Healing Cancer, One Headband at a Time, With Jess Ekstrom, Founder Of Headbands Of Hope

“Get a dog. Yes, you read that correctly. Getting a dog made me playful again. I was so stressed out with my business and was working all hours of the day. Getting my furry friend made me get outside, go on more walks, and stop to smell the roses, which is so important. “
I had the pleasure to interview Jess Ekstrom, Founder/CEO of Headbands of Hope. Six years ago, Jess started a business from her dorm room in hopes to deliver a simple accessory with a greater meaning to kids with cancer. Since then, her business has donated over 100,000 headbands to children battling cancer, reaching every children’s hospital in America and 15 countries. She’s also a professional speaker for Fortune 500 companies and is a proud dog mom.

What is your “backstory”?

Growing up, I never really thought about being an entrepreneur, but I was always tinkering with something. For instance, when I discovered eBay in middle school, I got a white sheet and hung it in my room as a ‘product backdrop.’ Then I started photographing all of my toys with my mom’s digital camera and uploaded them to eBay. I ended up selling my American Girl dolls for about $100 bucks and thought I had made it in life.

Then one day my dad told us he was quitting his day job to start his own company. I saw him transform a bathroom in our house into an office and spend 10 years of his life creating a business he felt would solve a problem (this business was just sold and now my parents live in an RV, fulfilling their dream as park rangers). I never realized the luxury I was given, watching entrepreneurship come to life first by someone I admired most. It meant that entrepreneurship wasn’t scary or foreign…it was simple: just create what you wish existed.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people believe that entrepreneurship is dependent upon your qualifications, age, resources, background or a multitude of other elements that don’t necessarily matter. What really matters is your belief in the end result. What would happen if it all worked out?

So by the time I was in college, my wheels were turning. I didn’t have stellar grades but I had this confidence from watching my dad, a drive to be or create a solution. I was given an opportunity to internship at Make-A-Wish, where I saw so many kids losing their hair to chemotherapy. Immediately, the kids would be offered wigs or hats to cover up their heads. But they weren’t concerned with covering up their heads, they just wanted to restore their self confidence after hair loss, so I saw so many of the kids wearing headbands instead, yet no one was offering that. I did a quick google search and found that there weren’t any companies giving headbands to kids with cancer, so I decided to create one.

My junior year of college in April 2012, I started Headbands of Hope. For every headband sold, one is given to a child with cancer.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

So this definitely wasn’t funny at the time, but looking back I can find some humor (but a lot of lessons) in it now.

When I got the idea for Headbands of Hope, I needed to find a manufacturer to help produce the headbands. One professor pointed me to a website where you can search for manufacturers. I went on there and started sorting through thousands of manufacturers trying to find one that worked with elastic because if they made elastic, they could probably make headbands. I reached out to dozens of them, but with my school email address and very little knowledge, it was hard to get the attention I needed. Yet, one manufacturer in Kansas emailed me back and I was thrilled.

We hopped on a call and I told her my idea, but admitted that I didn’t know what I was doing and I was still in college. She told me not to worry and that she loved my idea and wanted to help me. I called my dad and told him I had found a manufacturer and she was willing to guide me through the process. He was so excited for me and asked if I wanted him on any of the calls. I told him she was shipping me some samples and I’d let him know when I needed him.

I was so blindly excited to get up and running, I didn’t even honestly look at the samples. In hindsight, they looked like absolute crap. The kids I babysat for could probably make better headbands. But they were headbands and I wanted to get moving, so I pretended like they were made with Swarovski crystals and told her they looked fabulous. I was ready to order.

She told me that the kind of material we were using was very hard to source, so we’d need to do a high volume. She sent me over an invoice for a starting order…

It was $10,000.

I’m not sure why I didn’t think to ask before the samples how much they would be. And at the same time, I had no idea what manufacturing typically costs so I didn’t know what to expect. But I knew I didn’t have that kind of money. Not even close.

My dad got on the phone with her and she explained that the first purchase would be big because she needed to get all the materials and the rest would be smaller. After a long discussion, my dad agreed to loan me the $10k and I’d pay him back once the business started making money. My family was still recovering from the economic crisis, along with everyone else, so this was not an easy thing for him to do by any means.

I remember it was a Friday afternoon and I ran to the bank with my dad to wire her the money because I wanted her to get it before the weekend. She confirmed she received the money and that she’d start production…

And that was the last time I ever heard from her.

You’re probably like why is this her interesting/funny story? Quite frankly, I’d be asking myself the same thing. But I decided to share this for 2 reasons:

1)This moment was excruciatingly hard, but it also set the tone for my resilience. I really had to have a moment with myself to decide if I was going to throw in the towel or keep on trucking. Ultimately, I cared too much about the end result to quit, so I kept pushing. I got a $300 grant from my university, bought 2 SKUs of headbands, and grew from there. Now, we have hundreds of products on the site (and I’ve also paid my dad back).

2)Secondly, I think if we all pretend like success is a pathway made of candy with butterflies floating around you, it paints such a false picture for future leaders. Stuff like this happens. You brush yourself off and move on. But if we all pretend that the way we got here was easy, people who run into adversity will think they’re alone when in reality it’s the adversity that empowers success.

Are you working on any meaningful non profit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our business model is bringing goodness to the world. The success of our business means the success of our cause: bringing confidence to kids with cancer.

One thing we actually started doing last year that I’m super pumped about is hosting DIY Headband Days at children’s hospitals. Typically, we just deliver a bunch of cool headbands that the kids love, but we wanted to get the kids involved. We thought it would be fun and interesting to put the designs in the hands of the kids. We supply the kits, and they create the headbands. It has been a huge hit and the kids love using their creativity and imagination. Plus, a lot of the kids end up gifting their headbands they made to friends and family, which I also think is adorable!

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

I actually have an entire file on my computer that I keep of all the pictures and letters we get from kids and parents around the world who have been touched by what we do. But a few different stories come to mind.

One time I was giving a keynote and a member of the audience came up to me after and she was wearing a headband (an older headband we had come out with years ago). She said she got this headband when she was in the hospital and told me it made her feel beautiful again after hair loss. She’s now cancer free and still wears it to feel confident. We hugged each other and cried. Now she’s a Headband Hero (brand ambassador) for us!

Then when I was first starting out, I met a girl named Embree in the hospital when she was getting treatment for cancer at just 6 years old. We became such good friends over the years and always kept in touch. 6 years later, she was the flower girl in my wedding last year!

The last story I’ll share is one that always keeps me grounded with perspective. I met a girl named Taylor in the hospital who I spent some time with. I remember her telling me she was feeling down because she was seeing all of her friends on social media going to prom and she was too sick to go to prom. I told her I was going to Atlanta for a trade show and when I got back we would have our own prom. So she added me on Facebook and we kept in touch.

Before I made it back from Atlanta, I got a call from her mom telling me that Taylor had passed away, but she wanted the same headband that Taylor was gifted by us for every female in her family to wear to her service the next day, because Taylor loved her headband and never took it off.

That moment with Taylor totally shook my life. I was getting really caught up in the ‘business’ of business. Stressing about the finances and logistics, and losing sight of why I started. Now, we host an annual prom at Duke Children’s Hospital in Taylor’s honor, a tradition I value so deeply.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1)It’s ok to be alone

Originally, I thought I needed a partner. I felt like everyone was working with someone so I needed to find that person. But then, as I got started, I found I was learning so much by doing things on my own, and that it was my dream, so I could make it work. Don’t be in a rush to find a partner or make a hire; do everything yourself first because you’ll learn a lot more by doing, not by hiring.

2)Keep it simple

There’s a myth that successful business ideas have to be REVOLUTIONARY like the iPod or a microwaveable egg poacher (or maybe that’s just me). But a lot of times, the simplest ideas are the best. Make what you’re doing easy to explain, so others can share it without hesitation. If it takes you 3 minutes just to explain what you’re doing, no one will remember. Impact doesn’t always mean innovation.

3)Get a dog

Yes, you read that correctly. Getting a dog made me playful again. I was so stressed out with my business and was working all hours of the day. Getting my furry friend made me get outside, go on more walks, and stop to smell the roses, which is so important.

4)It’s ok if you don’t have a 5-year plan

When someone asks me where I want to be in 5 years, I usually don’t even know what I’m having for dinner that night, so let’s start there. I always felt pressured to have a plan… what am I going to do next? How will I evolve Headbands of Hope? Instead of focusing on the future, I try to focus on the present, on alignment and letting things flow into that. I prefer working towards a greater purpose and not a spreadsheet plan. Plans will change along the way, so why spend so much time and energy creating them? Let your current success and motivation guide you.

5)You’re going to mess up

You will be rejected. You will make mistakes. Not everything will go as planned. These road bumps can be discouraging, but they’re also signs that you’re doing something. Everything that doesn’t go your way is basically a rite of passage to success. It took me some time to realize that a meaningful and ambitious life is supposed to be messy, so you might as well embrace the journey.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

I have dreams that Sara Blakely and I are best friends (I mean that in a non-creepy way). Out of all the people out there living their “best life” on social media with the million-dollar “overnight” successes, she keeps it real. She’s not pretending to be someone who has it all figured out, but her story of starting Spanx is, in my opinion, the rawest definition of entrepreneurship. Take out the fancy investors and business plans and just create what you wish existed and relentlessly pursue it with everything you have. But what I like about Sara the most is her ability to laugh at herself and have fun along the way. She’s been my inspiration for years and I get more excited about watching her Instagram stories than I do watching Stranger Things (which is a big deal.)