Jess Ekstrom is using small headbands to make a big difference for cancer patients.
She was an intern with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a wish-granting organization for kids with life-threatening illnesses, and was spending lots of time with children with cancer who’d lost their hair during chemotherapy treatments.
The kids were offered wigs and hats, but many of them found the headgear to be itchy. Others weren’t concerned with covering their whole heads—they just wanted to feel beautiful and fashionable again. So they turned to headbands. “They really wanted to restore their self-confidence after hair loss,” Jess says.
So in 2012, Jess started Headbands of Hope, an online hair accessory retailer with a one-for-one model, similar to TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker. For every headband sold, a headband is donated to a child or teen dealing with hair loss.
Five years later, Headbands of Hope has donated more than 100,000 headbands to cancer patients in every children’s hospital in the U.S., as well as a five hospitals abroad. The wares are sold online and in more than 1,000 stores. Celebrities such as Lauren Conrad and Lea Michele have been seen sporting them.
Most of the headbands retail for between $10 and $30, and they range from knotted elastic bands to tube turbans, metallic floral crowns to dainty pearl headdresses. All of the headpieces donated to hospitals are fun, colorful, and comfortable for bald heads. For boys, Headbands of Hope donates stretchy bandanas.
“Very early on I realized that, although hair loss is more traumatic for girls, it’s also something boys are experiencing,” Jess says. “This gives us the opportunity to never pass by a room.”
Now 25 years old and overseeing a team of seven at the company’s Raleigh, N.C., headquarters, Jess says that starting her company while in college was one of the best business decisions she ever made. When she needed to make a research plan, she worked with the business school. When she needed to manufacture product, she worked with the textile school. Many of her professors even allowed her to use her company for assignments. She had access to experts and resources most entrepreneurs could only hope for—or spend thousands of dollars on.
She gets her business savvy from her father, who she calls her hero. He quit his day job when Jess was in middle school to start his own company. “I watched him pour everything he had into an idea and work harder than he ever did before, but I also saw him work more passionately than he ever did before,” Jess says. “He never told me to start a company, but he always told me to solve problems. That’s what being an entrepreneur is: identifying problems and creating solutions.”
Jess says starting a business is easy—she had her website up and running within a day—but building one that will last is hard. She believes it’s the little details that separate the companies with staying power from those that will fizzle out. That’s why Headbands of Hope works hard to connect their customers and audience with the mission, whether that’s a gallery on the website filled with photos of headband recipients of all ages, or emails to buyers letting them know which hospital their purchase donated a headband to. “This small accessory can do such big things,” Jess says—and she wants her customers to know that every step of the way.
Next month, Jess will marry her fiancé, Jake Kahut, and her flower girl will be Embree Duffy, an 8-year-old cancer survivor Jess met three years ago at UNC Children’s Hospital, when Embree was going through cancer treatments. They’ve kept in touch ever since. Jess, Embree, and her bridesmaids will all be wearing Headbands of Hope on the big day.
“It’s less about the dress and more about the headband,” Jess says. “I’m probably the only bride who says that.”