Jenn Harper is flying high these days.
As founder of Cheekbone Beauty, Canada’s first Indigenous-owned makeup company, she’s been chosen for the , a new program designed to help five Indigenous businesses quadruple their revenues over the next 12 months.
“I’m ecstatic to be a part of this extraordinary opportunity alongside other visionary Indigenous entrepreneurs,” says Harper, of the intense training and mentorship she received June 14 to June 16 in Toronto to help boost her sales and business connections.
Co-presented by , the Business Development Bank of Canada () and , the SOAR Accelerator was launched this year to address gaps in support for Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada. Its lofty goal is to “propel” the revenues of five Indigenous companies (already making more than $1 million) fivefold. This year’s selected companies are all owned and led by women who sell consumer goods inspired by their cultures through online sales.
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“SOAR Accelerator fills an important gap by providing a platform for high-growth Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada,” says Sunshine Tenasco, co-creator of SOAR and founder of Pow Wow Pitch, an annual pitch competition and non-profit organization that supports Indigenous entrepreneurs.
“It’s about more than just financial success; it’s about building confidence, opening doors, and leveraging the ecosystem to empower the Indigenous economy, one entrepreneur at a time,” Tenasco says.
According to the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (), there are more than 50,000 Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada that contribute almost $50 billion to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) per year.
Rising from the ashes
For much of her life, Harper struggled with identity issues, and she’s talked openly about overcoming alcoholism and the pain of her brother’s suicide. But finding out in 2015 that her grandmother had suffered at the hands of the Canadian Indian residential school system was the catalyst for her online business.
“Some of the biggest hurdles of being an Indigenous entrepreneur and a woman-owned business is the lack of representation of people who look like me in mass media and pop culture,” says Harper, who was raised by her Caucasian mother, but reconnected with her Indigenous father and relatives as an adult.
In 2016, she started Cheekbone Beauty, from her home in St. Catharines, ON, to honour her Anishinaabe roots and create a space in the beauty industry where Indigenous youth and women felt represented and empowered.
“Indigenous culture is at the forefront of Cheekbone,” she says. “I’ve had to overcome my personal issues to remain successful in the space of beauty and business, which doesn’t always represent me and other Indigenous people.”
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Committed to the environment
In 2021, Cheekbone Beauty and their creative agency, Sid Lee, won the first-ever Inclusivity, Diversity, and Equality in Advertising (IDEA) competition held in partnership with Bell Media.
“By winning, we were granted a large sum of money towards ad space,” says Harper of the $1-million windfall. “By advertising, we were able to reach a larger global audience, especially young Indigenous people.”
Harper hasn’t been resting on her laurels. In 2022, Cheekbone received —a mark of excellence that signals a company’s high social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Harper says Cheekbone’s reputation has grown as a result.
“It’s important for customers to know because it shows our commitment to the environment and our employees,” she says. “Customer knowledge of our certification builds additional trust between our brand and the customer—it proves that we are doing what we say we are doing.”
Gaining access to capital
One of the biggest obstacles Harper ran into during Cheekbone’s expansion was a lack of capital. She had a solid plan and a great product, but without the funding to break into the bigger markets in the United States, she knew she was going to have a tough fight ahead.
Enter , an Indigenous-led Canadian venture capital fund with the self-appointed mission of empowering Indigenous entrepreneurs. Harper clicked with the people at Raven Capital immediately, both in terms of their shared mission and a compatible vision for the future of the company.
It was Raven Capital that pointed Harper in Export Development Canada’s (EDC) direction. We, in turn, suggested she reach out to financial institutions that offer EDC’s Export Guarantee Program (EGP), a working capital solution that provides guarantees to your lender on the money you borrow, giving them the confidence to increase your access to more financing.
The result? Harper leveraged an EGP through to extend her line of credit, enabling her to pursue new opportunities and expand into the U.S. She also used EDC Credit Insurance to protect her receivables from non-payment.
“We’re proud to work with Cheekbone Beauty, especially when we see the contributions they’ve made to support Indigenous youth and communities,” says Todd Evans, EDC’s national lead for Indigenous exporters.
“With credit insurance, if your customer doesn’t pay, EDC will. There’s a comfort in having that protection, especially for a newer company expanding into export markets.”
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Giving back to the community
“Being able to give back to the community and serving as a role model for Indigenous youth was part of the reason Cheekbone Beauty was founded,” says Harper, who won top honours in 2022 for her leadership in business from Indspire, a national charity that invests in the education of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.
To date, Cheekbone has donated $250,000 to a wide variety of causes and non-profit organizations, including the Navajo Water Project and educational funding for Indigenous youth.
“This is important because Indigenous culture suggests that success is not determined by the amount of money that is made, but by how you impact your community,” says Harper, who started her online direct-to-consumer business to champion inclusion and diversity in the beauty industry.
“Giving back is part of the brand foundation, and I only wanted to do this if I could somehow support others,” says the mother of two.
“In Indigenous culture, our teachings place a particular emphasis on the beauty of nature. Our products are formulated using clean, raw ingredients and are implementing reusable components. This has all been achievable through the use of our in-house lab and sustainable packaging,” says Harper, who has a full-time chemist on staff to develop her cosmetics.
“Innovation is at the heart of everything that we do, so it only made sense for us to have an in-house lab. It enables us to marry Indigenous wisdom with western science to create the best formulas possible.”
Continuing her company’s expansion into the United States is top of mind for Harper, but that’s only the beginning. In 2023, Cheekbone Beauty launched in 609 JCPenney stores across the United States in the Thirteen Lune shop-in-shops.
“In terms of other international markets, New Zealand, Australia and South America would be great working opportunities for Cheekbone due to their large Indigenous communities and supporting their raw goods and supplies,” says Harper, who’s grateful to EDC for providing resources and information to prepare her for exporting and to help mitigate risks.
But she’s quick to point out that one aspect of her business will always remain the same.
“Our vision and mission will never change, which is helping every Indigenous kid on the planet see and feel their value in the world.”