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Jenn Harper, photographed at the Cheekbone Beauty office space in St. Catharines, Ont., says she founded her company on the premise of giving back.Tara Walton/The Globe and Mail

In 2019, Jenn Harper, the founder of the popular cosmetics brand Cheekbone Beauty, turned down a $125,000 offer from Vincenzo Guzzo on CBC’s Dragon’s Den in exchange for 50 per cent of her company.

Shortly after her episode on Dragon’s Den aired, Ms. Harper, who is Ojibway, spoke to Fashion Magazine about her decision. “There are a lot of things I won’t do [with my business]. For example, a lot of investors would want us to take our cultural practices and put them [up] for sale,” said the St. Catherines, Ont.-based entrepreneur. “I would worry about working with a non-Indigenous investor, that they would push us to commercialize our spiritual practices that way.”

Reflecting now on why she turned down the Dragon’s Den offer, Ms. Harper says, “It is important to weigh all the costs and look at the long view; sometimes it means making decisions that protect our communities. Unfortunately, many investors wouldn’t agree with this idea, so who we partner with is critical.”

Harper’s decision to turn down a six-figure offer may seem surprising to some, especially considering how hard it can be for Indigenous women to succeed in Canada’s overwhelmingly white corporate landscape.

The 2021 Annual Report Card on Gender Diversity and Leadership, co-presented by non-profit The Prosperity Project and KPMG, looked at the women who make up corporate leadership positions in Canada. The report revealed two particularly jarring statistics: 91 per cent have zero Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) women in the pipeline to the leadership level and 89 per cent of surveyed organizations have zero Black women in the pipeline.

Meanwhile, in a 2021 survey, global non-profit Catalyst found that 67 per cent of Indigenous women in Canadian workplaces reported being consistently “on guard to bias,” meaning they feel the need to prepare for possible insults or avoid situations where they anticipate bias may occur.

Statistics like these highlight the uphill battle Black and Indigenous women face on the path to leadership in the workplace. Amid this systemic racism and sexism, the question is not necessarily how we can better equip these women to succeed in corporate Canada, but rather, can corporate Canada make room for women who seek to do business in a way that aligns with an Indigenous worldview?

Reimagining what success looks like

Larissa Crawford is the founder and managing director of Future Ancestors Services Inc., a Calgary-based Indigenous, Black and youth-led consulting firm. She is also an Afro-Indigenous (Métis and Jamaican) community member.

Future Ancestors provides speaking, training, research, influencer and interview services for clients to “[improve] their capacity to create better spaces and work outputs that honour people, kin and environment.” The organization also directly support grassroots organizations though pro bono services and donations including the Waashayshkwun Grant Fund, which is awarded to Indigenous, Black, racialized, LGBTQ2S+ and disabled independent service providers.

Larissa Crawford, founder of Calgary’s Future Ancestors Services, says the organization focuses on honouring and serving community relationships.Rose and Range Photography/Supplied

Ms. Crawford says that her definition of success doesn’t include profit margins or a certain number of projects per year. Instead, it focuses on honouring and serving community relationships.

“We’ve developed a process called relationship-centred strategic planning,” says Ms. Crawford. “It’s informed by many of our teachings across cultures and a decolonized way of thinking about corporate success.”

In practice, this means that there are certain clients Future Ancestors will not work with, including police or liquor organizations.

“It’s not because we don’t think that there’s good change happening there, or that can happen there,” Ms. Crawford says. “It’s because our relationship to community is our priority and if we’re to hold trust with them, we can’t be working with clients that they don’t trust.”

This philosophy has financial repercussions. Ms. Crawford estimates that the company has turned down over $500,000 in contracts in order to stay in line with its relationship-centred values, and Ms. Crawford has personally turned down at least $150,000 worth of influencer partnerships.

“These contracts come to me because of my reach and because of the communities that trust me,” she says. “I am very aware and careful about that. My work is so reflective of my values because it’s so reflective of the people I care about.”

Charting their own path

Since Ms. Harper declined the Dragon’s Den offer, Cheekbone Beauty has gone on to sign major deals, including working with advertising agency Sid Lee to win $1-million dollars worth of inventory on Bell Media platforms through the Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity in Advertising (IDEA) Competition, and partnering with Sephora to get its products in stores nationwide. And all this was accomplished while the brand donated over $150,000 in product, monetary contributions and project-focused initiatives to organizations supporting Indigenous women and youth all over North America.

It’s a business model that combines financial success with authentic community-focused support and celebration. As the company’s website states: “Cheekbone’s definition of success is not based on what you attain for yourself, but instead in what you give back to your community.”

It’s an attitude that has value beyond Indigenous-owned businesses. The impacts of excluding Indigenous and Black women and their community knowledge from leadership is catching up with corporate Canada, says Ms. Crawford.

Reflecting on work with some major Canadian clients, she says, “It’s amazing to see how clients who already have a relational culture succeed, versus the clients who don’t. They are better able to respond to social movements and current events. They can manage and name conflict and deal with it immediately.”

Ms. Crawford says that the business world “can’t continue working the way [it has]. It’s just not sustainable – socially, politically, or environmentally.”

As Ms. Harper says, “Business with an Indigenous worldview is beautiful … If I imagined a perfect business model, it would be that everyone involved felt valued and each transaction was meaningful and fair.”

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? Email us at GWC@globeandmail.com.