From PR Student to CEO That Makes a Difference

by / ⠀Startup Advice / April 8, 2013

Jessica Ekstrom and Headbands of HopeAlmost everyone can think of a moment where they knew their life was about to change. For me, my moment was right before my 20th birthday in the summer of 2011 at my internship at the Make-A-Wish Foundation…

Every day 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.

I thought about the thousands of girls around the world losing their hair to chemotherapy. 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.

For girls and women everywhere, their hair is a part of their feminine identity. Wigs can be uncomfortable and unappealing, especially to younger girls.

I realized that headbands are the perfect way for these girls to keep their feminine identity and have a constant reminder that they’re not alone.

Therefore, I started Headbands of Hope (

For every headband purchased, one headband will go to a girl with cancer and $1 will be donated to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to fund life-saving childhood cancer research.

Since I launched my company last April, I’ve sold around 4,000 headbands and therefore been able to donate headbands to thousands of girls battling cancer across the nation and donate $4,000 to childhood cancer research.

Headbands of Hope has been featured on NBC’s TODAY Show, TOMS Shoes Blog, Fitness Magazine Blog and I was recently booked to be a guest on the Jeff Probst Show this year.

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By the way, I’m still a college student.

Being a PR major, I knew that area would be my strength when running my company. I knew I had the PR professors, books and two years of college classes under my belt. However, I didn’t know that my vision of PR was about to change.

Research.  Communication tactics. Goals.

All of the terms and lectures echoed in my head as I planned my initial approach. They all made sense when I studied them for tests and projects, but I quickly gained a much deeper understanding as Headbands of Hope began to go viral.

I always knew I wanted customers. Customers buy the product, what more could I want?

I was wrong. I didn’t need customers; I needed an audience. An audience doesn’t scroll over your logo when browsing Facebook, they stop when they see that Headbands of Hope flower because they want to hear us. An audience retweets you and double taps your Instagram photos, and then buys a headband.

I didn’t gain an audience by posting pictures of headbands captioned “buy this!” I gained an audience by encompassing what my company is all about; telling stories. People didn’t buy what I was selling, they bought why I was selling it.

Every time a headband is purchased, a story is told. Somewhere out there, a girl in the hospital is getting a much-deserved smile by picking out her headband. For example, a little girl has her first day of kindergarten but her hair hasn’t grown back from chemotherapy and she’s afraid her new classmates will think she’s a boy. However, when she received her pink floral headband to wear, her mind was put to ease and she walked into her first day of school with confidence and was eager to show off her new hair accessory.

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When my audience hears that story, they feel like their purchase created that moment. They not only have a new hair accessory for themselves, but also they have a heart-warming story connected every time they slide it on their head.

Even my story as a student who wants to make a difference creates that initial connection. I’m not just a blank face behind your purchase confirmation email. I’m Jessica: a college student that’s making an impact, one headband at a time.

As you read earlier, my company has had media success. However it took a trial-and-error process to get there.

Originally, I sent out press release after press release to all my goal publications. I received nibbles here and there, but never the response I was looking for. Then it hit me: if I’m trying to stand out as a company, why am I approaching them the same way everyone else does?

Yes, press releases were getting my point across, but they weren’t grabbing any attention. I was proud to have an innovative company, so why not have innovating PR tactics?

Then my wheels started turning. I had a short YouTube video created that I could send out to journalists that told my story in under one minute and visualized my company.

The minute I started treating my company like it was one-of-a-kind, it started to be perceived that way and Headbands of Hope began to get the attention I believed it deserved.

Overall, I have learned a valuable lesson about PR that has changed the way I work…

PR isn’t a cubicle in an office or a list of guidelines to follow. PR is the sum of what you do. It’s everything that goes into your company and it’s everything that comes out.

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Every time an email is sent or a post goes up on your blog; that’s PR. Every time you meet a potential partner for coffee; that’s PR.

To me, graduating with a PR degree means more than it did when I chose my major from a list my freshman year.  It means I understand that I’m selling a cause and a story, not just a product.

Jessica Ekstrom is a senior at North Carolina State University majoring in Public Relations. She founded Headbands of Hope in the spring of 2011 during her junior year. Post graduation, she plans on running her company full time and continuing to speak to colleges and high schools about social entrepreneurship.  Check out Headbands of Hope on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

Image Credit: Jessica Ekstrom

About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.


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