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Fighting Cancer with Headbands

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During her junior at North Carolina State University, Jessica Ekstrom experienced a life changing moment that changed the trajectory of her life.

While volunteering for the Make-A-Wish foundation, she would spend time with young children battling life threatening illnesses. One thing she noticed was that young girls who lost their hair from chemotherapy treatment preferred to to wear headbands instead of wigs. Inspired by the courage of the young girls and seeing a void to fulfill their wishes, Jessica created Headbands of Hope.


Established in 2012, this social driven organization creates fun and fashionable headbands. For every headband purchased, one is given to a girl with cancer and $1 is donated to childhood cancer research. With such an inspiring purpose, Headbands of Hope has been featured on NBC’s Today Show, Vanity Fair, Forbes, Seventeen Magazine and many more outlets.

We spent some time with 23-year-old Jessica to learn more about her path and how she balanced running a business with being a college student.

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You started a company while still a college student at North Carolina State. Did you always have entrepreneurial endeavors?

When I was little, my father started his own company. At the time, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of a startup and why he was working so hard to start his own business when he already had a job at another business.

Jumping ahead a few years into his business, we decided to take a family camping trip.

I was unpacking my CD player when my long headphone cord got tangled in a knot. My frustration built the more I tried to untangle this mess. Finally, I snapped, “Why don’t
headphones have a spring roll up cord like a vacuum cleaner?” Then I thought to myself, “Wait – can I invent that?!” My dad is a generally goofy guy, so when his face looked serious and he told me to sit down, I thought I was in trouble. He took my hand and looked me in the eye and said, “Jess, that’s already been invented. But I want you to keep thinking that way.” So I did.

From then on, I started thinking about what could be done better. What could be more efficient. Where are there gaps that could be filled, I didn’t really have the mindset that I was going to start a  business, but rather the mentality that I wanted to solve problems. So when I saw the need for headbands for kids with cancer, Headbands of Hope was born.

How did you successfully balance being a college student and running a growing business?

When I got the idea for Headbands of Hope, I didn’t have a business degree or know anything about manufacturing a product. Then I made a wonderful realization: I’m surrounded by experts. When you’re on a college campus, professors are filled with knowledge and experience to help you. The free consulting I got from professors answered all the questions I had about starting a business and taking my first steps.

Another factor that helped with growing my business as a college student was numbers. If you’ve ever been to a university football game or any kind of large school event, you’ll witness a sea of students uniting behind one thing, which is pretty cool. My first big market was the student body at my university. And then those students told their friends and family, and then our mission started having a ripple effect across the nation.

Jessica Ekstrom

A message you talk about in your keynotes you deliver on college campuses nationwide is, “Inspire, Not Require.” How can this approach positively affect student organizations, their members and their work?

At some point in our lives’, we’ve all been required to give back. Whether that be in your sorority, a class, a club or with a church. But when we’re required to do service, we treat it as an item to cross off our checklist. Instead of requiring students and peers to be a part of a philanthropy project, the opportunity is to show them how they’ll make a difference and inspire them to join. One way to do this is by presenting a story, not facts. Talk about the people you’ll help, not the numbers you need. If we can inspire people to give back, philanthropy will feel more like a lifestyle choice and less as a requirement.

There are so many ways for students to get involved in social causes that it can be overwhelming. Where’s a good place for students to start on campus?

When you’re in college, it’s easy to want to get involved in everything. But it’s more effective to pick something you really care about and focus in on that rather than spread yourself too thin. I’d first recommend getting involved in a cause without your friends. I know, that sounds strange. But you want to eliminate all outside influences and really listen to what’s important to you. Find something that you care about enough that you’d volunteer your Saturday without your friends and without putting it on Facebook for the social recognition. And if there’s a cause you care about but no group linked to it, start your own!

Some students who want to start companies fear that they won’t be taken seriously due to their age. Did you encounter this fear or any resistance from others when you started this business? If so, how did you overcome it?

I was 19-years-old when I first started Headbands of Hope. In the beginning, I lied about my age. I wanted to pretend that I was older so bigger companies and professionals would take me more seriously. But then I learned that being my age has actually been one of my biggest strengths.

We all know some of the blaring stereotypes of the millennial generation: lazy, Facebooking, “twerking” twenty-somethings who don’t know hard work. Therefore, when a millennial does something awesome, it’s a big deal. So much of the press and attention I got when I founded Headbands of Hope was because of my age. Instead of hiding your age, use it to your advantage. Be proud to be a millennial.

Why is your work so important to you?

Every day when I wake up, I know why I’m waking up. I know that all the work I put in, no matter how glamorous or boring it is, is connected to something greater. Every task is helping a girl with cancer somewhere in the world get a headband. When things get crazy, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of your purpose. That’s why it’s important to have something to hold on to that you can remember why you started in the first place.

I keep a file of pictures and letters I’ve received from patients and parents of patients that have been benefited by Headbands of Hope. Whenever I’m feeling lost or deflated, I open that file and am quickly reminded the impact I’m making…one headband at a time!

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