By Annie Fulgenzi
Running a company is hard enough on its own, but imagine trying to do that while also worrying about studying for finals. For this 21-year-old senior at University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that’s just reality.
Justin Holding is a Springfield native and the CEO of reusable packaging start-up company IlliniBox, which works to help protect the environment by reducing wasteful single-use products.
Holding got his start in the entrepreneurial world selling sno cones on his street corner as a kid. At Pleasant Plains Middle School, Holding was known as the top salesman every year for the school’s Fannie May chocolates fundraiser.
“I didn’t realize that was business and entrepreneurship, but I always really liked it,” said Holding. “Then, in high school, I stumbled upon the Sangamon CEO program. I didn’t really know what it was, but I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a try.’”
Sangamon CEO is a program for high school students to learn about entrepreneurship first-hand. As part of the class, students get to create their own businesses that they present at a pitch competition at the end of the program. Holding’s business pitch won the Sangamon CEO contest in 2019.
“Going through that got me really inspired. So when I got to U of I, I knew I wanted to get involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Holding said.
About a month into college, Holding was eating at his campus’ dining hall when he saw the problem that his newest business venture, IlliniBox, is trying to solve: “They were using so many single-use containers and they were just filling up the garbage cans. I was like, why aren’t we using reusable containers or plates? And their excuse was, ‘Oh, we want people to take them to go,’ but that just didn’t sit right with me.”
Holding worked with his university to develop a program to reduce waste by having students use reusable containers instead of single-use to-go containers. After working on that project, he realized this was something he could turn into a business to promote sustainability beyond just his campus.
“When I finally saw the scale of single-use waste when I got to college, the impact of this really struck me,” Holding said. He noted that when COVID hit, virtually everything transitioned to single-use. “People are wanting to try to do the right thing, but the price and the system we need to build to be sustainable just wasn’t ready.”
So, Holding started working with iVenture Accelerator, an award-winning business accelerator for student startups on his campus. This May, he and his team launched IlliniBox, operating as an innovative SaaS solution to create the system that makes sustainability through reusable containers possible.
“IlliniBox can rent the containers, we can provide a station for washing the containers and we can help with tracking. There are people who make reusable containers, or people who can wash dishes, but we provide the whole system. We are the platform that makes it work. We help the containers stay in circulation, stay clean, get reused and educate people on how things should be done,” Holding explained.
Often, Holding finds himself the youngest person in the room. He says that balancing being CEO of a company while also still being a college student can be challenging, but also rewarding.
“It can be a weird balance, but I think of it like doing an internship or balancing a job during the school year. It’s a balance of your school work and this, but it is nice because when I’m taking a class — like if I’m taking a marketing class or a supply chain class – I can think about those classes and apply them directly to my business.
When we talk about things in class, my natural example to think about is my own business. It’s a real-world application, and it’s really nice all of the resources and support you get here as a student,” said Holding.
Now, IlliniBox is focusing on working with high-volume events such as conferences, festivals and cafeterias.
Holding is slated to graduate in spring 2023 with a degree in industrial engineering. He says he looks forward to continuing to promote sustainability and building IlliniBox.
Annie Fulgenzi is a Springfield-area native and student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, majoring in mass communications and pre-law. She is completing a summer internship at Springfield Business Journal and Illinois Times.