Headbands of Hope founder Jess Ekstrom told real estate professionals at Inman Connect New York that it’s the difficult moments, not the outright successful ones, that shape careers.

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It was a nerve-wracking step on Jess Ekstrom’s journey to deliver headbands to children who have lost hair after treatment for cancer and other illnesses. 

With help from a loan from her father, and her wiring instructions in hand, Ekstrom walked into her bank ready to pay $10,000 for her first order from a person who claimed to be a headband manufacturer.

The wire transfer went through, and she never heard from them again.

“I felt like maybe this is a sign,” Ekstrom said. “Maybe this is just a sign that I shouldn’t be here. That I shouldn’t be doing this.”

But that’s not the path she chose to take.

Real estate professionals will face their own setbacks, down markets and hard times, Ekstrom told a room of agents, brokers, entrepreneurs and real estate executives at Inman Connect New York. She said these hard times can be used as an excuse to do less — or a motivation to do more.

“One single experience can write two completely different stories,” Ekstrom said.

In the years since Headbands of Hope was defrauded of that early $10,000, Ekstrom said her successful for-profit company has donated headbands to children’s hospitals throughout the U.S. and nearly two dozen other countries. 

Their headbands are now selling in 2,000 stores. They’ve struck big deals with beauty retailer Ulta, as well as the NBA and WNBA.

None of that would have been possible if they had simply buckled under the dejection of that early setback, Ekstrom said — a lesson she hoped real estate agents would keep in mind in their own professional lives.

“Let’s be real here: We are all ambitious, highly motivated people in this room, and sometimes it gets hard,” she said. 

Some professionals are able to find more meaning in their work than others in the same industry, even with the exact same list of assigned job tasks as less fulfilled people, Ekstrom said.

The reason, she argued, was that these people aren’t bogged down thinking about their work as a series of assigned tasks. They’re thinking about how their work contributes to something larger than themselves, and the impression they can make on clients and others.

A successful career isn’t necessarily the same as an accomplished one, she argued. 

Success is not something that can be measured in statistics, such as hitting a revenue goal. These benchmarks, while important, come and go. They don’t necessarily correspond to emotional fulfillment in one’s work, Ekstrom said.

Success for a real estate agent — or professional in any line of work — is marked instead by the legacy they leave, she said. It’s something that is felt, not measured. And it’s the key to orienting one’s professional life around purpose-driven work.

For Ekstrom, the purpose behind her company dates back to an internship she held in college with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a charity that works to improve quality of life for children with severe illnesses.

Near the end of her time there, Ekstrom was assigned a wish for Renee, a 4-year-old girl with a brain tumor who wanted to go to Disney World to spend time with her favorite character, Sleeping Beauty. 

But shortly before Renee’s trip was supposed to take place, her health deteriorated to the point that she couldn’t go. Instead, Ekstrom showed up at Renee’s house herself, dressed as Sleeping Beauty, with a dress for Renee to wear as well. 

After Renee died, her mother told Ekstrom that the visit gave great peace to the family.

And despite being a devastating moment for Ekstrom as well, it was also a launching point for the work she’s doing today.

“I wanted her to be the reason,” Ekstrom said. “I wanted to be able to look back and say, because of her, I did this.”

Email Daniel Houston

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