NEWSLETTER | BOOK LIST | YOUTUBEsubscribe for freeAPPLE PODCASTS | SPOTIFY | GOOGLEAUDIBLE | TUNE IN | DEEZER | YOUTUBESeason 2, Episode 15Fighting for Accessibility with Nichole Beiner Powell-Newman Nichole Alcántara Beiner Powell-Newman (she/her) is...

Mai Moore FF

Mai Moore FF

ALL EPISODES | NEWSLETTER | BOOK LIST | YOUTUBEsubscribe for freeAPPLE PODCASTS | SPOTIFY | GOOGLEAUDIBLE | TUNE IN | DEEZER | YOUTUBESeason 2, Episode 14Creating Inclusive Communities with Mai Moore Mai Moore (she/her) is an Award-Winning Social Impact Leader,...

Elisa Camahort FF

Elisa Camahort FF

ALL EPISODES | NEWSLETTER | BOOK LIST | YOUTUBEsubscribe for freeAPPLE PODCASTS | SPOTIFY | GOOGLEAUDIBLE | TUNE IN | DEEZER | YOUTUBESeason 2, Episode 13Revolutionizing Business with Elisa Camahort-Page Elisa Camahort Page (she/her) is a fractional executive and...