Being the niece of one of the most infamous men of our modern age is not easy.
In December 2008, Jess Ektrom, whose grandmother is the sister of Bernie Madoff‘s wife, Ruth, found out that her family’s savings had vanished. That’s because her family had unwittingly invested in her notorious (and, yes, Jewish) uncle’s Ponzi scheme, which robbed investors worldwide of an estimated $82.3 billion.
Ekstrom, who was in high school at the time, was especially heartbroken for her maternal grandparents, who were in their 70s. They were retired and had lost their nest egg, and had nothing left to live on.
“It was just one of the most outer-body experiences I’ve ever had,” Ekstrom recently told People magazine. “It was tough to see my family experience that.”
But in the decade since then, the 28-year-old has really turned her life and her outlook around. Inspired by her entrepreneurial grandparents — who started a airport car shuttle service in Florida to survive after losing all their money — she launched her own business, Headbands of Hope.
The company, which Ekstrom started seven years ago, sells headbands (duh!) — but, crucially, for each one sold, they they donate a headband to a child with cancer. So far, they’ve donated over 500,000 headbands to young cancer patients across the country and the world. She’s drawn the attention of some pretty famous clients, too, including actress Lea Michele and True Kardashian (that’s Khloe Kardashian’s adorable baby girl.)
It all started during a college internship, when Ekstrom met young cancer patients through the Make-a-Wish foundation. She realized that many kids with cancer were given wigs and hats to make up for the hair they had lost in chemotherapy — but what they really wanted was headbands. She tried to research organizations who were supplying kids with these colorful accessories, and realized that there wasn’t one.
And so, she started Headbands of Hope in her college dorm room. It wasn’t smooth sailing from the beginning — the first time she tried to pay a manufacturer, she borrowed $10,000 from her dad, only to have the apparently shady manufacturer disappear with the money.
“That was devastating on all fronts, especially because my dad had been working so hard after Madoff to get back on his feet,” she told People.
Ekstrom says she used to be ashamed of sharing that story, but now it’s important for her to come clean about the “messy parts” of her success. After all, Ekstrom, is also motivational speaker, and she recently published a book about her journey to success, Chasing the Bright Side.
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As Ekstrom told Brit + Co, “Success is not what it looks like to others, it’s what it feels like to you.”
Image via Headbands of Hope Instagram