College Game Plan

Dorm Room CEO: Meet Jess Ekstrom, Who Launched A Headband Business For Cancer Patients

For North Carolina State graduate Jess Ekstrom, entrepreneurship is in her genes.

Her dad started a snow shoveling business when he was 7. And Ekstrom was always selling something, whether it was at lemonade stands or on eBay.

“My wheels were kind of turning, and I think that when you grow up in that lifestyle of just watching someone you admire so much put everything into an idea, it makes it seem possible when you have your idea,” she told NBC News.

Ekstrom’s company, Headbands of Hope, creates handmade headbands for girls who are losing their hair from chemotherapy. She launched the idea in her college dorm room and got her whole university involved; now it's a full-fledged business.

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She says it's done more than just put her in the CEO club. It has brightened lives for young cancer patients in every single hospital in the country. But while the main cause of the company is giving free headbands to girls who are losing their hair from chemotherapy, Ekstrom has another goal in mind: to inspire. “My other calling is motivating the younger generation to step up and create solutions.”

Jess Ekstrom, 24, launched business from her dorm room
Anne Van Wagener


In college, I interned at Disney World as a photographer, and I got to photograph a lot of Make-A-Wish families. Girls were losing their hair to chemotherapy, and I realized they didn’t really want to wear wigs; they wanted to wear headbands as a way to express their personality through fashion without hiding what they were going through. I researched organizations that gave headbands to kids with cancer and realized this was a connection that hadn’t been made yet.

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I first tried making headbands out of my dorm, realized I was the least crafty person in humankind, and they probably wouldn’t sell. So I worked with the university — the design school to help manufacture, the business school to create a business plan. For every headband sold, we donate one to a child with cancer. Last June, we celebrated donating to every children’s hospital in the United States, plus a lot of child cancer camps and organizations. It’s completely profitable, running itself and growing every month.

Jess Ekstrom, 24, launched business from her dorm room
Anne Van Wagener


I had a lot of support from my friends. There weren’t a lot of sacrifices I had to make, maybe taking out an hour a day I watched Netflix at night and inserting work. I approached my professors about what I was doing and most of them were beyond helpful about incorporating work into school. My senior year internship project was Headbands of Hope. I was getting college credit and also feedback as grades on email pitches and press kits, stuff I was going to do anyway.

Jess Ekstrom, 24, launched business from her dorm room
Jess Ekstrom


For a while I was chasing a lot of achievements, like getting that story on TODAY, hitting a certain amount of sales, or Facebook followers. I was setting my calendar date for success. But a mom sent in a letter that her daughter was finishing chemotherapy and didn’t want to go to kindergarten because her hair hadn’t grown back and she thought everyone would think she was a boy. She got her headband in the hospital, and came home and laid out her whole outfit because she was so excited to go, and that confidence came back to her. That’s when I realized, that’s my success. Everything we’ve done lines up to that moment of purpose, and answers why we started.

Jess Ekstrom, 24, launched business from her dorm room
North Carolina State University


When you know that that you’re doing the best that you possibly can with the time that you have, and are putting it towards something greater than yourself, there’s no reason to worry outside of that, because you’re doing what’s in your control. I still have to remind myself that a lot.