As an intern at the Make-A-Wish Foundation, North Carolina State University student Jess Ekstrom, then 19, dressed up as Sleeping Beauty and visited the home of a 4-year-old girl named Renee whose doctors had determined she was too sick to travel to Disney World.
NC State graduate and social entrepreneur, Jess Ekstrom, sells headbands to help children with cancer.
A week later, Renee’s mother called Ekstrom to let her know the girl had passed, but, having seen Sleeping Beauty, had gotten everything she’d wanted.
“This was the moment in my life where everything changed for me,” Ekstrom told the participants of the 2015 Social Entrepreneurship Conference. “Everything I thought I wanted in my life and my career suddenly went blank and started to build from scratch.”
Knowing the difference small pleasures can make in the lives of children struggling with cancer, Ekstrom abandoned the more traditional path she’d been planning to take and founded a company called Headbands for Hope in April 2012.
The social entrepreneurship sells headbands in a variety of designs and colors—thick and thin, with flowers on them, or diamonds, or beads, or prints or bows—both online and in more than 200 stores across the country. For each headband purchased, Headbands of Hope gives a headband to a girl with cancer and donates $1 to childhood cancer research. (It has recently launched a line of buffs for boys.)
Since its founding, Headbands for Hope have been featured in Forbes, Seventeen Magazine, Fitness, Self, Shape and InStyle magazines, featured on NBC’s Today Show and spotted on celebrities including Zooey Deschanel, Beyoncé and the Kardashians.
Most importantly, though, Headbands of Hope has donated more than 30,000 headbands to children’s hospitals nationwide.
While starting a business while a senior in college was a challenge in and of itself, Ekstrom said the decision also had its advantages.
“What’s a tax ID? How do you get a business license? I used a college campus to help me answer those questions,” said Ekstrom, now 23, who graduated from NC State in 2013. “There are so many resources, so many different areas that are willing to help you build a strong foundation and get your idea off the ground.”
Almost three years in, Ekstrom has learned that for her, success does not come from being featured in a national magazine or receiving a paycheck. For her, it can only be felt.
“When I walk into a hospital with a basket of headbands, and a girl gets to pick out her favorite on, put it on and look in the mirror,” Ekstrom said, “that’s when I feel successful.”