Tar Heel of the Week

Entrepreneur soothes cancer in the young, one headband at a time

CorrespondentFebruary 15, 2014 

Meghan Bunn, left, wears a headband that she received from Headbands of Hope, an organization started by Jessica Ekstrom, right.

MARC HALL — MARC HALL

  • Jessica Ekstrom

    Born: June 18, 1991, in Olney, Md.

    Residence: Raleigh

    Awards: Role Model Leader Award, N.C. State, 2013; Medlin Communication Scholarship, CHASS Holtzam Scholarship Award

    Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications, N.C. State University, concentration in public relations and minor in Spanish.

    Family: Parents Richard and Laurie; sister, Heather.

    Fun fact: Ekstrom’s hobbies revolve around fitness. She likes to play kickball and teaches an occasional cycling class.

— Jessica Ekstrom never planned to focus her life on cancer.

Then she met a girl with a brain tumor, a young warrior who was losing her battle with cancer but found solace in a cute headband and a visit from Ekstrom dressed as Sleeping Beauty.

“Her mom called me a few days later to say she had died, and everything just changed for me from that one phone call,” Ekstrom says. “It was then that I knew I wanted to help kids like that, but I wanted to help in my own way.”

Ekstrom, now 22, focused on the headbands she saw many young cancer patients wear during her summer as an intern with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, before her junior year at N.C. State University.

The company she created, Headbands of Hope, launched a year later, in 2012, and has since sold more than 13,000 headbands. For each one purchased, another is sent to a child who is fighting cancer, and a dollar goes to cancer research.

The headbands, of all sizes and shapes from jeweled to polka-dot to crocheted winter bands, have been delivered to nearly every hospital in the nation that treats pediatric cancer patients, and they are starting to be distributed abroad.

Ekstrom heads the company, which has been featured on NBC’s “Today” show and other national media outlets. She has also started speaking at colleges and universities nationwide, sharing her story and encouraging others to follow through on their dreams of helping others.

Mindy Sopher, an N.C. State University communications professor and cancer survivor, says she was impressed from the beginning with Ekstrom’s commitment to helping children with cancer.

But Sopher says Ekstrom’s impact has extended to the college students who are inspired by her can-do spirit.

“She’s always been a woman with vision and drive and passion,” Sopher says. “She figured, ‘Why wait?’ And I think that’s a message a lot of students need to hear.”

An early inspiration

Ekstrom was born in Maryland and grew up in Charlotte. She says her parents didn’t push her too hard to help others.

“When you make something a requirement, people don’t feel the same impact,” she says. “They just cross it off the list. My parents just really made us believe there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do.”

She also learned a lesson in entrepreneurship from her father, who left an established business career to start his own company when Ekstrom was in middle school.

His business, which sold communication platforms for fitness centers, was a mere dream when he first asked his family’s permission to pursue it. Hard work brought success, and he sold the company this year.

“I just saw him for years pour everything he had into this one vision to make it successful,” she says.

Still, she didn’t plan to follow his footsteps as an entrepreneur. Ekstrom went to N.C. State as a communications major, with an interest in journalism.

She did an internship at Disney World as a photographer during her freshman year. She learned about the Make-A-Wish Foundation there because it is a top destination for young cancer patients.

The next summer, she chose the internship with Make-A-Wish. It changed her life.

She worked for the nonprofit in Charlotte and noticed that many of the young girls who had lost their hair to chemotherapy wore decorative headbands.

Ekstrom could see the impact of something as simple as a headband.

“When girls feel good about themselves, and look in the mirror and feel beautiful, I truly believe it has an impact on their health,” she says.

One girl she met had wanted to go to Disney World to see Sleeping Beauty, but the trip had to be canceled as her condition worsened. Ekstrom was recruited to dress up as the Disney princess and visit the girl’s home.

Ekstrom decided to use a similar model as TOMS shoes, which sends one pair of shoes to a needy recipient for each person who buys a pair, but with headbands. She added a third leg to the transaction – a dollar sent to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for every headband purchased.

“You’re donating to both sides of the cancer problem,” she says. “You’re helping people who have cancer and helping fund research.”

A business begins

Ekstrom says the idea came easily. But learning the skills she needed to get the business going took time. She didn’t know how to build a website, much less how to go about manufacturing headbands.

She says being a student helped immensely. She paid visits to faculty and students to learn about everything from textiles to business plans, gathering advice that might otherwise have cost thousands of dollars.

“I had this huge platform. I not only had the resources to help me through the creation of the company, I also had my first customers,” she says, referring to her fellow students. “I had an audience of thousands of people ready to support me.”

It took a year to launch the company, and it has grown quickly since. She keeps a wide variety of headbands, keeping up with current trends and throwing in new ideas, like allowing customers to design their own or add embellishments.

Lately, she is starting to branch out in various ways, with new styles of headbands, including some for boys.

She is also expanding the reach of her efforts internationally. Some headbands have been distributed in Canada, and she is planning to bring some to Peru this summer.

A network of representatives at colleges and universities nationwide helps deliver the headbands to patients, offering those students a chance to help others. Ekstrom stops in at local hospitals whenever she travels for speaking engagements.

“It’s a great experience for someone to actually see the moment when a girl gets that headband,” she says.

Headbands for Hope doesn’t have an office space. Ekstrom’s downtown Raleigh apartment is stuffed with headbands, but she says she often works at coffee shops. The headbands are made in North Dakota.

The group is structured as a for-profit company, though Ekstrom only recently started taking a salary, of about $30,000 a year, and has hired a few interns.

She says much of her success has come from determination and old-fashioned hard work.

“I make mistakes every day,” she says. “I don’t want to get too comfortable. If I’m not getting rejected and having doors shut in my face, then I’m not working hard enough.”

And it’s that message she tries to pass on to other students – that starting a business is feasible for anyone who has a great idea and is willing to put in the time and effort to see it through.

“I feel like entrepreneurship sometimes sounds like a members-only club,” she says. “Now I get to talk to thousands of students and tell them that you’re never too young to start something you believe in.”

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