How NC State alum Jess Ekstrom started Headbands of Hope

How NC State alum Jess Ekstrom started Headbands of Hope

Jess Ekstrom's college internship helped her find her passion -- and her job. Read about how she started Headbands of Hope as a student at N.C. State.

Above, Jess Ekstrom puts a headband on a child with cancer. Photo courtesy of Jess Ekstrom.

After Jess Ekstrom interned with The Make-A-Wish Foundation during college, she found that she loved helping children with cancer.

So she decided to start her own business — while still a student at N.C. State. That’s how Headbands of Hope was born.

“I was interning at Make-A-Wish, and I saw kids were losing their hair and being offered wigs or hats. But a lot of them preferred headbands as a way to restore their confidence without hiding what they were going through,” she said. “When I was trying to think of a way to give them all headbands, I thought about the TOMS shoes model, ‘One for One.’ So that inspired me to start Headbands of Hope.”

Jess Ekstrom Headbands of Hope NC State

A child wears a Headbands of Hope headband. Photo courtesy of Jess Ekstrom.

Being a student and running a business come with challenges, especially in the social realm, Ekstrom said.

“In my spare time, I wasn’t going to parties or football games. I tried to make time for those, but that spare time I had was devoted to my business and building that. You really found your friends that understood and supported you, so I feel like that was actually a strength, in hindsight,” Ekstrom said.

However, there were also advantages to being a student when she started her business.

“Being a communications student, I didn’t know a lot about business. I was really fortunate to be a college student. I contacted different departments and areas of the university that could help me. So when I didn’t know how to create a business plan, I worked with the business school. When I didn’t know how to manufacture a product, I worked with the textile design school. To create a website, I worked with graphic design students,” she said. “So because I was a college student, there was really a lot of value there, accessing all this information I didn’t have.”

Jess Ekstrom Headbands of Hope NC State

Headbands of Hope appeared on “Good Morning America” in early 2017. Photo courtesy of Jess Ekstrom.

Ekstrom graduated from N.C. State in 2013, but her business is still going strong.

Headbands of Hope was featured on the “Good Morning America” segment “Deals and Steals on Wheels” back in May. The company’s products were all at least half off for a spell when the segment aired. During the show, Ekstrom was presented with a $10,000 check in front of some of the children that Headbands of Hope has benefited.

“Just to be able to show what we do on such a large platform and also have the kids there that can show the impact that we have was one of the best opportunities we’ve been given,” she said.

As to why she does this job, Ekstrom said it’s all about the kids.

“If I didn’t have that, I don’t think I would put up with a lot of what goes on with running a business. At the end of the day, it’s so clear as to why I’m doing all of this,” she said. “If I didn’t have that why or if I didn’t have that clarity, a lot of this wouldn’t be worth it to me: a lot of the long hours, the little pay, the hustle — it can take a toll on you. But when it’s really clear why you’re working and the impact that you’re having, it makes all of that worth it in the end.”

Leah Moore
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