“Be open to progress,” says Jessica Ekstrom. “Don’t strive for perfection, be open to change.” These are wise words, and if anyone knows about progress and change it’s Jessica Ekstrom, the founder of Headbands of Hope (HoH). Headbands of Hope gets gorgeous, kicky, fun headbands to girls battling cancer. For every headband purchased, a matching headband goes to a little girl in the fight of her life, and what better battle wear than something that makes her feel (as we say around IATG) “beautyFULL.” Since launching HoH in 2012, Jessica has helped distribute headbands across the country, been featured on The Today Show as well as numerous online publications, and has garnered the support of celebrities such as former-Bachelorette Trista Sutter and The Amazing Race winner (and cancer survivor) Ethan Zohn. Talk about progress. Talk about BEING the change. Jessica is on it, and the world is certainly a better place because of it.
If you could describe yourself in one hashtag, what would it be?
Tell us about a girl in your life who rocks.
So here’s my cliché cheesy answer: my older sister rocks my socks. We’re only a year and a half apart, so we’ve grown up very close. She’s the definition of challenging yourself. When she graduated, she spent a year in Australia taking kids on outdoor adventure trips. She does ultra marathons. And the trait I admire most about her is that she never passes up an opportunity for an adventure.
Starting my business in college, I haven’t really given myself the chance to explore the world or have crazy adventures. She makes me believe that everyone deserves that.
What are your dreams/goals/ambitions?
When I became inspired to start Headbands of Hope when I was 19, I knew I wanted to make a difference for girls with cancer. However, I didn’t realize I’d be a source of inspiration for girls in my generation. Now I’m a speaker at CAMPUSPEAK and I love speaking to colleges around the nation to share my story and hopefully spark action in someone else. My dream is to show girls around the world that you’re never too young to start something you believe in.
What are you most proud of?
Every time I walk into a hospital room, my whole life shifts around and nothing else matters except for that moment. One time, I gave a girl a headband and she said she wanted to give me a headband too but asked if it was okay that my headband was on a piece of paper.
On another hospital visit, I met a 15-year-old girl and spent the day with her. Her mom called me a week later saying that she had passed away. Her mom said she was calling me because she wanted headbands for all of the women to wear to her funeral the next day because she loved her headband so much during her last week of life.
It’s moments like these that define why I do what I do. If I can make a girl feel normal and comfortable in her own skin with just a headband, then I’m going to do everything I can to make give a headband to every girl battling cancer.
What piece of advice changed your life?
In the book Start With Why by Simon Sinek, he defines the difference between success and achievement. Achievement comes when you attain WHAT you want. Success comes when you’re in clear pursuit of WHY you want it. That’s when I realized we need to stop seeing tangible achievements as our final destination. We can attain a new car and expensive vacations, but we can only feel success deep in our hearts, where it’s difficult to put those feelings into words.
The moment I open the door to a girl’s hospital room with a basket of headbands and see her smile, that’s when I feel my success. There’s no other way to explain it. There’s no numerical number I hit or competitor I beat. It’s just that feeling that I get where I know that all my hard work is making an impact and changing a life. I don’t even need to think about it on a large scale. All I need is one single moment. That moment that a girl looks in the mirror to see her headband and finally feels pretty. And for me, that moment repeats itself every time a headband is purchased.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Ideally, in 10 years, Headbands of Hope won’t be around. I think I’m one of the few people that can say I hope I’m out of a job because I hope there’s a cure for cancer. I hope in 10 years I can continue speaking at schools and empowering the younger generation to act on their dreams.
But in the meantime, we just expanded into a boys line called Headwear of Hope. When I go to the hospitals, it’s amazing to give the headbands to girls but I see the boys there and I realized they deserve something as well. So our brother company was born.
What is the number one item on your bucket list?
Originally it was to run the Disney Marathon! But my sister and I crossed that off our list a year ago (so fun). Number 2 on my list is to get on the Amazing Race with my sister. We’re going to win. So watch out!
Who has been the biggest female influence in your life and why?
The biggest female influence I’ve ever had was a 4-year-old named Renee. She had a brain tumor and wished to go to Disney World to meet Sleeping Beauty for her wish. A week before her trip, her cancer took a turn and the doctors sent her home saying she could have her last few weeks with her family.
A couple days later, I showed up on her doorstep dressed as Sleeping Beauty. I brought her a princess dress and crown and read her the story of Sleeping Beauty. A week later, she passed away. Her mother called me saying she was at peace with her daughter’s passing because she knew she got everything she ever wanted: to meet Sleeping Beauty.
At this point, I knew I wanted to take action of my own to help these girls. They’re already risking losing their life, their hair-loss should be the last thing they have to worry about.
What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and what did you learn from it?
The biggest risk I ever took was 100% starting Headbands of Hope! I had saved up my bank account to study abroad in Spain, but as soon as I became inspired to start HoH after my internship with Make a Wish, I cancelled my trip and poured my traveling money into my dream. Is it scary? Of course. But coloring outside the lines can lead to amazing things. If we didn’t take risks, there would be no small businesses, no exploration, and all the other factors that drive innovation. If we didn’t take risks, we could never let our passions fuel us to make sacrifices so that a cause bigger than ourselves can be brought to life.
Nothing worth it is ever easy.
Why are you THAT GIRL?
To me, THAT GIRL, embodies hope for all women to discover their true potential. My goal starting Headbands of Hope was for every girl to feel beautiful with or without hair. I hope my story inspires more girls to take action, no matter how young you are. One day you’re sitting in Starbucks with a pad and pencil drawing logos and the next day you’re being asked to contribute to I AM THAT GIRL!
*Interview conducted and compiled by Sheila Moeschen, IATG Senior Editor
Featured images via Jessica Ekstrom