Many people use internships to improve their resumes or explore what type of job they want to pursue after college.  But not Jessica Ekstrom- she took her experience to a whole new level by starting her own business after interning at the Make a Wish Foundation of Central and Western North Carolina.  Jessica, who is still in college, launched Headbands of Hope to make sure that every girl feels beautiful and exudes inner confidence, even if she is battling cancer. For every handband 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. I had the pleasure of talking with Jessica to learn about what inspires her and what pieces of advice she has for young entrepreneurs.

Cara Murphy: How did your internship at the Make a Wish Foundation inspire you to start Headbands of Hope?
Jessica Ekstrom: When I interned at Make-A-Wish, 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; little did they know, they were changing mine.

Being a young girl presents many struggles with self-esteem already and losing their hair as a result of a life-threatening illness is traumatic. Not only do they have to face the risk of losing their lives, they feel that they lose a part of their feminine identity.

I saw that the girls loved to wear headbands instead of wigs after losing their hair to treatment. Therefore, I wanted to come up with a way to give headbands to all girls battling cancer. That’s when Headbands of Hope was born!

CM: What do your headbands bring to the lives of people fighting cancer? 
JE: When these girls are in the hospital, they’re missing a chunk of their childhood. While all their friends are out going to school dances or playing sports, they’re in the hospital. These headbands not only restore their femininity, they help them feel normal again. I had a mom tell me once that her daughter had just finished up treatment and was about to start kindergarten. She was afraid all the kids would think she was a boy since her hair hadn’t grown back yet. But when she got her headband in the hospital, her mom said she was so excited to start kindergarten because she felt so confident in her new headband.

These headbands are also a symbol of hope and support for these girls. A girl in the hospital once said to me, “Knowing that other girls who are going through cancer are also wearing these headbands makes me feel like I’m not alone.”

CM: How did you start a business while still in college?  What were the challenges and opportunities?
JE: When I was first starting out and communicating with businesses and organizations for partnerships, I hid the fact that I was in college. I thought the fact that I was so young 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. Therefore, I switched my mentality to: Yes, I’m the CEO and I still have to do my homework before my Spanish class tomorrow.

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.

I quickly learned that this unique aspect of myself was often attractive to others as they considered my company. It was still Headbands of Hope. But it turned into: Headbands of Hope, which was started by a college student.

Sometimes it’s difficult balancing classes, the business and spending time with my wonderful friends, but I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Being in college provides me with so many resources and my friends are with me every step of the way.

CM: Do you have plans to grow and expand Headbands of Hope?
JE: It’s been amazing to go to the hospitals and spend time with the girls and hand out headbands. But I’ve realized that although hair loss isn’t as traumatic for boys, it’s still something they’re going through. Therefore, I’d like to create a brother line called Headwear of Hope for boys.

I also still plan to grow Headbands of Hope with new collections and continue to build an audience.

CM: What business and/or personal goals do you have for 2013?
JE: After my graduation in May, I’d really like to start working on Headwear of Hope. I’ve also just become a part of CAMPUSPEAK, an organization that connects speakers with universities. I’m really looking forward to traveling to different schools to share my story with college students.

CM: Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to incorporate their passion and desire to contribute positively to our global community while also ensuring a sound business model that can pay their rent?
JE: In order for you to be inspired and discover a cause, you need to step outside your comfort zone. Volunteer with an organization or travel to another country. It’s easier to identify a need in the global community when you have a fresh perspective. Once you have a cause or an idea, structure it in a way where you can make a living and make a difference at the same time. We’re often times programmed to think that if we want to make an impact, we have to sacrifice everything else. However, you can create a business model that allows you to make an impact and pay your rent. For example, mine business model is “one for one” similar to TOMS. For every headband purchased, one is given to a girl with cancer and $1 is donated to childhood cancer research.

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