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Indigenous entrepreneur inspires at Regina leadership forum

After a dream about Indigenous kids and lip gloss in 2015, Jenn Harper was inspired to found Cheekbone Beauty, a sustainable cosmetics brand that aims to help Indigenous youth see themselves in the beauty industry.

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Choosing happiness means different things to different people.

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For Indigenous entrepreneur Jenn Harper it meant confronting the ripple effects of intergenerational trauma, embracing her identity and finding purpose — three things that ultimately led her to achieve her dreams.

“It’s 2010, I’m 34 years old, I’m married, have two amazing children,” Harper said as she described her past self during the University of Regina’s Inspiring Leadership Forum held virtually Wednesday.

“If you knew me then you would have thought that I had everything I could ever want. I owned a beautiful home, drove a nice car, I had lots of family and friends and this great job that I loved — the problem though, was my past.”

Founder of Cheekbone Beauty, the first Indigenous beauty brand to launch in Sephora, Harper was joined by Colette Carlson, a behavior expert and motivational speaker, and Canadian singer-songwriter Serena Ryder, as they spoke to this year’s forum theme ‘Happy on Purpose. ‘

First to speak, Harper told attendees of her grandmother’s experience at residential school and how the abuse she suffered there led to generations of family turning to alcohol to cope with trauma.

“My grandparents both abused alcohol to mask the pain of their childhoods. And my grandmother raised her children without a sense of what it meant to be a loving parent,” she said.

After seeing his parents turn to alcohol, Harper’s father did the same thing, and eventually left her and her mother. They remained stranded for more than 20 years. With no connection to her Ojibway heritage, Harper struggled with her identity and against the racist stereotypes that came with it.

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Embarrassed by her family’s history and her father’s battle with alcoholism, she too turned to alcohol to suppress feelings of worthlessness and abandonment.

I’ve overcome alcoholism. I’m probably the proudest alcoholic recovered you will ever meet and I feel great about who I am,” Harper said. “I needed to change and that narrative about my people had to change. So, after getting sober I realized I wanted to be part of the solution and alter the course for my family and all other families like mine.”

After a dream about Indigenous kids and lip gloss in 2015, Harper was inspired to found Cheekbone Beauty, a sustainable cosmetics brand that aims to help Indigenous youth see themselves in the beauty industry.

To date, the company (which started in her Ontario basement with just $500) has donated more than $150,000 to causes like Shannen’s Dream and the The First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, the Navajo Water Project, One Tree Planted.

She credits her brother, who committed suicide in 2016, with providing her the courage and drive to make her dream a reality.

“If he didn’t leave, I don’t think I would have worked that hard,” Harper said. “I think that, and the sadness of his type of death from him, is really what propels me to keep doing it.”

He had so much pride when he saw successful Indigenous leaders, whether it be in sport, entertainment or some other field, she said, and that sticks with her today as she strives to inspire others.

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“Far too many times I think there are stories that are told about us, not by us, and my purpose when I share the Cheekbone story and my personal story is that this (story) is (told) by somebody with this lived experience, Harper said of what she hopes people take away from her presentation.

“At the end of the day, it all boils down to despite all of those things in the past, look at what we can accomplish.”

Former MP Jody Wilson-Raybould is scheduled to speak at next year’s event which will center on the theme ‘Born to Transform.’ The two other speakers have yet to be confirmed, but the event will be held in-person on International Women’s Day.

jackerman@postmedia.com

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