Zita Cobb, Fogo Island Inn:

Zita Cobb, Fogo Island Inn: "Things Get Done By People Who Believe Deeply"

Leadership | Posted by YouInc.com - May 1, 2018 at 12:30 am

This is the final story of a four-part interview series with entrepreneurs reinventing the economy in Newfoundland through the arts. Read the first interview here. 

When Zita Cobb and I talk on the phone, she's in an unfamiliar place. "I'm not on the island today," she tells me. "I'm in the city in Central Canada and I feel disoriented. I get confused about which way is north." 

We're chatting about Fogo Island in Newfoundland where she was born and operates Fogo Island Inn. Five years ago, Cobb injected $40M of her own money into the Inn, a hotel and art residency, to help boost and reinvent an economy that had long relied on the 400-year-old cod fishery. In the process, alongside her sister organization, Shorefast, a charity that promotes the arts to build cultural and economic resiliency, she's witnessed a new confidence in Fogo Islanders to create new business that contributes beyond their shores. In our conversation, Cobb highlights the role of art in business, the power of community to create change, and how anything is possible if you believe in yourself: 

"Nature and culture are the two great garments of human life. And business and technology are the two great tools that can and will serve them."

YouInc: What keeps people living on Fogo Island? 

Zita Cobb: Fogo Islanders have a deep stickiness with the place. When we leave-I left for university and a bunch of my career was away-we feel like we're abandoning the people that we loved and still love. My parents are buried across the harbour from where I live, and I still feel like I'm in a relationship with them. 

So, there's something rewarding about feeling that you know a place. We'll never know it entirely, yet we know it so well. It's the funniest thing. No Fogo Islander ever listens to the weather forecast. We can tell from the wind. We can tell from any cloud pattern.  It's hard to describe what this kind of nuanced relationship with the physical world gives you, but it gives you a lot. 

YI: Is there a feeling of isolation, and therefore, more value in connecting with people? 

ZC: Maybe a value and a necessity traditionally. I use this quote from E.F. Schumacher that says everything, "nature and culture are the two great garments of human life. And business and technology are the two great tools that can and will serve them." So, I think when you're on a little island, off the coast of Newfoundland, it can feel like a lonely place. I think it does cause people to pull together. On the other hand, I always feel I have a deep companionship with nature. As my dad always said, "the wind is your friend. Don't be afraid of the wind." 

I think young people see Fogo as a place they want to live, and then they look around and go, "how can I make a living here?

YI: What's small business like on Fogo Island? 

ZC: Shorefast's social businesses are run by the charity, so that would be Fogo Island Inn and the furniture shop, and a little fish business. The other big business on the island is the Fogo Island Cooperative, which owns the fishery. 

Then you have businesses like Scoff--she's a local who lived away for a year and came back and opened a restaurant. Young Studios is owned by artist Adam Young, a school teacher from New Brunswick, who married a Fogo Islander. He does good business selling his artwork. Linda and Winston Osmond have a quilt and craft gallery. She's from Nova Scotia and married Winston 30 years ago. 

One young woman is making soaps and another woman works at Fogo Island Inn-she and her partner, he's a chef, they're doing all kinds of gardening projects. Another young couple are opening a cafe this summer-she's from Toronto, and he might be from Peterborough. I think young people see Fogo as a place they want to live, and then they look around and go, "how can I make a living here?" 

YI: Let's talk about Fogo Island Inn. What was your motivation? 

ZC: Simple. We're a small community. We needed to build an inn that was going to allow us to create the maximum economic benefit for Fogo Island, with the minimum ecological and cultural negative impact. So, that was the first motivation. 

The other motivation is that the Inn is really a Trojan horse for a set of ideas whether it's how we practice hospitality and food or how we craft. We really wanted to initiate a design project, that allows us to reimagine contemporary versions of furniture and furnishings of all kinds, and who we are and how that's expressed in furniture-that's not an inexpensive undertaking. There's always been a place in the world for preserving the handmade-the specific skills that have not yet been crushed by the reductionist industrial production age. 

That to me seemed to be the way to hold onto boat building skills, for example. You don't hold onto boat building skills by standing over a boat builder with a time clock telling him to hurry up. You don't hold onto boat building skills by getting people in lower labour cost jurisdictions to make boats instead. You hold on to them by figuring out a business model to support them where they are. 

YI: Were Fogo Islanders skeptical? How did you bring everyone around you to understand the economic benefits for the community? 

ZC: Everybody was skeptical, especially Newfoundlanders. I think people understood the benefit, though I don't think they believed it would work. I'm sure people in St. John's were thinking, "My God, who's going to go to Fogo Island?" Now, these are people who haven't been to Fogo. I think the skepticism was about that more than anything. I don't waste any energy to convince somebody that it's going to work. We need to move on and we'll see, and we see it's working.

Things that have inherent value must have economic value to support people's lives. It's a question of how we do it.

I bet 20 percent of our guests are return guests, and I think that's what we'll continue to see. So for the people who return, they return for the relationships with the people and the natural place. That then takes on a whole other kind of economy. When they buy Christmas presents, their quilt is made on Fogo Island. There's this constant exchange of information, knowledge, friendship, and commerce, that continues when people have gone home.

YI: I read that before you opened the Inn, you invited people from the community to stay. How do you continue to get feedback from the community? 

ZC: Newfoundlanders are not shy with feedback. We will have a sentence that starts, "If I were you, I'd do that," or "why don't we do this," or "wouldn't that be great?" A lot of what the Inn does is bring to life in different ways the traditions that have been changed or lost over the years, whether storytelling traditions or traditions about doing laundry properly. I remember one lady was at the Inn when we had laundry on the line. We got quite a lecture about how this wasn't done right, and she was right. It was oriented wrong, because it wasn't oriented to the west. She was like, "everyone knows that for God's sake." I guess our engineers didn't think about that. 

So, to me it's about a continuing conversation. We spend every day thinking, "if our ancestors were here, what would they do?" Because we realize in what we do and how we do it, we're interpreting the past. We're working with the fabric of these people's lives, and they're not here to say, "hey, that's not right, we never intended it to be that way," or "we don't think you're keeping the most important thing the most important thing." 

To me, when you're working with the fabric of a culture or heritage, especially one that has been under assault, because of the collapse of the inshore fisheries, there's a fear that you'll misrepresent the past and distort it into something that never was. That's kind of scary.

YI: Do you sense an air of ignorance from Canadians towards Newfoundland and its potential? 

ZC: Absolutely. Newfoundland is not a well understood place, by people outside of Newfoundland. There's a cultural ingenuity there that isn't really understood or appreciated, because as Newfoundlanders, we're kind of funny-most of the great comedians of the country are from Newfoundland. It's easy to dismiss us as cute, yet, there's a real seriousness of approach and perseverance of something in the way a Newfoundlander will look at a problem, that is really fresh everytime. 

Helping people see that their skills and their knowledge capacities have economic value beyond our shores, that's a hallelujah everytime it happens.

We never really saw ourselves as business people though; there's the long, deep cultural history of merchants, and the truck system that worked in Newfoundland for so long that really wasn't a proper thing. As soon as we start to realize that we can run businesses-I mean you don't need to have a Hugo Boss suit to own a business or be a business person-we'll be well-lined up to change our economic future.

YI: How has your role evolved over time? 

ZC: I don't think my role has changed a lot. I think more people believe now, and more people believe in the place, so that's easier for me. 

I'm a believer. I still get up every morning full of, "we can do this, and we can do that." I got so excited because I found out that partridgeberries, which are my favourite berries, have more antioxidants than any other berry. But even more than partridgeberries, the leaves have this incredibly powerful nutrient quality that nobody knew. So, it's like what can we do with that? What can we do with those leaves? So, there's more of us that see it now. 

Things get done by people who believe deeply. I'm sure you've heard the impression, "I believe it when I see it", which I think is horseshit. I think "you see it, when you believe it." That's what I've always believed: things that have inherent value must have economic value to support people's lives. It's a question of how we do it. 

YI: How do you encourage that ability to believe in other people? 

ZC: Try to do something with people, so they get a first-hand experience of "Oh wow, I can't believe I did that." Once somebody has one experience like that, they're set. 

As Newfoundlanders, and maybe this is true of many remote peoples, we have a deep confidence when it comes to our relationship at home, and our knowledge of our places, and feeling secure in our place. That's why we're open and not xenophobic in any way. People say we're friendly. We're friendly because we're not scared of our place. We lose our confidence when we have to figure out where to navigate in the big world, especially when it comes to a business undertaking. That's deeply stressful for people.  

You don't need to have a Hugo Boss suit to own a business or be a business person.

One of our woodworkers sells furniture to some of the Canadian embassies around the world. He said to me, "I've always been poking around in my shed. I never imagined that I could make something that they'd want in a Canadian embassy." He came in recently and asked, "where is Breslavia?" I said, "Yeah, I think it's in the Czech Republic or Slovakia." He said, "well, I'm sending a piece of furniture there."

So that kind of confidence, that kind of helping people see that their skills and their knowledge capacities have economic value beyond our shores, that's a hallelujah everytime it happens. It's a eureka every time it happens, because those people doubt less the usefulness of what they have and what they don't. 

YI: Is there anything that still worries you about the future of Fogo Island?

ZC: I worry about everything all the time: is it enough? Is it too much? Are we anticipating properly? Where is the world going to go, and how do we position ourselves from a market point of view? It's no different than the worries of any business person, but it has the dreams of a community, and it has the judgement of ancestors that go with it. 

YI: In 2012, you said art is the key to Fogo's reinvention. Is that still true to you? What other potential do you see for the economy on Fogo?

ZC: It is very much still true, because part of the problem we humans are suffering from, is this absolutely plague of reductionist thinking. Somehow we got convinced it's always about the economy. It's always about making things cheaper, and we all get on this slippery slope, and we don't know how to get out of it. Art exists and sees in a different way. I think it's one of the few ways left for us humans to see beyond money, and see through money, and see life in a way that's more from first principles. 

So, it's easy for the world to look at places like Fogo Island, and say, "well the fish are all gone, the people are all old, and you can't make a living, so it's no good for anything. Let's move on." 

Art and contemporary artists in particular, they see the things that reductionist thinking doesn't see. They're the ones that say, "just a second, let's think about this differently. Let's think about what's actually going on here. Let's think about what we're doing more deeply, besides what's the business model for a small community in Saskatchewan." So when I said that in 2012, I think it's probably more true now. The way globalization has been done, and continues to be done by massive transnational monopolies, it's hard to know how we can carve out any kind of space for critical thinking and for human beings to flourish, so they're not commodified for some kind of enrichment of some distant capital owner. Art is a form of resistance. 

YI: Parting thoughts? 

ZC: So much of what we do is about knowledge. Let's not forget what we know, and forget to add to it in ways that helps support our lives. Fundamentally the things that we have to fix in the world, is about finding the right relationships between communities. I see communities as places that are holders of knowledge and holders of relationships. So, what's the relationship between human communities and companies? That script needs to be re-written. 


Tags: business, economy, female entrepreneur, fogo island, newfoundland, zita cobb

Kristen Marano

Kristen Marano covers women and their work for publications around the world. She has interviewed some of the most influential business leaders in Canada and the most passionate change makers in towns and cities as isolated as Perth, Western Australia. Most recently she interviewed Canadian businesswoman Zita Cobb about reinvigorating the economy in Newfoundland through the arts. Kristen's work encourages women to share honest and open perspectives about the emotional challenges of their journeys.