Josh Jay James is a Marketing Fellow for iVenture, Former CMO of Allergenius & Karma Trade, and a creative “Category Pirate” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Co-founder & Chief Marketing Officer of Allergenius Baking Company. Chief Marketing Officer of Karma Trade. Sole Organizer of the Largest Fashion Event in the University of Illinois’ history. All-State Track Medalist. 1st Place in INCubatoredu National Pitch Competition. Student Startup Consultant.
Josh Jay James, who many people call J³ (J Cubed), is a rising senior in Marketing at the Gies College of Business and a marketing program fellow for iVenture among many of his other aforementioned accolades. Far beyond that, he is the definition of a visionary and a *Category Pirate,* an identity which motivates all of his work. James has accomplished tremendous things throughout his undergraduate career and has effortlessly inspired all the students, faculty and peers he has serendipitously encountered.
This ability he has to captivate people and draw together the brightest and most creative minds is something he suggests may have been pre-determined at his birth. Coincidentally, he was born on October 10th (10/10), and his name (J³) serendipitously aligns with the ordering of the alphabet, of which ‘J’ is the tenth letter.
As admirable a student, marketer and person as James is, he has not always been blessed with success. His entrepreneurship journey and life experiences have certainly been short of smooth sailing, but what makes his story beautiful is the fact that he has channeled this energy into his infectious drive and enthusiasm to create positive change in the world.
His startup journey began upon his entry to adulthood, when he bravely accepted himself and his sexuality. Before that, he found it strenuous to tune in creatively since he was out of tune with who he was. When James confidently came out, with the overwhelming support of his friends and family, he felt he could finally blossom into the human he was meant to be. He had tenacity. Purpose. Vision. All of this personal clarity and acceptance opened up the floodgates to his imagination, which marked the beginning of his pathway through entrepreneurship.
Allergenius Baking Company
In his younger years, James did not have a whole lot of entrepreneurial experience outside of your average lemonade stand. The first of his real expeditions was Allergenius Baking Company (ABC), a venture selling delicious cookies baked free of the 14 most common food allergens, making them both vegan and gluten-free. This startup was founded in an incubator class he took in high school, which he signed up for on a whim his senior year to feed his creative spirit. At the start of the class, each student was invited to pitch an idea, and from there classmates would select the ventures that they were most interested in growing. Going into this decision, James had the mentality that he ”wasn’t going to pick anyone in the class who he didn’t think was the absolute smartest,” which ended up paying dividends.
A couple months down the line, his team, which was unified under his co-founder Maddie Cook’s idea for allergen-free baked goods, had won their class contest and earned $2,500 to pursue their venture. Unlike his two co-founders, James himself was not plagued with a life-threatening food allergy, which made him slightly less invested in the cause. Nonetheless, his faith in his intelligent teammates and the auspicious feedback the company had received enabled him to elevate Allergenius to the INCubatoredu’s National Pitch Competition through his diligent marketing and branding.
At this final conference, James and his co-founders blew the judges away with their presentation, awarding them $15,000 for earning first place. In a room full of 250 bright people and 5 teams from across the country who had earned recognition on a national scale, the Allergenius crew was under insurmountable pressure. James’ mind was racing with possible outcomes of this pitch, which at the time was the most nerve-wracking experience he had ever had. But their presentation was brilliant. After dazzling the panel of entrepreneurs and investors with their deep market research and company vision, they invited the judges to reach beneath their chair where they had hidden boxes of cookies for them to taste test.
Seeing their faces as they bit into their delectable creations, ABC knew they had won. It was an incredibly gratifying feeling, knowing that they were selected as the top startup in a pool of the keenest students across the country. For a couple years after winning, they continued working on their company, and were even accepted into the iVenture Accelerator, since two of the co-founders were students at the University of Illinois. Through the program, the team was able to buy a kitchen in Chicago and onboard team members in food science to help them perfect their recipe.
Unfortunately, at the end of iVenture’s summer, Allergenius fizzled out primarily due to miscommunications and divergent priorities between founders. After their disbandment, James also realized that he wasn’t fully on board with the mission as someone who didn’t have food allergies himself, which is critically important especially in the cut-throat food industry. Although their startup didn’t survive for the long term, the Allergenius experience became James’ “birth of entrepreneurship,” and helped forge his future as a marketing maven.
Josh’s Lesson from Allergenius: In order for a venture to succeed, you have to have Founder’s Fit. If you aren’t passionate or personally affected by the thing that makes your ventures wheels go round, that company probably isn’t for you.
Bad For Your Health
In the midst of James’ work with ABC, he started developing his network outside the cookie community. He tapped into Club Track & Field where he met some of his first friends on campus. Most importantly though, in a culmination of comrades emulating Queen, The Beatles or any other artistic quartet, he coincidentally met his three best friends who also became his roommates and muses. Nolan Nemeroff, Jack Pompe and Jack Struthers have been some of the most critical people he met in college, and they welcomed him to pour out his pent-up creative power. They encouraged him to embrace his individuality in everything from his fashion to his film techniques to his sense of self. Together, two of these students, Nemeroff and Struthers, formed their brand called Bad For Your Health (BFYH).
The concept started off as platform to draw together local artists from the community, but when the pandemic hit, the brand transformed into a screen-printing and upcycling business. Their label is built around zero-waste design and keeping secondhand pieces that would otherwise be sent to landfill in a material loop. Although James is not a founder of this company directly, he has collaborated on photo and videography and heavily promoted the brand alongside his work at other startup companies and freelance gigs. Nonetheless, meeting and growing his bond with these three people has affirmed his viewpoint that “you are the five people you surround yourself with—period.” Being influenced by these individuals who inspired him and strengthened his self-confidence allowed him to excel in other areas of his life, as well as dive deeper into the world of fashion.
Josh’s Lesson from BFYH: Choose the people you live and work with very wisely, for who you spend time with is who you become.
Although James’ own iVenture startup didn’t necessarily end with a smashingly successful venture, he still loved being a part of this invigorating community. He was, and continues to be, stalwart about how venturing is one of the most valuable things you can do as a college student, and he fell in love with the challenge of solving new problems everyday when he started hopping between startups. Conveniently, one of his roommates offered him a way to continue challenging himself and re-learning through a friend of his named Mona Fang, co-founder of iV6’s Karma Trade. At the time James was working there, Karma Trade was a digital platform for circular fashion which served to connect various secondhand fashion outposts with users around the country through their marketplace, app, and cryptocurrency called KARMA. Fang started hanging out with the luminous Bad For Your Health crew to bounce around marketing ideas and artistic visions for this cutting-edge venture, and soon enough she hired on James as Chief Marketing Officer.
If you have ever had the pleasure of meeting J³, there are three things that you probably know about him. One is that he has a healthy obsession with Notion, and even has a page called his Second Brain, where he records everything from book quotes, to random thoughts, to to-do lists. Second, he is incredibly passionate and eccentric about the things he is interested in and never compromises on the vision. Third is that he places work very highly amongst his core values. Together, this has made him an incredibly competent and compelling leader who believes:
“Piecing together elements of a business to accomplish something or solve problems for people is a whole new tier of fulfillment. That’s creative power. The power of being able to execute on a business idea- it’s a drug.”
During his time at Karma Trade, James dove deeply into what a circular business model for fashion could and should look like, and invested many months refining the company’s mission and building community through their marketing strategy. However, Karma Trade went on to take part in a venture accelerator program in the Miami area, where investors steered the vision of the company in a different direction. While James no longer aligned with the founders’ vision, he decided to take his passion and experience elsewhere to create the University of Illinois’ largest ever fashion event called the Circular Fashion Expo. The event was designed to emulate a circular economy, with a free clothing swap, a marketplace full of booths with curated secondhand pieces, and an upcycling and mending workshop—all of which aimed to maximize the use of existing garments and discourage participants from ever buying new clothes again. The expo, which was themed the Future of Fashion, began with a keynote speech from James and one of his fellow visionaries and student author, Alexa Smith, and concluded with a zero-waste fashion show. This ravishing day brought together nearly all of the fashion-related student organizations on campus, including The Fashion Network, The Kat Walk, and The Collective, and generated a lot of excitement from attendees who requested the expo become a recurring event.
More than any other project or passion that James had worked on in the past, he was hooked by circular fashion. He and his roommates constantly talked about what the future of this industry could look like. Adrenaline surged through him whenever he fell down a new research hole or introduced another person to his virtuous mission to rid the world of fast fashion. Unlike his work with Allergenius, where he was sold on the company itself and its success, his journey with Karma Trade taught him that although a company might not work out, all hope is not to be lost. He learned to trust more in himself and have faith that so long as he was committed to a mission, he could make it happen.
Josh’s Lesson from Karma Trade: The most important thing is not to have faith in your team or your mission, but to have faith in yourself. The mission of a company is secondary to your Ikigai, which should be your guiding light.
At the end of the Spring 2022 semester, most of James’ sizable projects had come to a close. The Fashion Expo was over and he was no longer working with Karma Trade. His summer plan was to do some freelance work to get back into the startup scene and boost his portfolio, but that roadmap quickly shifted direction. Just a couple weeks before the start of iVenture’s 8th cohort, James received a spontaneous message from Manu Edakara, Program Director. After a serendipitous phone call about James’ plans, Edakara immediately asked if he wanted to work on the iVenture program this summer as part of the Marketing Team, which had never before formally existed. He eagerly jumped at the opportunity and got to recruiting some other inspired students who he thought could mesh well and bring some new energy to the accelerator. The role seemed like a perfect fit for him. He was able to lead strategy and build his portfolio in an environment where he truly aligned with its adage of “move fast, break things, fail quickly.” So far, James has been one of the most critical team members iVenture has ever seen. He is someone that students are happy to turn to and fortunate to learn from. In fact, nearly everyone that he has worked with has had nothing but the most amazing things to say about him. Some quotes from the iVenture Team include:
“I would invest in any startup or company that Josh is a part of.”
~Dylan Murphy, Content Fellow
“The most iconic person at UIUC.”
~Nour Longi, Writing Fellow
“One of the best presentations I’ve seen, period, from a student team. Giving new meaning to the term full-stack marketer (content, strategy, design, etc). Excellent job with culture, hiring, and attitude.”
~Manu Edakara, Program Director
As you might be able to tell, J³ is someone who takes a vision and amplifies it one-hundred times. He is the glue of any team he’s a part of and the seed of strategy and creativity. In his own words, James accurately describes himself as:
Visionary. Colorful. Humanly.
He is not only someone who will embrace the future and be at the cutting edge of marketing the products and services that change the way humans experience life, but he will be the one to create them. On his website, he explains that he “exists to solve the world’s most pervasive and challenging issues,” and will stop nowhere short of the forefront of innovation to do so. Thank you, Josh, for blessing our team and everyone around you with your imagination and encouragement. And best wishes to whatever lessons and life experiences come next…