James Ellsmoor ’16, CEO of Island Innovation and 2017 Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ Honoree, on the importance of renewable energy and the intersection of sustainability and entrepreneurship

News & Spotlights | February 7, 2023
James Ellsmoor ’16, founder and CEO of Island Innovation

Written by Laurelle Maubert ’25, Morehead-Cain Scholar Media Team Member

When it comes to Morehead-Cains embracing a global perspective, James Ellsmoor ’16 is a choice example within the community. The British alumnus has followed his interests in sustainability and entrepreneurship, leading him through the world as he helps to drive sustainable development for island nations.

Now, as the founder and CEO of Island Innovation and a 2017 Forbes “30 Under 30” honoree, Ellsmoor continues to demonstrate his dedication to renewable energy as the alumnus creates a more sustainable future for the business world.

Funding discovery

During his time as a UNC–Chapel Hill student, Ellsmoor says he wasted no time using all the resources the University and Morehead-Cain Scholarship had to offer.

“I was very fortunate when I was a Morehead-Cain Scholar to take advantage of the variety of programs that were available, like the Lovelace Fund for Discovery,” the young alumnus shares.

The grant gave Ellsmoor many opportunities, including being able to attend the Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum, interview members of the Cherokee Nation in western North Carolina with a fellow scholar, and conduct research on renewable energy in the Pacific Islands—a project that later became the subject of his honors thesis.

Islands typically have higher energy generation costs than mainland areas due to the lack of “economics of scale and the limits of their geography,” says Ellsmoor, comparing Puerto Rico and Hawaii’s exorbitant electricity bills to those of Texas and Florida’s. This disparity led him to explore more about how sustainable development could help island nations transition to a green economy.

“The fact that renewable energy is modular and can be implemented on a small scale (unlike coal and nuclear) means it is very appropriate for island economies and is usually the most cost-effective option,” the CEO says. “This gives islands an additional incentive to move towards renewables not only for environmental reasons but also economic ones.”

His interests led to him pursuing a double major in economics and geography with a minor in sustainability studies, allowing him to explore his passion for renewable energy through a more diverse lens.

After four years of living in Colombia following his graduation from Carolina, the U.K. native returned to England during the pandemic to be closer to family. (The alumnus, who grew up in Shropshire, was nominated to the Morehead-Cain by Newcastle-under-Lyme School.)

Founding Island Innovation

Ellsmoor’s experiences as a student were “the initial founding motivation” to launch Island Innovation, a marketing and public relations agency that promotes sustainability for island regions.

Describing the founding of his company, the entrepreneur shares, “I saw the opportunity to bring together some areas that were not necessarily linked before.”

The company’s team of sixteen lives in various countries and regions as a fully remote team. The flexibility allowed Ellsmoor to move from England to Lisbon, Portugal where he currently lives and works.

In addition to a desire to learn Portuguese, the alumnus says he was drawn to Lisbon because the city is quickly becoming a leader in the “blue economy” for its economic policies that seek to conserve marine and freshwater environments. In 2022, Lisbon hosted the United Nations Ocean Conference, co-hosted by Kenya and Portugal’s governments.

Prioritizing quality of life over output

As most of the team lives in the Americas, Ellsmoor’s mornings are “fairly quiet” due to the time zone differences. He said that being fully remote has improved his productivity and quality of life, and he hopes the same is true for his team.

“We give our team the flexibility to more or less set their own hours, which ultimately makes for a more productive and happier team,” the CEO says.

While many employers often have concerns about losing productivity in the shift towards working from home, Ellsmoor believes that emphasizing quality of work, as opposed to quantity of hours spent, benefits the organization.

“We focus on the output as opposed to the face-time hours…which requires a lot of trust in our team members but pays off in the long run.”

The intersection of sustainability and entrepreneurship

While sustainability and entrepreneurship can often seem at odds with each other, Ellsmoor feels that entrepreneurship is an inherent necessity in the shift toward renewable energy.

“If we want to improve sustainability and environmental forces, then sustainability is absolutely an essential element,” the business leader asserts.

As global temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, Ellsmoor sees entrepreneurship as an answer to the crisis rather than an enemy. He hopes the business world will adopt a more inclusive view of entrepreneurship.

“I do not see entrepreneurship as just business,” the sustainability advocate argues. “I think you can be an entrepreneur and a scientist or be an entrepreneur and work in government.”

Becoming a Forbes honoree

In 2017, Ellsmoor made the Forbes “30 Under 30 List” for energy, a prestigious honor for young professionals. He had written for Forbes as a columnist on sustainability. He blazed a trail in the process, as very few people at the business magazine were writing on sustainability at the time, according to the alumnus.

He describes the experience as “a real surprise” but emphasizes the lasting impact that it’s had on his career.

“It was a real validation of the approach I was taking and the work I was doing,” the honoree remarks. “It was a catalyst to be able to do a lot more through the network I accessed through Forbes.”

He hopes the business world will continue to embrace sustainability and see the opportunities that shifting toward renewable energy can offer.

“It was good to see a business magazine like Forbes taking an interest in the potential of renewables, which is becoming more mainstream every year but still has a ways to go.”

In this series, Laurelle Maubert ’25 interviews Morehead-Cain alumni working abroad. Her previous piece featuring Dicle Kara ’16 shares the alumna’s journey to working in Berlin, Germany, and ditching “hustle culture.” Dicle is the Senior Platform Manager for Henkel. The alumna was nominated to the Morehead-Cain by The Koç School in Istanbul, Turkey.

More about the author

Laurelle Maubert ’25, of Frederick, Maryland, covers the alumni beat for the Morehead-Cain Scholar Media Team. In addition to writing for the Scholar Media Team, the second-year scholar is an engagement manager for Consult Your Community, a UNC—Chapel Hill student organization that provides pro-bono consulting to local businesses and nonprofits. She also served as a vendor relations associate for Carolina Women in Business’s annual fundraiser, Jewels of Hope, and is a member of the Phi Mu sorority.

At Carolina, Laurelle is pursuing a double major in business administration at the Kenan-Flagler Business School and French.

About the Morehead-Cain Scholar Media Team

The Morehead-Cain Scholar Media Team is an extracurricular program and internship run by the Foundation’s communications team. Scholars of all backgrounds and class years collaborate to produce multimedia content on the topics and issues they’re passionate about, as well as support Morehead-Cain’s institutional communications.

Members cover the following beats tied to Morehead-Cain’s departments: selections and recruitment, the scholar experience, development, and alumni engagement. Scholar-generated content is distributed across all of Morehead-Cain’s channels, including social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube), the Catalyze podcast, email newsletters, and the website (moreheadcain.org). The team’s audience comprises more than 3,300 scholars and alumni.

Current members of the team for the spring of 2023 include William Dahl ’25, Laurelle Maubert ’25, Cate Miller ’25, Ria Patel ’25, Tucker Stillman ’25, Flavia Nunez Ludeiro ’26, Elias Guedira ’26, Aayas Joshi ’26, Stella Smolowitz ’26, and Sri Pothanker ’26. The team is led by Content Manager Sarah O’Carroll of the Morehead-Cain Foundation.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Scholar Media Team, contact the communications team. Participation is a semester-long commitment.