What if one day you found out that you might lose one of your most defining features, your hair? It’s this startling reality that many girls face that sparked Jessica Ekstrom’s imagination, and ultimately inspired her to begin Headbands of Hope. Jessica, currently a junior in college, always knew she was meant make a difference in the lives of others but it was not until her internship with the Make-a-Wish Foundation that she truly realized she could make an impact. Struck by the strength of the cancer patients she helped grant wishes to, Jessica discovered that her life was also changed. When a routine task of pulling her hair into a ponytail sparked her imagination, there was no turning back. Headbands of Hope is a philanthropic company that provides stylish headbands to boost cancer patients’ self-esteem and promote awareness while donating $1 per headband to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, dedicated to finding a cure to cancer.
Check out our interview with Jessica and get ready to be inspired!
How do you balance college, a social life and running your own business?
Jessica: When I was first starting out and communicating with businesses and charities for partnerships, I hid the fact that I was in college. I thought the fact that I was so young would make me sound like I wasn’t credible. However, I learned that I needed to embrace my age and use it to my advantage. Therefore, I switched my mentality to: Yes, I’m the CEO and I still have to do my homework before my Spanish class tomorrow.
When people doubted that I could create this while still in college, I couldn’t help but be amused because I knew of all the great university resources at my disposal. I met with the business school, the design school and the computer and graphics departments. Take full advantage of the resources and opportunities available to you.
I quickly learned that this unique aspect of myself was often attractive to others as they considered my company. It was still Headbands of Hope. But it turned into: Headbands of Hope, which was started by a college student.
Sometimes it’s difficult balancing classes, the business and spending time with my wonderful friends, but I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Being in college provides me with so many resources and my friends are with me every step of the way.
When you were growing up, would you have ever guessed that this is what you would be doing today?
Jessica: When I was growing up, I knew I wanted to make an impact, I just didn’t know how yet. I would read stories in magazines about girls who started something that was making a difference and I knew I wanted to be one of those girls one day, I just needed to wait for my “aha” moment to happen!
How did you find the resources to make this business possible? Did you already know people or did you start from the ground up?
Jessica: After I completed my junior year internship at the Make-A-Wish Foundation, I knew I had to do something for these girls who touched my heart so much. I made the connection with headbands replacing wigs when going through treatment and then sat down with a pad and pencil and started coming up with ideas. Although it was challenging, I love that I can say I built this from the ground up. I learned that you’re able to do anything if you have the passion for it!
What is the best piece of advice you have received during this process?
Jessica: Sometimes I get down on myself because I look at the world being so big and I’m just one person, so I wonder if I can really make an impact. Then I heard a quote by Richard Branson, “The people who think they’re crazy enough to change the world are the ones that do.”
This quote speaks volumes to me. I feel that you have to have a little “crazy” in you to really make a difference. If you believe you can do it, then there’s nothing that should get in your way. It takes that extra kick of passion (that craziness) to help you jump the hurdles and reach further. But it’s up to you to find what makes you “crazy”!
What has been the toughest part of being a young entrepreneur?
Jessica: The toughest part of being a young entrepreneur is sometimes having to choose your business over going out with your friends or going to football games. In order for your business to take off, you have to give it everything you have, and sometimes that requires skipping activities you usually do. However, if you’re like me and love what you do, then you want to take that time to work on your company because you know it makes a difference…and you can keep the football game on in the background!
Who is your biggest role model?
Jessica: This may sound cheesy, but I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my dad. My dad started his own company as well, so he’s been a huge role model for me throughout this whole journey. He understands the late nights on your computer and putting your heart and soul into something you believe in. He’s taught me so much just by leading by example. As CEO, you have ups and downs all the time. My dad taught me to bounce back when I get kicked down and also to use my momentum when I’m making progress.
I’ve met a ton of amazing people throughout this journey, but it’s important to never lose sight of the people who were always there for you from the beginning.
Tell us about a cherished moment that has come from starting Headbands of Hope.
Jessica: Of course the best part of Headbands of Hope is being able to give back and help these girls in the hospital while raising awareness for childhood cancer. Nothing compares to the smile on those girls’ faces when they receive their headbands.
But secondly, one of the best parts is having the power to inspire. The emails I receive saying that I inspired them to start something or even just saying that I made them believe in themselves just a little bit more make everything worth it.
Being able to reach out to people everywhere through media like Justine is one of the biggest gifts I could ever receive. Knowing that my story could potentially spark a reader to pursue an idea or look for a little bit more in life is the best feeling.
Walk us through your design process. How do you design and where do you draw inspiration for the styles?
Jessica: I try to be a fashionista, but I’m honestly just like any other girl! Therefore, I look at what other people are wearing and try to catch on to the trends. However, I also try to come up with collections that are appealing to girls and women of all ages, so everyone can have a headband!
How did you overcome any troubles and setbacks you encountered when you were starting Headbands of Hope?
Jessica: I wish I would have known more about the production side of creating a product. There are a lot of details about manufacturing and production that I needed to learn in order to understand how to run my company. As CEO, it’s important to learn every part of your company so you can make better decisions with everyone and everything in mind.
But everything has been a learning process for me. Although it can be frustrating, I have to look at obstacles as opportunities for growth. I would not be here right now if I didn’t learn from the mistakes that I’ve made and move forward with motivation to be even better.
What celeb would you love to see wearing your designs?
Jessica: So many of them! But Kellie Pickler just shaved her head for her friend battling cancer, which I think is extremely admirable. And she’s from North Carolina and so am I!
How do you plan to grow Headbands of Hope in the future? Where do you hope to see it in two or even 10 years?
Jessica: This question deserves two answers… My first answer is I would love to continue to expand and have new designs and be in more stores. Maybe even a boys’ line for hats?
My second answer is that I hope Headbands of Hope won’t be around in 10 years, because there will be a cure for cancer. I think I’m one of the few people that can say I would love nothing more than to be out of a job, if that means there’s a cure. It’s an honor to work with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to help fund life-saving childhood cancer research in hopes of making our dream of a cure come true.
What would you say to teen girls who want to make a difference in their community?
Jessica: Just look around you. There are so many opportunities to help and make a difference. It could be as simple as picking up trash in your local parks, or you could start an organization that helps kids go to camp during the summer.
But whatever your project is, go for it and don’t look back! I started my company in college when I was just about to turn 20. Now, one year later, I look back and I’m so grateful I had the courage and support to just pour everything I had in and make Headbands of Hope what it is today. If I started the company and let myself get consumed with doubts, then my hesitations would have turned detrimental to my company.
Who knows, one day you might be sitting in Starbucks with a pad and pencil drawing pictures of headbands and the next day you might be asked to contribute your company’s story to Justine!