Most entrepreneurs would kill for a shot to be on Dragon’s Den, and even more would kill for a partnership from one of the show’s high-powered investors. But on this week’s season premiere, St. Catherines, Ont.’s Jennifer Harper turned down her offer.
Harper, who started Cheekbone Beauty almost three years ago, asked the Dragons for $100,000 for a 12% stake in her bourgeoning cosmetics company. Clearly impressed with her pitch and her business model—which supports the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society by donating 10% of proceeds—Dragon Vincenzo Guzzo offered her $125,000. But, here’s the catch: He wanted a whopping 50% share in the business. Harper said “no, thanks” with confidence, and while you might think she lost her big break, she’s far from worried.
Harper had auditioned for Dragon’s Den twice before, but the third time turned out to be the charm. This time, she also happened to be in early talks with a Vancouver-based, Indigenous-owned venture capital firm, Raven Indigenous Capital Partners. Nothing was signed when she auditioned, so the Dragons were still looking like a viable route for Cheekbone Beauty. But by the time Harper actually got on to the show, she had locked down an offer from Raven Capital, one that was hard to refuse.
“They were going to give me a $350,000 without any equity stake in the company,” Harper says, noting that the convertible debt deal means she would still get to maintain 100% ownership of her company. So she knew the Dragons would have to beat that offer to make it worth turning down. “The only way I would have changed my mind is if my favourite Dragon, whether it be Arlene [Dickinson] or Michelle [Romanow], offered me more and at little equity stake in the company,” she says.
Harper also had reservations about Guzzo’s intentions. She got the feeling that the Montreal-based entrepreneur, who owns Cinémas Guzzo in Quebec, would sweep in and change her entire business. “He was saying, ‘I have a team of people that can work with you.’ It wasn’t like he believed that I could do this. And I just don’t think a man would have gotten that kind of offer.”
This is a common concern for women entrepreneurs, but for Indigenous makers there are also traditional practices and ways of life at stake when settler investors get involved. “There are a lot of things I won’t do [with my business],” Harper says. “For example, a lot of investors would want us to take our cultural practices and put them for sale. If you’re a spiritual person, there’s no way that should collide with commerce.” She points to the recent trend of non-Indigenous brands appropriating sacred practices like smudging. “I would worry about working with a non-Indigenous investor that they would push us to commercialize our spiritual practices that way.”
Still, Harper says going on Dragon’s Den was an amazing opportunity for exposure. It also paid off in an unexpected way, because Desjardins—a sponsor of the show—ended up giving Cheekbone Beauty a $50,000 grant through its GoodSpark program for social entrepreneurs. Harper plans to use that money to fund a scholarship for Indigenous youth in the name of her grandmother, a residential school survivor.
“The reason we exist, our North Star, is the Indigenous youth,” Harper says. “We want to make [Cheekbone] so big that no Indigenous kid will ever question their beauty or their worth ever again in the world.”
“I really want to be the first Indigenous woman to create a $1 billion beauty brand,” she continues. “For [young people] to see that one of their people can do that makes it attainable for them. When you have someone who’s done that and you’ve seen it, then you know it’s possible for you. That’s always been the mission.”
Everything is falling into place now. Cheekbone’s new line, which is focused on minimizing its environmental impact, is currently in development and set to launch in December. “Cheekbone 2.0 [will be] sustainable, socially conscious beauty using the model of our Indigenous ancestors of making things for the next seven generations,” Harper explains. Products will be made with hand-sourced ingredients and biodegradable packaging, using sustainable production processes. Harper says it will include “the product that changes everything for us as a brand.”