Ashley Callingbull, Autumn Peltier, and Buffy Sainte-Marie have at least two things in common: each is an Indigenous woman known for her work and activism, and each is the inspiration for a lipstick shade in Cheekbone Beauty’s Warrior Women makeup collection.
Cheekbone Beauty is a St. Catharines-based cosmetics company that was founded in 2016 by Jenn Harper, an Ojibwe woman with roots in Northwest Angle 33 First Nation, near Kenora.
Its mission, according to its website, is “to not only make a difference in the lives of Indigenous youth through addressing the educational funding crisis but to also create a space in the beauty industry where Indigenous youth feel represented.”
Its Warrior Women collection features 16 lipstick shades, all named after Indigenous women working to improve their community. “I wanted to add this array of people from all different industries, as well as backgrounds in different communities, to show our youth the possibilities of the paths their life could take,” says Harper.
It seems to be working. “We got an email from a girl in the United States,” Harper says. “She says to me, ‘I got your lipstick just in time for my homecoming. Now I get to feel empowered because I’m wearing Sunny Redbear on my lips to go to my dance.’” Redbear is a writer and activist from Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota.
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Cheekbone donates 10 per cent of profits to Shannen’s Dream, a branch of the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society focused on improving the quality of schools on reserve. Harper hopes that the company will be able to announce its own scholarship fund this year.
TVO.org spoke with Harper about Indigenous entrepreneurship, the power of representation, and her biggest sources of inspiration.
How did you come up with the idea for Cheekbone Beauty?
I literally had a dream about these little Native girls covered in lip gloss. That was back in January 2015. I woke up that night and grabbed my laptop and started writing out what I now know is called a business plan. I wanted to make a lip gloss and then use a portion of the profits to start a foundation in my grandmother’s name. She was a residential-school survivor. I don’t even think I called it a cosmetics brand back then, but I asked myself, how do I make these lipsticks and use them as a way to have conversations with people about this really incredibly painful history, but at the same time share these stories of resilience?
Why did you start it?
It’s a couple of things. But, number one, in 2016, I lost my brother to suicide, and I had some amazing conversations with him about this brand and building it. I would reach out to him, quite a bit actually, to get his feedback on a lot of stuff because I didn’t grow up in community and he did. He’d never heard about an Indigenous brand making things that were about supporting our people or doing anything for our community. He was a youth worker, and he knew how much help and hope our kids need, and he’s like, “This is going to be that — this is going to provide that.” His words literally run through my head every single day at some point.
The brand feels very personal to you. Was that on purpose?
In the beginning, I kind of wanted to be in the background, and other people on our team would tell me, “No, Jenn, it’s your story that has to be pushed forward.” Then, as I went along, I realized how important that was.
I was a severe alcoholic, and I almost drank myself to death, so I always talk about my story because I think it’s so important for people to see that you can totally change. I think sometimes, when it comes to shame, people stay sick in their disease, or their addiction, or whatever they’re struggling with, because they don’t think there’s a way out of it.
What were the challenges of creating a business as an Indigenous woman?
So, because I’m half-[Indigenous], I always feel like I’m not enough. I look like I’m an Ojibwe woman, but I’m half, and a lot of people know that I didn’t grow up in community, so I always felt like it wasn’t my right or my place, but that’s a personal issue. Now I know I am enough. I share in a lot of this pain of our history, so I get to be here and do something to help our people just as much as anyone else does.
Why the focus on Indigenous representation for youth?
I think it’s just because it hasn’t happened on a grand scale. Big brands — big companies generally — they’re not thinking about how they can represent Indigenous people. Our brand is for them, and it’s about them, and that is definitely a big part of our mission. Just the fact that if there’s some kid somewhere who doesn’t feel like they belong, and then they happen to see that this brand exists, and it shows them that they do belong to something and that there’s other people out there that look like them and had the same feelings and the same upbringing — that’s an impact. How an Indigenous youth seeing their own face is going to empower them to go on and create their own amazing life.
When you were on the CBC show Dragon’s Den earlier this year, you were offered $125,000 for half the company. Why did you turn that down?
It was a terrible offer, and if you were to give up 50 per cent of your company, you’re giving up half of the company financially, and you’d be giving up half the decision-making. There’s a lot of negative things at play with that kind of deal. I was really fortunate going into Dragon’s Den that I had been working with Raven Capital, a social-impact investment fund that is Indigenous based, prior to going on the show. I had a term sheet with them about a deal that was much, much better than that one, so I knew that going in, and I knew Dragon’s Den would be great for business. And I was right, so why not use that opportunity for marketing purposes? And that’s exactly what we had to do afterwards, but it was an amazing experience. I mean, I hadn’t really pitched my company professionally before, so why not take advantage of standing in front of Canada’s six business icons and listen to their feedback and their advice?
Where do you see the business going from here?
I’ve publicly stated that I want to build a brand that’s valued at $1 billion, because other women, non-Indigenous women, have done that with cosmetics brands, and my whole feeling and statement behind that is, if they can do it, why the heck can’t an Indigenous women do that, too?
This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.
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