Jenn Harper Won’t Let You Erase Her Ancestry

When my co-founder, Marissa, texted me about Cheekbone Beauty, I immediately went to the back-story. Who is the founder? Why does this company exist?

The answer: Jenn Harper, to rebuild her roots to her Anishinaabe community and shed light on the eradication of an entire people – and spotlight the beauty that has come from these very people.

So, when I sit down with Jenn Harper, I’m immediately drawn to her centered energy. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I know this woman is strong before hearing a word from her.

I’m not wrong. Cheekbone Beauty may be a vehicle, but Jenn Harper is, without a doubt, in the driver’s seat.

cheekbone beauty products

Cheekbone Beauty began as a dream. Literally.

“A corner in my basement was where we started, but the true beginning happened after one of those pop-out-of-bed-in-the-middle-of-the-night dreams.”

The imagery was vivid, with Harper remembering “the joy and laughter of these Native little girls that were covered in lip gloss.”

It sounds like a point-A-to-point-B story: Harper went to bed, woke up with an idea, and got to work. And in some ways, this is true – as Harper says with a smile, “that night, I grabbed my laptop and started writing what is really the beginning of our business plan today; really, the foundations of it.”

But there was history behind Cheekbone Beauty as well. At the time Harper had the dream, she was learning about her ancestors and the erasure of their culture through residential schools, a system built by government and church officials to impose a more Eurocentric way of living.

“[Residential schools] really robbed many people from our communities of their language,” explains Harper, “which is really closely tied to their culture and who they are – and, also, many of their practices.”

But Harper’s family lineage is filled with strong women. She tells me the inspiring story of how her grandmother brought Anishinaabemowin – her people’s language – back to the community, despite forced residential schooling from the ages of six through 16. Rejecting the attempts to strip away her culture, Emily Paul, Harper’s grandmother, was resilient, maintaining her cultural identity.

“When she got back to our community, that’s all she did: speak our language. And every one of my aunties and uncles and my cousins that live on the reservation actually all speak Anishinaabemowin.” My jaw drops in awe at this story.

“She’s no longer here, but how incredible is it that her family really took back the language?”

jenn harper of cheekbone beauty's grandmother, emily paul

Harper then explains that, though her grandmother was a powerhouse, the concept and existence of residential schooling led to transgenerational trauma; her paternal grandparents passed along their trauma to her father, who in turn passed the trauma to Harper and her siblings.

Turns out, this is also a large source of inspiration behind Cheekbone Beauty: only a few months prior to this dream, Harper had begun her path to sobriety. And it’s not something that’s uncommon – many First Nations families are afflicted by transgenerational trauma.

“We look at the reservation system: marginalized, impoverished addiction, violence and suicide is really the result,” Harper says in a matter-of-fact tone. “While [learning and acknowledging] all that, I was in this space where I was turning my own life around.” 

Harper saw the stereotypes surrounding First Nations families, including struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction. Still, the fight was an uphill battle… until she reached an epiphany.

“I realized what took me so long to get sober was the shame that surrounded addiction,” she says. “When I realized the power of voicing something, getting really vulnerable… I really believe that the moment I gave a voice to it, that shame started to die. I was killing it. And that’s what helped me get well and heal.”

She credits the love around her as a source of constant support. “Having people around me that love me and care about me was really powerful, and part of that healing journey was no longer being ashamed of who I was and where I came from.”

Jenn, BJ and nieces and nephews

During her healing process, she created a special friendship, one that led to a powerful sense that she was being truly seen. “She said something to me about a year after being sober: ‘this is the version of you that I saw while [you were] still sick.'”

Wow, I think. But Harper takes it a step further, brings home the message of human connection and its true power upon us.

“Imagine us as human beings, having that power to see the best version of the people that we know in our lives before they can even see it, and how powerful that can be in helping someone,” she surmises.

It’s poetry that wrote itself many years back, poetry brought to life that illuminates society’s desire for togetherness. The honor to write this insight is overwhelming.

Harper’s dedication to supporting others extends to her dedication to creating a legitimate beauty line, starting with something she really, really wants to stress: “I’m proud that this last couple of weeks, we officially became B Corp certified!” she tells me excitedly.

Becoming B Corp certified isn’t easy – it’s not simply writing a check and having a background check. In fact, the process is so extensive, it took almost a year to complete the process and receive the certification. “They dive into every ingredient, your environmental impact in terms of the buildings that you are housed in, they then have to go reach out to your suppliers…” Harper explains. I’m tired just thinking about it.

Sustainability and transitioning into a “clean” brand – an unregulated, vague term – is also top of mind for Harper.

“We look at things like the toxicity levels of ingredients, and for pigments, this is where all the color and makeup come from.” Read: this is where the unhealthy, un-clean ingredients are hidden, often with negative effects on our bodies when applying highly-pigmented eyeshadows and bronzers.

Harper is dedicated to overcoming this and pursuing sustainability, making sure “the pigment suppliers we work with constantly are testing their pigments and colors.”

jenn harper working on formulas for cheekbone beauty

Certifications like this are important to Harper, who now carefully studies the products she picks up. While she wants to believe in the best version of others, she’s also aware of the loopholes and half-truths that float around the industry. She’s careful when it comes to bringing in team members, aware that the trust she places in them reflects on Cheekbone Beauty – and especially herself.

“You just want people to know you’re legit,” she says. “I just want people to know I’m legit.”

Cleanliness aside, Harper is also excited about the philanthropic aspect of being a B Corp – a priority from the beginning, when she was building the foundational business plan and reflecting on her family history.

“We wanted to [give back] because that’s who we are, and it’s why we exist. With B Corp, we give 2% of revenues. So that 2% of revenues is regardless of profitability.” I must look confused – or, as I choose to believe, captivated. Harper continues her thorough explanation: “So if you’re selling said amount of money per year and your revenues say that, then you have to give back the 2%, which I think is awesome.”

She smiles, then emphasizes her philanthropic mindset: “I think that’s fantastic.”

When it comes to where these revenues go, Harper says Cheekbone Beauty is “balancing out our giving to be both an environmental cause as well as an Indigenous youth organization cause.”

jenn harper at six years old

Cheekbone Beauty has given back since the beginning. “I think it’s almost close to the $200,000 range now; it’s well over $150,000 back to communities that support Indigenous youth,” Harper says proudly – not arrogantly. But the philanthropy extends further: “Our specific goal is to support educational opportunities, but we’re here to support you whenever and however we can.”

When it comes to environmental causes, Cheekbone Beauty gives back 1% to the planet as well. “For us, that’s always been about planting trees with an organization called One Tree Planted,” Harper explains.

I express how this initiative is rare among other companies I’ve looked into – even B Corps. Harper tilts her head. “[Female-led organizations or female-identifying-led organization] tend to want to figure out how to give back to our community. And that goes back to that whole matriarchal circle, take care of our community.”

She continues to posit questions. “Is that why we are like that? Is it about always protecting our own and taking care of our family?” she asks. “I don’t have all the answers on that one, but I found that to be interesting.”

Harper is humble in her knowledge of this, though she has the experience: she was part of the organization She.E.O. “It was about women founders and a network to support women founders,” Harper says about the organization, which she joined in her early days. “They had some studies and data, [and they showed that] women-led organizations really always are about giving back to community.”

jenn harper sitting at desk at cheekbone beauty office

I think of the male executives behind the scenes, helming companies, leading discussions regarding diversity (and the irony behind that). But Harper isn’t scrutinizing, simply “thinking of that through an Indigenous lens.”

It comes back to her culture. It always does.

I note that the first product we featured from Cheekbone Beauty was their Sustain Eyeliner Pencil – the bright blue color, specifically.

In a world filled with nude Naked palettes and subtle beiges and bronzes, I ask if choosing bold colors for the brand’s products was a conscious decision. If so – which I suspected – why?

“Natural beauty brands have always slanted towards the more muted tones,” Harper acknowledges. “However, if we look in nature, think of the vibrant pinks, purples… those colors exist out there in the most beautiful florals and fauna everywhere we see. The color is there.”

mint green eyeshadow from cheekbone beauty on model's eyes

It is. I look next to me, at my “California” Bouquet, filled with an assortment of flowers bursting with color. The plants outside of my home are blooming as spring moves to summer. Harper has taken the beauty and color and run with it.

It also comes back to the language that her grandparents were being stripped of, a language where one word can convey an entire sentence. “Within the Anishinaabemowin, which is the word for our language, everything is so descriptive. And I think that’s really, really powerful.”

She continues: “I felt like that’s just the way that [my ancestors] would communicate: with great description,” she says thoughtfully. “And there’s always a tone of gratitude in how things were described through the language.”

So, the bright pops of color come from the vivid shades that are there. But Harper keeps skin in mind, too, and how the colors will appear on different tones, “from the fairest of fairest skin tones to the deepest of dark melanin.” And what I love most: porcelain skin was not the highlight when thinking of colors.

three models wearing bright colors on their eyes from cheekbone beauty

As Harper says, “sometimes, definitely on the deeper skin tones, you want some bold color. It does bring out a bit of a pop.” It’s a sense of inclusivity that I find many brands miss out on; one subtle blush for darker skin tones, five for tan and beige that range from rosy to flaming orange. To sum it up with Harper’s words: “When we talk about inclusivity, we’re talking about shade ranges.”

It’s the importance of growth and inclusivity that led Harper to choose Sephora in Canada as Cheekbone Beauty’s partner. “When I see the work that Sephora has done in terms of inclusivity, I think they’ve done an incredible job.” Harper loves being included in back-end meetings, absorbing plenty of information, and she says it’s always with inclusivity at the forefront.

“I feel like,” she says, to close out our interview on the perfect note, “we are living in a time where we are going to see that makeup is available and accessible to each and every human being on the planet.”

jenn wearing colorful dress

Thank you to Jenn Harper for speaking with QUILL. You can check out Cheekbone Beauty on their website, as well as their Instagram.

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