How This Woman Started a Multimillion-Dollar Business in College

Jess Ekstrom started a multi-million dollar business from her college dorm. Today she runs both Headbands of Hope and Mic Drop Workshop. She sat down with Jessica Abo to share how it all started and her advice for kids and teens who want to start their own big idea.

Jessica Abo: Take us back to the early days. How did you get Headbands of Hope off the ground?

I had the idea for Headbands of Hope when I was in college. I was doing an internship at the Make-a-Wish Foundation and I saw a lot of kids who were losing their hair from chemotherapy, and the immediate reaction was to get them a wig or give them a hat to cover their hair. head. Many of them weren’t really concerned with covering their heads, they just wanted something to restore their confidence and honestly feel like a kid again. I would see so many of them wearing these headbands walk into offices or get their wish granted and I thought that was the coolest gesture of trust they didn’t want to hide what they were going through – they were just looking to restore their self-confidence thanks to a simple accessory. I remember going to Google and typing in “headbands for kids with cancer” and realizing that was a connection that had yet to be made.

The real moment when you become an entrepreneur is when you are looking for something that does not exist.

I also like to call this “the inspiration of frustration”. When you get frustrated with something that should exist or be better, maybe you could be the one to create it. I realized that no one had yet made the connection between headbands and children with cancer. I call it the dumbest, smartest time of my life, being 18 or 19 and thinking, “Well, why not me? I could come up with something to give blindfolds to kids with cancer.” It was around 2011, 2012 when TOMS Shoes was really showing up in these one-for-one designs, so I decided, let me adapt this with headbands.

So I started a business called Headbands of Hope, and for every headband sold, we donate one to a sick child. We launched on April 25, 2012. I remember my first order was from my mother, my second order was from my grandfather after he called me to figure out how to run the website. But little by little I kept going and kept throwing darts. I beg college professors to let me speak in front of their class for five minutes about the Headbands of Hope. But I remember the only time we really had success was when blogging was really popular and there was an article in Fitness Magazine that was listed as one of the top five fitness bloggers to watch.

I contacted each of the bloggers and told them about what I was doing with Headbands of Hope. And out of the five bloggers, two of them replied to me, and then one of them ended up posting, and I still remember the name of the blog. It was called Healthy Tipping Point. I remember the day she posted about Headbands of Hope on her blog. We got $500 worth of orders that day, and I thought I could retire. I was like, “Oh my God, $500. That’s the jackpot.”

But it was one of those big turning points for me as an entrepreneur. One, I’ve learned that sometimes you’re gonna get a lot of no’s and all it takes is a yes. And second, how validated it was that up until then, anyone who had bought on was my mother or my cousin or my grandmother who was just there to support me. But once you get that first order from someone you don’t know, it’s a feeling you can’t even explain, because it just means someone believes in what you’re doing and is ready to put his money there. in order to buy everything you have created.

Headbands of Hope, although we donated millions of headbands today, we are the official headband supplier for NB. We are sold in all Kohl locations. From the outside, it looks crazy what we’ve been able to build over the past 10 years. It was crickets at first. It wasn’t the fire right out the door. But something I like to say, and I definitely say it in Create your bright ideas, is just because you hear crickets – doesn’t mean no one is listening.

Why, at this stage of the game, is it so important for you to reach children and adolescents through your book?

Junior Achievement actually did a study this year and over 60% of teens want to start their own business rather than a regular 9 to 5 job. And I think that has a lot to do with even The Great Resignation and seeing their mothers or their parents come back and maybe be independent or consult or start their own stampede. The reality is that we’re just in a new era of entrepreneurship and a creator economy where we can build a following on social media or start gaining traction on our ideas without a huge marketing budget. So the barrier to starting is less, but it also means that the barrier to scaling can be more difficult.

Because it’s easier than ever to get started and harder than ever to scale, what I think is so important for kids and teens to understand is that the best ideas will scratch an itch.

If you’ve ever had that crazy itch between your shoulder blades that you can’t reach, this is what your idea should look like.

When I found out that headbands would really boost the confidence of kids with cancer, but no one was providing it, that was my itch. It was my problem. Headbands of Hope, which provides headbands to children with cancer, it was my turn, it was my solution. And why did I write Create your bright ideas. It’s important to me to help kids and teens understand that entrepreneurship isn’t just about making money or having your own freedom, which I hope you do, and I hope you make a lot of money, but it’s about looking at the world through a lens you could fix. And the next time you see something that you’d like to see exist or could be done better, you might just be the one to create it.

What do you hope people take away from reading your book?

I know every generation has its own set of challenges, but looking at the past few years with kids and teens – whether it’s the pandemic, being pulled out of school, their extracurricular activities, missing out on graduation, the election stress, or even just social media constantly changing and leading to a teenage mental health crisis – it’s been tough.

And one of the things that I think is so important in entrepreneurship that we often forget is that a lot of good ideas are born in bad because hard times give us a choice: hard times can be the excuse why we do less, or they may be the reason why we do more. Of course I want children and teenagers to read Create your bright ideas and do all the journaling and even coloring activities (there’s even a tear-off business plan at the end of the book that they can start creating their brilliant ideas). But more importantly, I want them to feel that they can solve the problems the world needs, that they can be the ones who make things better, and that they believe it can be them.

In fact, in the first chapter of the book, I make them sign a contract that before they continue reading, they have to believe that it could be them. Of course, I want kids and teens to read this book and start their own business, but more importantly, I want them to read this book and embrace the mindset of an entrepreneur, which means ‘they’re a problem solver, they’re a creator, they’re an advocate, they’re a philanthropist, they look at the world through a lens they could fix, whether that means starting a business or not.

If you could give one piece of advice to people looking to start a business, what would it be?

A few years after launching Headbands of Hope, I really wanted us to hit stores. And I had heard of this trade show in Atlanta where you could set up a booth and stores from all over the world come in and choose the brands that they wanted in their stores. I had emptied my bank account to go to this show in Atlanta, and I hadn’t realized that there was also seniority at the booth locations. Because it was my first time there, my stall was literally behind the toilet. I couldn’t even find my own booth when I got there. I was like, “How is a buyer going to find my booth?” I remember it was the second day of a three day show. I hadn’t written a single order, and I was thinking how I was going to pay for it.

I had seen out of the corner of my eye a woman coming down the escalator. They all wore these badges with their name and the store they represented. Her name tag read “Ulta Makeup Stores,” which was a headband slam dunk. And I had this moment where I was like, “Should I chase after her and chase after that buyer from the Ulta makeup store? But what if she says no?” So I did a quick analysis of the results. I thought, “If she says no, then I’m going to stand right here behind the toilet like I was before.” I started chasing after this Ulta makeup buyer. I chased her down a flight of stairs (I’m surprised she didn’t call security on me). I finally joined her. I launched into my elevator pitch. I think I literally took the headband off my head and gave it to him and was like, “I would love to explore Headbands of Hope in the Ulta stores.”

I received nothing from her, no response. She took the information, but I didn’t really see any sting in her eyes. But I remember going back to the stand and realizing, “I live to talk about it. It’s okay.” And I almost felt better because I knew what the end result would be, instead of wondering what could have been, and if I had chased her down those stairs.

But four years later, four years later, so on track with the next Olympics, we launched into all 1,000 Ulta stores because of that split-second decision. It taught me a life lesson that I share in all my speeches (someone even got it tattooed on their arm after hearing me speak!)

Failure will always be better than regret.

And I’m going to go one step further and tell you that the consequences of a “no” will rarely ruin your life, but the consequences of a “yes” might change your life. My advice is you might as well ask, you might as well get your shot because the odds will be in your favor.

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