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How She Got There: Jessica Ekstrom, Founder of Headbands of Hope

Name: Jessica Ekstrom
Age: 21
Job Title and Description: CEO/Founder of Headbands of Hope. For every headband purchased, one is given to a girl with cancer and $1 is donated to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to fund life-saving childhood cancer research.
College/Major: North Carolina State University/ Communications Major
Website: www.headbandsofhope.org
Twitter Handle: @headbandsofhope

Her Campus: What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
Jessica Ekstrom:
I’m definitely one of those people who don’t work well with routine. One of the best things about my job is that I never know what the next day will bring. One day I’ll be working on our fall headband collection and the next I’ll be working with hospitals to organize a headband distribution. Some days are extremely fun and rewarding, like going to the hospitals to give headbands to the girls or setting up headband displays in stores. But, just like every company, there are less exciting days like working with finances and numbers (which is not my specialty).

I love using social media to stay connected with all of my “hope” followers and continue to raise awareness about childhood cancer through Headbands of Hope. And, of course, email is what makes my world go round. Keeping communication and building relationships with my partners and consumers is critical to my company.

HC: What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?
Since I’m still in college, my first “job” in my field was an internship with the Make-A-Wish Foundation that changed my life forever. That summer, I spent non-paid, non-accredited hours every day working to make these kids wishes come true. I was planning trips to the zoo, calling Taylor Swift, booking trips to Disney World. Every day, I got to wake up and grant the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses. I took day trips to visit the wish kids at their houses and bring them their favorite toys. We received hundreds of letters from wish children that said we changed their lives. But little did they know, they were changing mine.

My freshman year I interned in Disney World, which introduced me to Make-A-Wish. That internship with Make-A-Wish is what lit my fire to start Headbands of Hope. I want to emphasize taking advantage of all the internships and opportunities that arise in college. Four years may seem like a long time, but it flies by! Don’t wait until your senior year to start putting yourself out there and getting involved. You never know what might light your fire!

HC: What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?
I wish I would have known more about the production side of creating a product. There are a lot of details about manufacturing and production that I needed to learn in order to understand how to run my company. As CEO, it’s important to learn every part of your company so you can make better decisions with everyone and everything in mind.

HC: Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?
This may sound cheesy, but I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my Dad. My Dad started his own company as well, so he’s been a huge role model for me throughout this whole journey. He understands the late nights on your computer and putting your heart and soul into something you believe in. He’s taught me so much just by leading by example. As CEO, you have ups and downs all the time. My dad taught me to bounce back when I get kicked down and also to use my momentum when I’m making progress.

I’ve met a ton of amazing people throughout this journey, but it’s important to never lose sight of the people who were always there for you from the beginning.

HC: What words of wisdom do you find most valuable?
One of my favorite quotes is by Richard Branson, “The people who think they’re crazy enough to change the world are the ones that do.”

This quote speaks volumes to me. I feel that you have to have a little “crazy” in you to really make a difference. If you believe you can do it, then there’s nothing that should get in your way. It takes that extra kick of passion (that craziness) to help you jump the hurdles and reach further. But it’s up to you to find what makes you “crazy”!

HC: What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?
When I was first starting out and communicating with business and charities for partnerships, I hid the fact that I was in college. I thought the fact that I couldn’t even drink legally yet would make me sound like I wasn’t credible. However, I learned that I needed to embrace my age and use it to my advantage. I switched my mentality to, “Yes, I’m the CEO and I still have to do my homework before my Spanish class tomorrow.” I learned that this unique aspect of myself was often an attraction. It was still Headbands of Hope, but it turned into Headbands of Hope: Started by a college student.

Always remain true to yourself. If someone has doubts or doesn’t like it, then they’re not worth your time!

HC: What is the best part of your job?
The best part is being able to give back and help these girls in the hospital while raising awareness for childhood cancer. Nothing compares to the smile on those girls faces when they receive their headbands. But secondly, one of the best parts is having the power to inspire. Being able to reach out to people everywhere through mediums like Her Campus is one of the biggest gifts I could ever receive. Knowing that my story could potentially spark a reader to pursue an idea or look for a little bit more in life is the best feeling.

HC: What do you look for when considering hiring someone?
I look for someone who has the patience for the little details… because I don’t! I’m more of a “big picture” kind of gal, so finding someone to balance that is crucial. People want to hire people who are like themselves, but we should really be looking for people who can do what we don’t do.

Most importantly, I look for heart. If I come across a cover letter or an interview an applicant who has the heart and passion to work for Headbands of Hope, it’s hard to turn those away. I believe that, in the end, heart and passion for what you’re doing overrides skill and experience.

HC: What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?
Go for it and don’t look back! I started my company in college when I was just about to turn 20. Now, one year later, I look back and am so grateful that I had the courage and support to just pour everything I had and make Headbands of Hope what it is today. If I started the company and let myself get consumed with doubts, then my hesitations would have turned detrimental to my company.

When people doubted that I could create this while still in college, I couldn’t help but be amused because I knew of all the great university resources at my disposal. I met with the business school, the design school, and the computer and graphics departments. Take full advantage of the resources and opportunities available to you. Who knows, one day you might be sitting in Starbucks with a pad and pencil drawing pictures of headbands and the next day you might be asked to contribute your company’s story to Her Campus!

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Gennifer is the Branded Content Specialist for Her Campus Media. In her role, she manages all sponsored content across platforms including editorial, social, and newsletters. As one of HC's first-ever writers, she previously wrote about career, college life, and more as a national writer during her time at Hofstra University. She also helped launch the How She Got There section, where she interviewed inspiring women in various industries. She lives in New York City.
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