The Fogo Island Inn Phenomenon
How Zita Cobb’s Ingenuity Can Change the Way We All Do Business
There is no success story quite like that of Zita Cobb. A brilliant woman who grew up on Fogo Island off the coast of Newfoundland, she left home at the age of 16 to pursue an education in business. After graduating from Ottawa’s Carleton University, she went on a road trip around North America simply to explore, because she is fascinated by planet earth. A career in business finance followed. In 2001, two decades later, she retired from an executive position at JDS Uniphase, where she had helped build one of the most successful and innovative high-tech companies in history. She then sailed the world before embarking on a project that would change the face of Newfoundland forever.
With her brothers Tony and Alan, Cobb launched the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island in 2003. Their aim was simple but brilliant: use business-minded ways to improve life for those on the island. They had been creating scholarship opportunities for younger islanders when someone told her that they were “paying their children to leave.” The island they loved was in decline. The population of 5,500 had dropped to fewer than 2,500, so she decided to create tourism and cultural opportunities on the island that would allow locals to stay there and thrive there.
Amongst other initiatives, this resulted in the Fogo Island Inn, which opened in June 2013 and quickly became one of the most talked-about, praised and admired destination properties in the world. Vogue magazine praised it as a top winter-vacation destination, and Gwyneth Paltrow visited and described it as “heaven.” The inn has the highest possible public ratings on TripAdvisor.
That’s not bad for an island off Newfoundland that many had either written off or never heard of. In short, it is the greatest Atlantic Canadian success story in recent years and tellingly, it stemmed from a place of social value, not greed. As Zita herself told The Maritime Edit: “Many luxury properties have a charitable foundation. Our charitable foundation has a luxury inn.”
She believes that the Fogo Island Inn business model can be transferred anywhere, and she is probably right. She normally is. James Mullinger, The Maritime Edit’s Editor-in-Chief, met with her to discuss the revelatory and radical thought process that goes against so much of what we are told about modern capitalism.
The Maritime Edit: Your belief in the place that you love was one of the things that inspired us to create this magazine.
Zita Cobb: I think your timing is perfect. We are ready for this. People have given up believing that a place like Atlantic Canada even exists.
The Maritime Edit: Internally, there is some negativity. The only people I never feel negativity from are people from London or New York who come and see what we have here. They are astonished by how lucky we are to have all of these beautiful views.
Zita Cobb: But Atlantic Canadians will be the last people on earth to see it. As David Foster Wallace famously said in “This Is Water,” we can’t see the water we swim in.
The Maritime Edit: Do you remember the moment that you conceived of the Fogo Island Inn?
Zita Cobb: Well, you need to go back a little bit because we didn’t start with the inn. The inn is part of a broader set of initiatives that were all born together. I’m not a Buddhist, but this all comes from the idea that we should follow the path that wants to emerge. The formation of this set of ideas has been cooking along ever since the first human being from Europe who set foot on Fogo Island, in a way. And I’m just one in a long chain of those. So I don’t know that there was a moment, but there were certainly these moments on my own personal path: “Aha, right. Let’s start with contemporary art. Let’s build an inn because we are culturally and genetically predisposed to great hospitality, and let’s do these things in a way that is of service to the people on Fogo Island. Let’s make them all social businesses.” To me, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to do.
The Maritime Edit: I know that part of your journey was your scholarship program to help children. But a mother said that you were “paying children to leave,” so now you have this company that can hire so many people, so they don’t need to leave. How do you balance having a commercially and economically brilliant idea that also serves the purpose of doing a lot of good ethically and employing a lot of people?
Zita Cobb: I am an eighth-generation Fogo Islander, and I initiated this project with two of my brothers because we have a deep belief in the place and in the culture that has emerged from four hundred years of fishing in wooden boats off the North Atlantic. Because I think that people who live as Fogo Islanders have for all these years have an embodied relationship with nature that gives them an original source of knowledge. Nature is the only thing that’s real, and the people who have first-hand experience with nature are actually the smartest people. They have the most important knowledge on the planet. That’s why it’s such a tragedy when you think about what is happening with so many of our indigenous people. In modernity, we haven’t woken up to the fact that they actually have the most important knowledge. Fogo Islanders have a deep belief in nature, and as Tim Jackson (the Prosperity Without Growth economist) says, battling the plague of unemployment doesn’t have to do with growth. It has to do with building an economy with “care, craft and culture.” And that’s not about growth; that’s about the development of place and people.
The Maritime Edit: You have said that this economic success is transferable to anywhere else. Is that really true, given how unique Fogo Island is?
Zita Cobb: In the late sixties, something absolutely miraculous happened on Fogo Island, and it’s called the Fogo Process. That was when Memorial University and the National Film Board of Canada came to Fogo Island at a time that the island, like all the other outport communities of Newfoundland, was facing resettlement under Joey Smallwood’s resettlement program. Joey was a reductionist. Reductionism is a very dangerous ideology that reduces the sacred or the meaningful to something brittle and profane, to something we can measure. Joey looked at places like Fogo Island in the sixties, when the stocks had collapsed due to factory fishing, and he thought that there was nothing there. The only things ever there, to Joey’s mind, were cod.
The Fogo Process is studied at McGill University. They came to the island with a different set of eyes: let’s talk to each other and let’s understand more deeply. Create art. Art has a different perspective and can see things that the reductionist thinkers in the business world can’t see. They didn’t call it this, but what they were essentially doing — to use modern language — was asset-based community development. With ABCD, you ask and answer a series of questions, the first of which is, what do we know? What do we have? Well, we have a bounty off the North Atlantic. We are the only place in the world where people live on moving ice. What do we miss? What do we love? And most importantly, what can we do about it? That can absolutely be transferred to any place on earth, as long as people love their place. If there’s a place on earth where people don’t love their place, then they should move.
The Maritime Edit: Do some people take for granted what we have on the East Coast?
Zita Cobb: That is absolutely for sure. I gave a talk in Toronto in April this year to celebrate the opening of our Fogo Island Inn furniture-business pop-up show at Holt Renfrew, and I said that there are two stanzas of a poem by Glen Colquhoun, a New Zealand poet, that really inspire everything we do. It is called “The Trick of Standing Upright Here.”
The art of walking upright here
Is the art of using both feet.
One is for holding on.
One is for letting go.
Or reaching out. It’s the idea that we hold on to who we are and we hold on to our place while we reach out and stitch ourselves into the world. If we don’t know about the world, it’s really hard to see how to be in a full relationship with it. I hope and wish and will do everything I can to make sure young Atlantic Canadians get out and see the world.
The Maritime Edit: And come back here, appreciate what we have here . . .
Zita Cobb: Exactly. And do something.
The Maritime Edit: You don’t strike me as someone who pays any heed to negative people or naysayers, but when you were developing the inn, how many people told you that you were crazy and that it would never work?
Zita Cobb: Oh, my god, there were so many negative things: “That’s never going to work. It’s a big white elephant. Who is ever going to come to a bald rock in the North Atlantic?” It was never-ending. There was a mayor named Freeman Combden who was just brilliant, and he had seen the world and done community development. He said to me, “You are going to have to use your two ears wisely. In one ear you should hear the good things, and in the other ear you should be slightly deaf.” Not completely deaf, because you do need to be aware. But slightly deaf.
The Maritime Edit: How did it feel when you won the Order of Canada?
Zita Cobb: Every time something wonderful happens on this project — and many wonderful things have happened — one of us will say, “Ah, the ancestors would have been proud of this one.” And that’s how we know that it’s good. Because it’s for them too. Our work is about the continuity. Our work is about adapting everything they gave us, everything they suffered through, and everything they learned to the contemporary world, to be relevant in the world. So the Order of Canada was the recognition that yes, this is important work and the recognition that place itself is important and worthy of our energies.
The Maritime Edit: When everything exploded last year and Vogue and Gwyneth Paltrow and the New York Times were raving about the inn, did it feel like some sort of validation?
Zita Cobb: Validation, for sure, but not so much for me because I really knew the value of what we have. But I think it was helpful to others, others who are once or twice removed from it. Every day, Fogo Islanders see the people who are coming. They are hosting them. Atlantic Canadians don’t need to label people as celebrities or this or that. We have this luxury — and this is the magic of Atlantic Canada — of seeing every person as an individual. So when people arrive, we see them as people. What they have in their bank accounts is of no relevance, but who they are as people is very interesting to us. We have created something that is intended to be good and restorative for our guests and good and restorative for Fogo Islanders. That relationship between guest and host is a sacred relationship that should not be reduced to turning people into cartoon characters, which too often happens in the world of mass tourism.
The Maritime Edit: All of these artisans, creators, and designers on the island have benefitted greatly from the inn, of course. Are things like the pop-up shop in Holt Renfrew in Toronto part of a grander plan to roll out what these islanders do across Canada and around the world?
Zita Cobb: Yes. Absolutely. But we will do it on a scale that is appropriate to our place. The key with any kind of development is to do it at the right scale, or you end up killing the very thing you are trying to save. Basically, with the way we are organized, everything exists under the umbrella of the Shorefast Foundation, which is a registered charity in Canada. It operates Fogo Island Arts, which is a residency-based program for contemporary artists. We also operate a geologist-in-residence program and an academics-in-residence program, and the point of those things is that it’s about knowledge. And it’s about continuing to add to our knowledge about our place and ourselves. We’ve lived with these rocks and loved them deeply since the beginning of time, but we didn’t know until recently what they were or how they formed. It’s the same with the botany on the island. I grew up thinking there were three types of edible berries and everything else was called a “poison berry.” Now I know different. It’s all about adding to our knowledge. We are contemporary people. We don’t want to live in an 18th-century fishing village even though that’s a part of our character, so we have these kinds of initiatives.
The foundation also owns three social businesses. One is called the Fogo Island Inn. Another is the Fogo Island Shop website, which is involved with furniture and textiles like quilts, mats and knitted things. Our goal with both those businesses is to create employment on Fogo Island and to do it in a way that fortifies the culture of the place. There’s no better way than to continue using our skills. We used to make little wooden boats better than anyone else on earth. Now we make furniture, I would argue, as well as anyone else if not better. The third business we have is Fogo Island Fish, because the cod are coming back. The most important thing we have to do with the cod coming back is develop proper markets, so we have started a little business that takes live cod, one by one, from Fogo Island to very lovely restaurants in Ontario.
Those are the 3 social businesses now, and I have at least 2 others cooking at the moment. When I wake up in the morning, I see 50 businesses that we could start, using the natural and cultural assets that we have on Fogo Island and doing it in a way that doesn’t hurt those things but actually helps those things.
The Maritime Edit: Nothing you’ve done is business for profit. How do you embrace the thing and celebrate the thing but keep negative capitalism out of it?
Zita Cobb: What you’ve said is the key. I love business as a tool. I think it’s one of the best organizing tools that we - humankind - have invented. When business is applied to solving a problem, that is the most beautiful thing. When business is started for the point of making financial profit, that’s both boring and destructive. Something is sacred if it has emerged out of a specific set of circumstances and is important and intrinsic to how we human beings make meaning. Money is not sacred. Money is important. In the past 50 years, we humans have become a little confused about what the most important thing is.
The Maritime Edit: Thank you so much for sharing this story that will inspire so many Atlantic Canadians.
Zita Cobb: James, I am absolutely behind you starting this magazine. I’m very happy that you are doing it. So much that comes out in the press about Atlantic Canada has a negative focus on our assets as opposed to a positive one. They aren’t close enough to see what we have or what’s happening. There’s a beautiful quote that I think of often: “You cannot see something unless and until you love it first.” So if you love it, you will see it — really see it. It sounds to me as if you love it, James, so you are going to see it.
This story originally appeared in The Maritime Edit magazine. To subscribe, please click here.