Controlling Your Narrative


Charming and inspirational, Jess Ekstrom, founder, and CEO of Headbands of Hope, opened the Leadercast Women 2018 day with an uplifting message about how bad things happen to everyone, but we have the power to decide how we’ll use them for good. Jess told the audience that no matter what negative or positive events come your way, you control your own narrative. This principle helped her overcome failures early in her entrepreneurial career to build her impactful company that donates headbands to children with cancer.

Hi. How are we doing? Good? I am so excited to be here. Thank you, guys, so much for having me. So, I think the thing I miss most about being a kid is our childlike optimism, you know, and also being praised for taking naps. That was really good, I think we should bring that back. But I think when we're kids, you know, like everything is within our fingertips because we've never been told that we can't. And so anything that we wanna do is totally feasible for us. So, for me, I remember I set my sights on my first big goal when I was in sixth grade. I was obsessed with, "Chicken Soup for the Soul." Has anyone ever read, "Chicken Soup for the Soul," books? Okay. So, back in the day Chicken Soup was my jam and I had this revelation, I was like, "These are real people in these books," which means I could be in, "Chicken Soup for the Soul," and that was mind blowing to me. So I was like, "I'm gonna be in this book." So every day in sixth grade I channeled my inner poet and I submitted poems to, Chicken Soup for the Soul. I probably submitted ballpark like 100 poems, give or take. I was really creative back then.

And one day I got home from school and there was a letter on the counter from Chicken Soup for the Soul. I was going to be in their teenage edition, and being twelve years old and associated with teenagers was awesome. And I got $75. And at that point I was like, "Mom, Dad, you don't have to worry about college anymore. It's going to be okay." I walked to middle school that next day, I busted through those double doors, and I was like, "I don't really wanna make this a big deal, but I'm gonna be in, "Chicken Soup for the Soul," tell everyone you know." I got on the morning announcements, got in the local Cornelius gazette paper. I mean, I'm still trying to shake off the press from that day, it was intense. I mean, I just wanna live a normal life, people. Please. But the funny thing was is I never really thought about all the poems that didn't make it. You know, like all the times I got rejected, I just knew that if I kept trying I was gonna get there, because as kids, there has to be good on the other side. There has to be.

But sometimes, you know, there's some event that happens in our life that kind of threatens our optimism. You know, something happens, whether it might be, you know, you're following a recipe and the recipe comes out with this cute pancake and I think the...oh, there we go. The cute pancake, and you follow the recipe to the tee, everything's perfect, and then it turns out looking something like this. Like that's how...we've all been there, right? So, I think that at some point in our lives we have this like life template and this equation that just doesn't add up anymore. You know, we start to question ourselves. Whether that means maybe you studied really hard and someone who cheated got a better grade than you, and that doesn't seem fair. Or maybe you didn't get into your dream school, or maybe it's a break up that really just tore you apart. But we start to question these life equations that we have set. You know, work hard get paid, or you know, wear makeup, boys will like you, or eat vegetables and you'll be skinny.

And we have these things that just start to make us question whether or not we actually know what we're doing. And these kinds of life disruptions can happen at all different parts of our life where we question ourselves and we question our optimism for the world. But for me, this happened my senior year of high school. So it was around 2008, and the only thing that I was really worried about was prom and where I was gonna go to school, and it was my senior year. And we have this routine with my family where every morning before my sister and I had to go to the school, we'd come downstairs, we have breakfast. My parents are just getting back from the gym, and we watch the news in the background. And I came downstairs and the news wasn't on. And I know that doesn't seem like a big deal, but it just seemed off to me because that's what we've been doing. And then my parents, I saw them and they hadn't gone to the gym and they looked like they had just seen a ghost.

And I looked to them, I said, "What's wrong? Are you guys okay?" My mom left the room. And they're like the happiest people ever, so this was weird. And then my dad comes over to me and he says, "Look, I know you have your exams today, so just, we'll talk about this later. But unfortunately, our savings, all of our money, everything we have is gone. So life is gonna be a little different around here." And you know, being...I think I was like 17 years old, it didn't really whop me upside the head. I knew that was bad, but I didn't really have a concept for money at the time. So I just was...I got in my car and I was backing out of the driveway to drive to school, and my dad comes out again. He rolls down the window and he says, "Oh, and stay away from the news today." Again, I didn't really understand what was going on. But I went to school, I did my exams, I came home and we have this guest room down where the garage is. So they couldn't hear me when I got home and I went in there and I turned on the news. And that was when I saw it.

I saw Bernie Madoff on every single channel. And Bernie Madoff is one of the biggest financial frauds in history, stealing over $65 billion in his Ponzi scheme. And Bernie Madoff is my mom's uncle. And I remember watching this and sitting on that bed in that guest room and I couldn't even make out exactly what it was saying. I would hear, you know, "Fraud. Life in prison. Ponzi scheme. Billions of dollars. Innocent victims." And sometimes, you know, when we see things on social media or we hear things that happen in the world, we kind of file it away in this box in our head that's like, "Never will happen to us." And we just kinda graze right over it, but the reality is anything can happen to us. And there's two ways that we can also interpret that, the idea that anything can happen. And the first one is fear. That fear of the unknown, and this idea that if we can't control our universe, then maybe we should just hide from it. But the fear takes us out of the game.

But the second thing that we can do is wondering what if, the possibility. The idea that if anything can happen, that might mean losing a million dollars, or winning or earning a million dollars. So, instead of being threatened by the uncertainty and immobilized, we're energized by the possibility. And I'm not gonna lie, it was really rough. The next few years, it wasn't like immediately like, "Here's the silver lining in all this," it was hard. But now looking back and seeing everyone's paths, I can see how my family really chose possibility. My grandparents, they lost their retirement, they slapped a magnet on the side of a car and then started a cab driving business. Eight years later, they drove 25,000 people to the airport. My parents, they sold everything that they owned and then got an RV, and they became park rangers. And then my sister bought a van on Craigslist and lived in that for three years, by choice, and she started running ultra marathons. So she runs like 100-mile races, again, by choice. A little weird.

But looking at all of their paths and what's happened from this, it makes me think about the difference between our experiences and our stories. So our experiences are these tangible events, these things that happened to us that maybe we can't control. But our stories is how we interpret and respond to our experiences. So your experience might be it might rain on your wedding day, that's something that you can't control. But the story is maybe you get really cool photos of the clouds and the lightning in the background. But we all had the same experience of burning, we couldn't control it, but we all wrote different stories of possibility. Because we can't always control what happens to us day-to-day, what, you know, the person we're sitting beside, but we can control the meaning that we give to it and how we respond. So I took a little bit more of a commercial path than my family, and I got a job in high school and I worked as a birthday party host at a inflatable amusement park, which is just as weird as it sounds. And then I went to college with the help of my dad, and then I immediately accepted an internship in Disney World, second semester of my freshman year. Because, you know, when your family is in the darkest place, what's better than the happiest place on Earth, right? Like, "Let's go to Disney."

So I was a PhotoPass Photographer, I absolutely loved it. I got to take pictures from people all over the world. But my favorite thing that I got to do was I got to photograph kids that were there on their wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. So, Make-A-Wish grants wishes to kids with life-threatening illnesses. So going to Disney World was the most popular wish among Make-A-Wish kids. So I got to photograph them meeting the princess or seeing the castle for the first time, and I just was hooked. I found love. So I got back to school, my sophomore year and I applied for an internship at Make-A-Wish. The chapter that I applied for, they actually didn't have internships, but I just said, "Let me show up every day and I will fill your coffee." They said, "Sure." So that was my internship. I literally got there and I just said, "I will do anything that you guys don't wanna do." I was organizing supply closets, I was literally, you know, filling coffee, running errands. And on paper it wasn't really that glamorous, but it was the first time in my life where I didn't really care about what I was doing, because I was so clearly connected to why I was doing it.

So I started to think that maybe our lives and the careers that we choose for ourselves doesn't have to be something where we clock in and clock out and get a paycheck every couple of weeks. It can be every day when our alarm goes off we know that it matters, because we're working towards something that's bigger than ourselves. So it was towards the end of my internship and I felt like I had to really prove myself, and they agreed. So they gave me a little more responsibility and I got to be in charge of an entire wish. So there was this one little girl, she was my wish child, her name was Renee. And she wished to go to Disney World to meet Sleeping Beauty. And she knew exactly what she wanted and so I got to work with her family. But it was a week before her wish and her cancer took a bad turn, she had a brain tumor, and the doctors said that she was too sick to go on her wish and that they just sent her home to focus on quality of life.

And so I remember watching this unfold and thinking, "This can't be the story. You know, this can't be what happens." And so, in a knee-jerk reaction, I just went on to Google and found a local costume shop and then I arrived on her doorstep dressed as Sleeping Beauty and made her wish come true that day. And I brought her a matching dress and a crown that said Princess Renee and read her the story of Sleeping Beauty. Spent the whole day with her and her family in character, she totally bought it. And this was like one of the biggest before and after moments of my life. Like even Bernie, and I've realized these hardships, these things that we can experience, can either be the excuse as to why we do less, or it can be the reason as to why we do more. And I didn't want this moment to be the excuse, I wanted it to be the reason. I wanted it to be the heartbeat to something amazing.

And so I decided, I was a junior in college and I was gonna create these headbands, because I saw that kids who would lose their hair to chemotherapy loved to wear headbands. And they would always be given a wig or a hat, but they weren't about covering up their heads, they just wanted to restore their self-confidence. So I decided I was gonna create a company called Headbands of Hope. For every headband sold, we're gonna donate one to a child with cancer. And again, I was a junior in college at the time. I was studying Communications, couldn't even spell entrepreneur. Still can't spell it, I'm not gonna lie to you guys, it's a tough word. I respect you too much. But the reality is is that every expert we know was once a beginner. And so we cannot let our confidence depend on how prepared we are. We have to be confident when we have no idea what we're doing, but we know that we can. I like to call it the art of figuring it out. And that was, I was just gonna figure it out.

So, I went over to the Business School, asked for 15 minutes of their time, I'm like, "Help me with this business plan. And by the way, what are taxes? Should I be scared of them." And I walked over to the Graphic Design School, I needed a logo. I was like, I went over to a professor, I said, "You know what would be a great idea, is if you did a class assignment that was making me a logo and I picked the best one." And that was how I got my logo. And then I needed to make a website. Again, didn't know what I was doing, I found a computer design student who met with me every day for lunch to teach me Photoshop and Shopify, and I paid her in chipotle burritos. It was literally burritos driving my business. But the last thing I had to do was I had to find a manufacturer. So, again, I had no idea what I was doing. I found this website where you can research manufacturers and see what they make, and I said, "If I could find one that can make elastic, then they can probably make a headband." That was it. So I started reaching out. And I was like, "I know I don't know exactly what I'm saying. I don't know what minimum orders are, I don't know what products specs are. I'm just hoping that someone will just take a chance on me," you know.

Months went by, no response. Finally got someone who responded to me. Hopped on a call, they loved the idea, it was great. So they shipped me some samples, I gave them feedback, sent them back. For about two months we went back and forth. And finally, they sent me a headband that I was good to go with, and I said, "Okay, let's do it. Let's make this headband." So they sent me over the invoice, for $10,000. And I was like, "I probably should have asked this before." But, you know, I didn't wanna kill the vibe. I was like, "We'll get there." The problem was, that was about $9,500 more than I had in my bank account. So I was like, "This is an issue." And so I went to my dad, who's also an entrepreneur, for advice. I said, you know, "Should I get an investor, give away a percentage of my company? Should I get a loan, you know, from the bank and pay interest?" He was like, "Look, I've seen your business plan. I've seen what you've been doing, and I really think you're on to something here. I don't want you to have to give away a portion of your company this early. So I'm gonna front you the money and you can pay me back as the business starts to make money." And this was huge. I mean, know, because after Madoff they were trying to get back on their feet and everything, and I love my dad, but our childhood was not like, "Oh, you want a pony? Get a pony." Like, it was never that way. And so I was so excited that he believed in it so much.

I ran to the bank. It was a Friday afternoon, I wanted them to get the money before the weekend so they could see I was serious, you know. I'm a business woman. And wired them $10,000. Never heard from again. Exactly. Yeah, I heard some words. That is exactly what I said, too. I felt like all of the doubts about myself that I had, like, "I'm too young. I'm too experienced. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm not qualified." That was like a validation point. I was like, "Yes, you're right." But then I went to bed that night and I started to think, you know, this idea, it's not about the embarrassment of failure for me, it was supposed to be beyond that. But this is about a problem that isn't gonna be solved. Because when your business is fueled by a problem, the idea of it not being solved, that was what I could not sit with.

But sometimes, when we have these ideas, we put it in our map, and we're given one way. Like, "This is how you get there. This is what you do." But the reality is, there's always gonna be another way. Even if it's not as clear, even if there's more traffic, even if you have to do a lap around the world in the opposite direction, there will always be another way to get to where we wanna go if we believe in that destination enough. So, I got up, I went to the School of Entrepreneurship, because I was still a student, I applied for a $300 grant that they were giving to the kids who were starting businesses. I bought two skews of headbands from some supplier in North Dakota that I found on Etsy that let me buy like 10 pieces. I put it on my website. And since then, we've been in, "People Magazine," "Vanity Fair," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," even some celebrities have worn our headbands, Lee Michele, Lauren Conrad, Kelsea Ballerini, even the Kardashians. I'm trying to decide how I feel about that, but that's the thing.

But my favorite thing is what we've been able to do as a result of that. We've been able to go to all these hospitals giving headbands. We created these DIY headband days where the kids can design and create their own headbands, and we've donated headbands to every single hospital in America in 15 countries. And I've paid my dad back, so... Thank you. But the thing is, is that if we didn't care about the end results, failures would legitimize quitting. If we didn't believe so much in what was at the end of this, any ruffle on the feathers would be a good enough reason to quit. And I've become really interested in like this idea of grit and resilience, especially as women, when we're kind of told that we have to be perfect. And I've interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs, Olympic athletes, anyone who's done something that they're proud of, and I've realized that the difference between people who throw in the towel when times get hard and the ones that don't really doesn't have anything to do with their money or where they went to school or their expertise, it is their rooted belief in what could be. It is that childlike optimism that made Chicken Soup for the Soul possible. It is their answer to the question, what would happen if it all worked out?

And if that is compelling enough, then there won't be anything in the way that is too big to overcome. And sometimes we let these external events get in our way, these experiences, but sometimes we let other people get in our way and make us question ourselves. And that's just as bad. So I'll give you an example. You know, I wanted...I'm not flexible. So I wanted to try yoga. So my friend was like, "Oh, I know this new studio that just opened up, you should come with me." I was like, "Great." It was one of those fancy yoga studios, so you get there and the person's like, "Oh, yeah, here's a lavender spray. And just go to the Zen Garden over there and will be with you momentarily." And I was like, "Okay, this is a little much." But so I get there, I'm doing the class, you know, I'm trying my best, and...I mean, it was a hot yoga so I was like, "At least, it'll look like I'm doing something after this." And after class, the instructor is standing outside and she's giving an affirmation to every person that walks out.

So the first person that walks out she's like, "You are so strong." And then the next person walks out and she's like, "It was like a dance the way that you moved." And the next person walks out and she's like, "Great downward dog." And then I walk out and she's like, "Thanks for coming." Like, "Are you kidding me? Did you not see me? I was touching my toes." Like, "I was there. I was there." And I was so lit up. I got in my car and my zen was gone, I was like, "I am never coming back. I don't care if it's a free trial, forget yoga." But then I was like, "You know what? She does not get to control the way that I think about myself." We have to ask ourselves, are we on our own team? Because we can be our biggest cheerleader or we can be our biggest enemy. And sometimes that's the switch. That's the reason that stops us or makes us go for it. So we have to be on our own team and control the way that we feel about ourselves. And we have to stay true to our aim, and sometimes that can get blurry. I know it did for me.

I think in the beginning I was so connected, you know. Because when you start from the bottom, like anything a little bit above that you're like, "Yeah, I'm doing it. I got this." And I was so connected to the cause and everything was right there in front of me. But then as things get bigger and all of a sudden, you know, you're talking to target and you have staff and all these things start happening, things feel heavier and you feel further away.

So I remember I was going to this trade show, it was actually here in Atlanta. This wholesale trade show for the first time, and I was so worried about these tags that I had ordered to go along with the the headbands. And I was freaking out. And then rewind about a week before the trade show, I went to the children's hospital where I live and I was passing out headbands and I met this girl named Taylor, and she picked out this awesome purple and green headband. She even had a little bit of hair left on top of her head, so we dyed it into a Mohawk, which I thought was boss. And I remember she was telling me she was feeling kind of down, you know, that all of her friends she was seeing on social media were going to prom and prom was not on the works for her. And she'd been in the hospital for two years at that point. And so I said, "You know what? When I get back from Atlanta, I'll come back here and we'll have our own prom. And it'll be so fun, we'll get dressed up, we'll take pictures, it'll be great." So she adds me on Facebook. So we're talking on Messenger, where she's gonna be, what we're gonna do.

So then I'm on the phone with this tag company a week later and I just thought, "This is awful." These tags hadn't arrived, I was leaving for the trade show, "How will I ever be taken seriously as a brand if I don't have tags on my product?" You know when you just lose it? You know, you're just gone. You're like, "Why is the escalator moving so slow?" Like that was where I was at. I was like, "Bye-bye. I'm floating off somewhere else." I was like getting there. I was on the phone with this company trying to get it rerouted to the trade show, and then I get, "Call waiting," from an unknown number. I think, "Who's calling me right now?" You know, "I need to...Is it a sales call? Let me just switch over and get him off the phone."

I switch over I'm like, "Hello." And it was Taylor's mom. And she was calling to tell me that Taylor had passed away, and that she wanted those same purple and green headbands for every female in her family to wear to her service the next day. And it was like everything had been moving in fast forward and someone hit the pause button for me, and I suddenly felt anchored to why I was doing this in the first place. Because that can get blurry. You know, I think a lot of times we hear, "Oh, if you love what you do you never have to work a day in your life." But it's still business, you still have to work. And so, everything can get blurry. And I would think to myself, "Well, once I can get on a big network television show, I'm gonna feel like I've done something." You know, "Or once I can get on the cover of a magazine, and you know, my parents can be in the checkout line and say, 'That's our daughter,' you know, I'll feel like I made it. Or once I can do a million dollars in sales or once I can get it in a thousand retailers or once I can hire staff." I was always one accolade away from where I wanted to be.

But then all those things happened. Every single one of them. And they would come and go. And I realized that, ah, in this moment, at the escalator, I was confusing my attention for alignment. I was so worried on what people would see that I was forgetting how it would feel. Because running a business and everything can be hard, it can be blurry, but attention and success are not codependent. You can get attention without being successful, but you can also be successful without getting attention. So let me ask you, what you're working on right now, if no one knew about it, does it still matter to you? Or when the applause goes down, the likes go away, the lights fade, is what you're chasing still meaningful to you? Because success is not what it looks like to others, it's what it feels like to you. Thank you, guys, so much. You guys are awesome. Have a great day, thank you.

Jess Ekstrom

While interning with a wish-granting organization for kids with life-threatening illnesses, Jess spent her junior year at North Carolina State University developing her company, Headbands of Hope. The company partners with retail stor...

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