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Jenn Harper of Cheekbone Beauty on building a business to help her community


Jenn Harper is Founder of Cheekbone Beauty, a company whose mission is to develop a brand of beauty products that will never be tested on animals, and that gives back to the First Nations community. In 2017 Jenn was awarded the Social Enterprise Award at the 17th Annual Women in Business Awards by the Women in Niagara (WIN) Council and the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce (GNCC). Alpha Woman’s co-founder had the chance to catch up with Jenn to talk about her journey, and what’s next for Cheekbone Beauty.

Tell us a bit more about yourself.

I was born in Thunder Bay, but I live in St. Catharines Ontario with my husband and two kids. I grew up with my single Mom. She always worked super hard to provide for us, doing jobs such as cleaning houses, or working on the boats that came through the Welland Canal.

People have asked me how I became an entrepreneur and I think back to my mother who was actually an entrepreneur, just to survive. We always had food on the table but we struggled to get by. That struggle became fuel for me as an adult. I have never wanted to just get by.

I realized early on that no one is going to be responsible for me except for me. In the work I do now, and as an indigenous woman myself, I try to teach indigenous youth that we cannot rely on other people to support us. There’s so much backlash against government funding cuts that happen but personally, I would never rely on the government for anything. When it comes to taking care of myself and my family I commit to my responsibilities. This is something that I knew I always wanted to do.

But that kind of commitment requires hard work. And speaking of hard work I’ve been married for 17 years and that’s actual hard work! I often see people on social media talk about how awesome their relationships are but that’s not the truth about all relationships. Any relationship we have in life requires work and giving from both sides. It’s not easy to be married that long to somebody but we have two kids and we always prioritize them when it comes to working on our marriage.

How do you and your husband keep the marriage fresh now that the kids are getting older and you’re together more often?

I battled alcoholism for many years and that was very hard on our marriage. There were times when I was ready to call it quits and he was ready to work on the marriage and there were lots of times that he was ready to call it quits and I was ready to work on the marriage. It just turned out that neither of us wanted to end it at exactly the same time, thankfully. And now we’re dealing with the teenage years which is helping bring us together in a different way.

My husband and I have both always worked and had careers. My “day job” up until now is in sales and marketing in the food industry. Beauty is brand new to me. Some days I wonder why in the heck did I get involved with this industry, it’s crazy!” But, I’ve always loved beauty products as a consumer. I’m one of those product queens that wants to touch and feel everything.

Why did you start Cheekbone Beauty?

I started Cheekbone Beauty to empower and enhance the lives of indigenous youth. I remind myself of that mission with every opportunity that I am faced with, even doing this interview with you today, for example. if it’s not going to in some way, shape or form help the brand and empower indigenous youth then I won’t spend the time. That’s the focus, and why we exist.

Are there any correlations between the food industry and the beauty industry?

Yes absolutely. When it came to branding and marketing I realized it’s very much like the food industry. In the food industry, the consumer is often sold the same food product, but in different packaging and under a different brand name. It’s the same product in a different package on the shelves. So when I discovered that I thought, okay, I can figure out where these beauty products are being manufactured and then figure out how to create a beauty brand.

Is branding the only way to differentiate a product in the beauty industry?

Pretty much, but I believe that packaging and the brand story are ways to differentiate a brand. There are some companies that develop new products, for example using biotechnology and synthetics to mimic squalene. Historically, squalene comes from whales and sharks. The development of a synthetic squalene is a breakthrough that created a much more sustainable manufacturing process for this key ingredient.

Most beauty products however don’t have much product differentiation, so the brand story is critical in order to have any share of mind with the consumer.

When did you launch Cheekbone Beauty?

Cheekbone Beauty launched at the end of 2016. I actually started building the brand in 2015, and it took me about a year from conception to launch.

Were you working full-time during that year?

Oh yes and I still do work full time now. My goal was to continue to work full-time and support the company financially until June 2019, so I have a little bit left.

How are you tracking on that goal?

We’re right on track, thankfully. I knew when I built the business plan that it would take 3 to 5 years to become profitable, especially a product-based business. If you’re a service-based business it can be a completely different scenario.

When you launched were you selling online only?

Yes online sales only originally. At the moment we’re in a few boutiques in Canada, and we do sell to a distributor in the United States but they are online only as well.

Are you looking for wider distribution?

Only if the margins are right. I chose to go into the beauty industry because if you’re a donation-based business you need lots of room in terms of margin in order to donate money. The margins in beauty are massive but as soon as you go into big retail you basically cut your profits in half, which impacts my ability to donate to indigenous youth. We make the best margins online by far.

How did you grow your business from nothing to where it is today?

I’ve grown my business organically. For example my Instagram following is totally organic.  I am super proud of that because it’s my hustle that made this happen and the result is a super strong and engaged organic Instagram following. I feel a big sense of trust with my following and it has proven to be so valuable. The first thing I wanted to do when I started to build this brand was to build trust.

Also, I’m in the middle of creating an e-learning program to help anyone who comes into the business to fundamentally understand Cheekbone Beauty. The reason I’ve created this is because a lot of my success with Cheekbone Beauty is through my Brand Ambassador program. I have almost 200 brand ambassadors across North America and they get a commission on their sales. I’m building this online learning program because I want them to understand the brand story as much as I want to help them sell. We just started this program last September and it’s been extremely successful.

Is there a correlation between getting sober and Cheekbone Beauty?

I got sober in November 2014 and conceived of Cheekbone Beauty that week. I had a dream about a group of little girls that were covered in lip gloss. It woke me up in the middle of the night and I thought that’s it – lip gloss! So I started a foundation in my grandmother’s name, which is Emily Paul, and the purpose was to create scholarships for indigenous youth.I always wanted to do something to help my community in some way, I just didn’t know how, what “it” would be, or if “it” would even be possible.

As a result of that dream at 2 a.m. I got my laptop, started drafting my business plan and doing all my background research. During that year I took it upon myself to learn about my indigenous culture. I had never connected with my culture, so I read things like the Truth and Reconciliation Report, which is that final report the Canadian government did on residential schools and the impact it had on indigenous people.

This 500-page document was emotionally draining to read, but I am glad I did it. We were not taught any of this history in school so it was important for me to know about this as I’ve spent my entire life running away from my culture. I was ashamed of it. All I saw was the trauma in my own family. My grandmother battled alcoholism, as did my father. After seeing all that dysfunction, I wanted nothing to do with it. Nothing to do with it because I had no understanding why the trauma even existed in the first place. I knew there was something wrong and running away seemed to be the best thing to do.

After learning those truths about my culture, launching Cheekbone Beauty has healed me. Friends that I’ve had for a long time who saw me battle alcoholism tell me I’m a totally different person, like night and day. I’ve undergone a personal transformation that happened because of what I discovered vis a vis my community.

Tell us the significance behind the name Cheekbone Beauty

In the year that I was developing the company I had no idea what I was going to call it, but I always knew that cheekbones are my favorite feature on every human, but especially on indigenous women and men, who always have the most amazing cheekbones. I got home at night and did some research. It turns out that people with high cheekbones are known to be more trustworthy, so after listening to a podcast with Sara Blakely talking about how she wanted a K sounds in her brand Spanx, I decided Cheekbone Beauty was the right name.

You mentioned that you launched a foundation?

Actually, the foundation never happened. I had a business Advisory Board in 2015 and when I mentioned that I wanted to create a foundation, they thought I was a mad woman. They advised me that starting a foundation is as much work as starting a business, so doing the both at the same time was inadvisable. They suggested I find a foundation I could support with donations. I found The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and it was the organization I felt closest matched my mission to give back.

My goal has always been to create scholarship so right now I’m working on creating one in my grandmother’s and my brother’s name. My brother committed suicide just before I launched Cheekbone Beauty. I had some big donors come forward who indicated they can secure significant funding for this scholarship from philanthropists in Toronto. We’re working on that right now.

What were the most challenging aspects of launching your business?

Funding the business. I have taken no grants ,this has all been funded by me personally. We’re now in year 2 and we’re out of debt, we have money in the bank and inventory in the closet. So we’re doing amazingly well. I’m eager to leave my job and focus on cheekbone full-time. The truth is this is not sustainable. I’m tired. I know that to be valuable and useful to my community, I can’t continue working both jobs, it’s just too exhausting.

What’s the future of Cheekbone Beauty? 

I applied for an accelerator program with Sephora, the biggest Beauty retailer in the world.  They pick only 12 women for the program from around the globe. The winners spend one week in San Francisco at the Sephora head office where you got a mentor, and guidance on developing your business.

They’re very smart as this is how they nurture the new brands in the beauty industry. They obviously have this program to keep up with what’s new and what’s coming up so they buy before they have to pay too much for the new, popular products. It would be so great to be involved with this program, I would learn so much. I won’t find out until March whether or not we are selected but we have made it through the first rounds.

Our brand story is very strong, so now I need a product story. Our next big goal is to create a lipstick on our own, without using a manufacturer that manufactures for other beauty companies. I found a cosmetic scientist that we’re working with to develop a plastic-free product, which will differentiate our product from the rest.

What’s the accomplishment in your life that you are most proud of?

My children.

Are your kids involved in Cheekbone Beauty?

Oh yes. My daughter helps by wrapping orders. A few months ago I was invited to a roundtable discussion with Justin Trudeau and nine other women entrepreneurs from across Canada. When I got home my son couldn’t believe that I had met with the Prime Minister. He didn’t believe that Cheekbone Beauty was actually a business, so this really surprised him.

What are your self-care routines?

I make time for the gym and in good weather I like to spend time outdoors enjoying the countryside. I definitely making time for fitness and I try to eat healthily. I have a really solid, daily spiritual prayer and meditation practice. That’s part of my sobriety so it must be in place for me to stay the course.

Leslie Andrachuk

As a bilingual pioneer in global digital publishing and marketing, Leslie is happiest when creating new things and inspiring her teams. She is passionate about changing biases that hold women back from realizing their true power and is grateful that at this point in her career she has the skills to make real change.

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