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Cheekbone Beauty was created to give back to Indigenous communities. Now its products are sold by the world’s biggest beauty retailer

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Jenn Harper, founder of Cheekbone Beauty.Kyle Scott/The Globe and Mail

What I love about my culture is that Indigenous people are literally the OGs of sustainability. Our idea of success is about giving back, not attaining for ourselves. During the early days of Cheekbone, I had very little money, but I had a big, big dream. I’d work nine to five, and at night and on weekends, I’d go into a corner of my basement by myself, listen to podcasts and wrap all these orders coming through our Shopify store. And I’d think about how to get Cheekbone into a major beauty retailer and build the kind of brand people would want to support.

I was also paying attention to the concept of social enterprise—giving back to and supporting local communities. We realized the beauty space has a ton of room in terms of margin where you can create a healthy business and still do that. Originally, we committed to 10% of profits. We’ve since started our B Corp application, and to become certified, you have to guarantee you’ll donate 2% of annual revenue. We’re not profitable yet, but we’ve now donated over $150,000 to First Nations’ youth organizations.

As an outsider—I came from the food world—I saw everything wrong with the beauty industry. I knew there was a great opportunity to create a sustainable brand. And when I look at Indigenous culture, it’s this respect and gratitude for, and relationship with, every living thing. At the same time, I was learning about my Anishinaabe roots, including the Seven Grandfather Teachings, and I wanted to take those principles for living with humility, honesty, respect and so on, and put them into a business.

But I also want to build a big company. That’s what a lot of reporting seems to get wrong—the scalability of Indigenous businesses. There’s this view that they’re going to stay small and community-based. We are here to prove that wrong. Brands our size don’t typically build labs; they don’t employ full-time scientists who go from raw ingredients to formulation. The goal is to create products that are 100% biodegradable, vegan and clean according to major-retailer standards. We also have a target of zero waste. I’ve been open about saying that’s completely unachievable, and it’s really important that we’re transparent about that. But it is our North Star, our big, hairy audacious goal. We know we’re never going to zero waste, but how close can we get?

In 2020, it would’ve felt like staying online-only was the best thing. We grew 350% that year, all direct-to-consumer from our e-commerce platform. But I saw the digital world becoming extremely crowded. We needed another place for people to find Cheekbone Beauty. There was pushback from investors about whether omnichannel was the right thing. We could have looked for funding to build a platform to make sure people were finding us online. But the heart of our work has to be innovation and sustainability. And when an organization like Sephora, the largest beauty retailer in the world, invites a brand to share its space, it’s massive street cred. Like, people would die for that opportunity, and I feel so fortunate our team did such great work to get us there in 2021. It also means more brand awareness, which in turn helps us fulfill our mission of giving back. We want an Indigenous person who goes into a Sephora and sees this brand on the shelf to understand another Indigenous person did that. That sustains the community.

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