One of the perks of speaking at a conference is the opportunity to hear the other speakers and to be inspired by them.
That happened to me recently when I heard Jess Ekstrom talk about her career and Headbands of Hope. I wasn’t familiar with her or the company, but I quickly did some research. Not only does she inspire, she makes a difference.
Her talk reminded me of my friend Julie Campbell, who once spoke about “How Not to Write a Book.” Ekstrom gave similar advice on starting a business. She shared all the mistakes she made, but in a way that inspired. Her main takeaway was to never stop going after your dreams.
Ekstrom is the founder and CEO of Headbands of Hope. She also is an award-winning speaker, author and writer. She has been featured on Good Morning America, the Today show and TEDx and in Forbes, Vanity Fair, Seventeen and TeenVogue.
Her dreams started at a young age. As a child she wanted to be published in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She submitted dozens of pieces and received almost as many rejections. But then one was accepted.
When asked about the experience she conceded that she only ever spoke about the acceptance. “As kids we’re not focused on failures,” she told the 2018 CREW Leadership Summit in Richmond, Virginia.
In college after interning for a wish-granting organization, she noticed many children wearing headbands after losing their hair to chemotherapy. No one was providing those accessories so Ekstrom created Headbands of Hope. For everyone purchased, one is given to a child with cancer.
Her business almost didn’t exist. Few believed in her idea, and even fewer offered financial support. She kept trying and overcoming obstacles. When she finally found a manufacturer that would produce the headbands, her father loaned her the capital. And then the manufacturer disappeared with her money.
Ekstrom was devasted. But she was determined to not only launch the business but also to repay her father. “You can’t hide from the tough moments,” she said. “You have to use them as the reason to do more.”
Today the brand is carried in thousands of stores. More importantly, the brand has donated headbands to every children’s hospital in America and 15 countries, according to the website.
It wasn’t an easy journey, but Ekstrom noted that was okay. “There will always be another way to there, to get to the end point,” she said. Sometimes there will be messes and detours, and she encouraged the audience to find their way around.
It’s important to navigate the rocky road. “You have to believe that you can be the one to do it,” she said. “Failures are a reflection of growth and change.”
That also means not listening to the negative voices in your head or the naysayers. “Don’t give other people the steering wheel to the voice in your head,” she said. “We have to be able to control the voice in our head.”
With childlike optimism, Ekstrom said, comes confidence and success. Perhaps we all need to be a bit more childlike when it comes to our dreams.