Warm Hats Cool Superheroes

How classmates formed a nonprofit that spreads joy to kids wtih cancer.
Brian Keller with Lainey Sandahl, a young Love Your Melon fan from Stillwater.

Zachary Quinn exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age while growing up in Afton. That spirit was put to great use years later, in 2012, when he met Brian Keller in an entrepreneurship class at the University of St. Thomas. At that time, neither of them imagined they would end up forming a lasting friendship, let alone a successful business that would help children who are going through cancer treatments.

Keller, vice president and cofounder of the Love Your Melon Foundation, recalls their first meeting. “I was [telling] him about this project we would be doing all semester long, and he asked me, ‘So are we going to be partners?’ Surprised, I just said ‘yes,’ and it has been a roller coaster ride ever since.”

For the project, each pair of partners had to create some kind of business they could operate and run during one semester. Quinn and Keller’s project, however, became something much bigger.

“We wanted to generate an impact that would last beyond that semester,” president and cofounder Quinn says. “Our business concept was to start something that matters. We thought we would run a hat company where all of the proceeds would go toward cancer research.”

With the hat company in mind, Quinn and Keller found additional inspiration during their visit to a local hospital. “We were talking to the staff and came across children who were battling cancer,” Quinn says. “When going through their treatments, we learned that children start losing their hair and become embarrassed, so we saw a real need for hats that would keep them warm and confident.” After that October 2012 visit, Quinn and Keller solidified their business plan.

Basements, Moms and Sewing Machines

At first, Quinn and Keller purchased the hats they gave to pediatric cancer patients and handled production in Keller’s family home. “We had patches with our [company] name on them for each hat, and Brian’s mother, Laurie Keller, was sewing them on for us in her basement,” Quinn says. “We even had a sewing group in Anoka putting patches on for us.”

Love Your Melon began selling hats on Thanksgiving 2012. “We sold out that first weekend, and the weekend subsequent to that,” Quinn says. “Another concept we introduced for this project was a Buy One, Give One program. For every hat we sold, we would give away an equal number of hats to children battling cancer. We sold 200 hats that first weekend and were able to give away an additional 200 hats for children in need.”

With this rapid start, the team knew Laurie Keller and the group in Anoka would not be able to continue sewing all of the hats they needed. Today, they work with Minnesota Knitting Mills in Mendota Heights, Minn.

Nearing the end of the school semester, Love Your Melon was still receiving orders and selling out of hats faster than the team could produce them. “Ideally, we just wanted to build the program up over the following semester and year,” Quinn says. “It continued to take off, and we ended up selling 2,500 hats in our first year.”

(Left: Love Your Melon hats in assorted colors; Right: The Love Your Melon headquarters has grown significantly since the early days in the Keller family’s basement.)

Superhero Tours

After experiencing that initial success, Quinn and Keller decided it was time to step things up a notch and really get the company rolling. On Dec. 23, 2013, Love Your Melon became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and, in 2014, Quinn and Keller embarked on two nationwide tours, donating hats and spreading the word about Love Your Melon’s mission.

During those tours, the duo would venture into different hospitals wearing superhero costumes and giving hats to young cancer patients. The idea to wear costumes was sparked at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital when Quinn and Keller attended one of the hospital’s Superhero Day events.

“We realized how cool it would be if we did it at each hospital we visited,” Quinn says. “The kids wouldn’t view us as strangers, but as superheroes. It’s such a cool thing because we would give them a hat and then the superhero experience would give them a memory.”

Along the tour, Quinn and Keller would also stop at colleges and universities to share their vision for Love Your Melon. The effort paid off.

“We now have 1,400 college ambassador programs at more than 125 different universities and colleges that basically sell hats through our online website,” Quinn says. “We even set up challenges for them. Sometimes it’s getting a celebrity to wear a Love Your Melon hat, or even to have a puppy dog wear it. We’ve had celebrities such as Owen Wilson, Jessica Simpson and Dr. [Mehmet] Oz wear one of our hats. It’s tremendous to see these incredible influencers supporting us.”

The tours have also been a great way to get more people directly involved with Love Your Melon. “These tours gave us the chance to be with other college students and shoot for the stars. We were able to train interns and have them go out and run the tour,” Keller says. “The best part is that our hats are being given out personally by someone from Love Your Melon. Being able to figure out a way to do that on a national level, while also giving the satisfaction and fulfillment to the many college students who have been involved, has been so rewarding.”

(Left: A Love Your Melon ambassador with child at the Ronald McDonald House in Austin, Texas; Right: Prepping for an event involves superhero tape, bracelets and plenty of stickers to go around.)

Unexpected Rewards

Working with Love Your Melon has had unexpected rewards. Keller recalls a trip to New York City, NY, where he met a girl named Cam who was battling cancer.

“We spent an entire day with her,” Keller says. “She was a dancer, but due to all of her surgeries, she wasn’t able to dance anymore. We took her to the New York City Ballet, on a helicopter ride, to the American Girl store and to the top of Rockefeller Center. We made a whole superhero adventure day out of it. To see her so happy and light up, knowing that we were able to do that for her, made it such a rewarding day. It’s something I will never forget.”

Quinn agrees that the rewards of running this nonprofit have been amazing. “Being able to create something that I can pass off to others and see its impact is so cool to see,” he says.

Love Your Melon sold 2,500 hats in its first year, 30,000 in its second, and is projected to sell 100,000 hats this year.

So, what’s next for the team? “Expanding our ambassador program even further and tying it in with the brand,” Quinn says. “We really want to achieve our goal of educating the public about Love Your Melon, childhood cancer and what those families go through. We have been able to host events such as helicopter, plane and boat rides, and a lot of other adventures for the children. Our hope is that we’ll be able to continue doing so.”

In fact, they don’t plan on stopping until every child in America who is battling cancer has a warm hat—and the support of cool superheroes on their side.

Worn By Celebrities

([L to R] Dr. Mehmet Oz, Jarius Wright, Jessica Simpson, a Love Your Melon ambassador with Steven Tyler)