Zita Cobb – a much needed mentor for community-minded businesses

Build a destination property in a place NOBODY goes, said no one ever. And yet, that is exactly what the indomitable Zita Cobb and her Shorefast Foundation have done. AND, they’ve done it with great success based on the following belief:

All businesses can be community businesses. Business is a system, a social and economic instrument, and a tool that can be used to support place and shape relationships. Done well, business allows all of us to contribute our individual and collective capacities to society. – Shorefast Foundation

This model resonates deeply with me. It’s healthy for all involved and it’s what I strive for with my own business Alberta Food Tours, Inc. So, when I recently vacationed in Newfoundland and Labrador, staying at the Shorefast Foundation’s  Fogo Island Inn, the destination property in question in my opening sentence, was at the top of the places I wanted to experience.

While staying at Fogo Island Inn was a dream come true and I’ll be writing lots more about it, I never expected to meet Zita Cobb the founder. BUT…. just as we were checking out…. Zita Cobb was popping in. Kismet. We shared a brief chat about the Inn, positive tourism and food, of course. She was as warm and down-to-earth as I thought she’d be.

This post will share a bit about the full circle community centred life of Zita Cobb. If you are looking for a mentor for your community-minded business, like I always am, the clarity of Zita Cobb and Shorefast Foundation’s principles could provide solid direction.

 

Zita Cobb - photo by Karen Anderson

Zita Cobb at Fogo Island Inn – photo by Karen Anderson

Being Zita

Born in the late 1950s, Zita Cobb didn’t leave the tiny outport of Joe Batt’s Arm on the north of Fogo Island until she was 15 years old. She says she was raised feral and in constant connection with the natural world of the North Atlantic. She left this first time, to see a cousin on the bigger island of Newfoundland, just south of her birthplace and 800 kilometres from mainland Canada, and was impressed their town had a main street and shops.

The idea of shops was foreign to Zita as the Cobb family had never handled much money. For generations, they fished, dried their fish on stages and then traded it with foreign merchants for the goods they needed to survive. They made, grew or foraged what they did not get by trading.

When the Newfoundland fishery collapsed, Zita’s father burned his boat, turned away from the sea and encouraged his daughter to do the same. He wanted her to learn about business and to figure out the how and the why behind the near end of their way of life.  Fishing had been the backbone of Fogo Island culture for five centuries and in 1992 that ended with what is known as the cod moratorium.

Fogo Island Fishing Stage - photo by Karen Anderson

How did it happen?

Fogo Island fisherman had always been inshore fisherman. They fished with nets attached to land by a tether known as a shorefast. They knew what enough was and fished sustainably, by hand, in small teams and with these inshore nets.

When huge offshore fishing trawlers arrived from Scandinavia, Great Britain and Europe, and were allowed to come within 12 miles of Canadian shores, it only took a few decades for them to fish the historically bountiful cod species to the point of near extinction. Thus came the moratorium. Despite having their way of life taken away from them, Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans are resilient. The story is a long way from over.

Zita left her hometown after high school to attend Carleton University in Ottawa where she studied business. She moved even further away, after graduating, to Calgary where she became involved in the technology sector. When she moved back home in 2005, after almost 30 years away, her exit from the company she’d helped build, JDS Uniphase where she had served as CFO, meant she was cashing in a reported $59 million in shares.

Faded Red Shed Fogo Island - photo by Karen AndersonBack home again

Zita and two of her six brothers, Alan and Anthony, had spent time away from Newfoundland and Labrador getting an education and making their careers. But Fogo Island and its people were never far from their minds.

Wanting to give youth a boost, they first sponsored scholarships at the Fogo Island High School. One day at a town hall review of the scholarship program, a Fogo Island woman shook them to their core. She stood and asked, instead of giving scholarships that lead our children away from here, can’t you do something to create jobs so they can stay?

Antler Shed - Fogo Island - photo by Karen Anderson

The Fogo Process

The woman had really got to the crux of it. What could be done to reinvigorate this culture that was slowly being worn down like the rocks on the sea pummelled shores? Zita Cobb was reminded of another time Fogo Island was in crisis.

In 1967, then Premier of the province, Joey Smallwood, came to Fogo Island to ask islanders to relocate. Dozens of outport communities across the province were being relocated to cities and of the population of 6700 on Fogo Island, all but 2500 left. The ones that remained were helped in finding a way to stay in what Cobb calls a miracle.

See through shed on Fogo Island - photo by Karen Anderson

A National Film Board crew out of Memorial University in St. John’s filmed interviews with the 11 communities that make up Fogo and the Change Islands to explore why they did not want to relocate and what might be done to allow them to stay. The filmmakers showed each community the others’ films. At that time, there were no roads on the island and people could live out their lives without leaving their own outport. This was the first real chance for them to learn they were isolated but not alone.

Once the islanders saw that they shared a common plight, they met and formed a fishing coop. Beyond cod, they had crab and shrimp to keep them going. The process in the film was a discovery of the assets available to a people in a seemingly unsolvable crisis. It became known as the Fogo Process and is now used the world over.

Green path to red sheds on Fogo Island - photo by Karen Anderson

Zita was 10 years old at the time, but witnessing this process taught her one of her life’s most important lessons. She says, when you’ve got a really hard problem to solve, bring on the artists, like those film makers, to help solve it.

That afternoon in the town hall meeting, when she was challenged to help keep the next generation on the island, Zita had a realization.  Though the Fogo Island Fisheries Coop had allowed people to survive on the island, the fishery alone was not sufficient to allow the culture and way of life to thrive.

She decided to implement that same asset-based community development model, the Fogo Process, that had worked in the 60s, as a strategy for going forward. She began working with the community to ask what do we know, have, love? What do we miss and what can we do about it?

Red Sheds at Joe Batt's Arm - photo by Karen Anderson

Shorefast

The shorefast, the line and mooring used to attach a traditional cod trap to the shore, became a metaphor for the goal of keeping the people of Fogo Island shorefast in their place. It is an apt name for the foundation dedicated to this cause.

Shorefast Foundation set up an artist in residency program in 2008, Fogo Island Arts, to inject the community with the benefits that come with exposure to leading edge thinkers, writers, musicians, designers, curators and artists.  Shorefast also hired Newfoundland born architect, Todd Saunders, to design four artist’s studios. The foundation employs art as a way of asking, knowing, and belonging and artists-in-residence are invited or selected through a juried open call process.

Zita Cobb says, the old without the new would just make us sad, like our lives had come to nothing. The new without the old would just be some young upstart architect’s idea of beauty. Who cares? She feels the studios are punctuation marks on the landscape. The purpose of punctuation is to show how something should be read and to make meaning clear. As usual, she nailed it and then came the piece de resistance.

The Inn

One of the greatest strengths discovered in the community assets assessment of Fogo Island this time around is this culture’s “genetic predisposition to profound hospitality.” One of the greatest opportunities revealed was, despite all that genuine hospitality, there was no Inn on the island.

Shorefast decided to build the Fogo Island Inn. It was to be a contemporary reflection of the place and culture. With extensive community involvement, which Zita says is just an organized way to fight with each other, it took seven years to design and another three to build it.

Fogo Island Inn - photo by Karen Anderson

Domus magazine says it is “an act of human culture” and Zita feels it is a perfect mirror for the place it is in. It feels like the world’s coziest cruise ship on the inside and looks like a Star Wars version of a fishing shed/stage on the outside. Architect Todd Saunders says it’s the most rewarding thing he’s ever created.

In a subtle X shape, Saunders says it marks where old meets new and where people who come from away intersect with the local people and culture. It brought Saunders home after 20 years in Norway and it’s bringing many others home too. It was recently named in the Top 100 of the World’s Best Hotels.

Shorefast Foundation now employs a quarter of the population on Fogo Island. Their social enterprises, The Woodshop on Fogo Island, Fogo Island Fish and the Inn aim to generate 15 per cent in profits to be invested back into charitable programs that have to do with knowledge: knowledge preserving, making and sharing. There’s is a unique business model. It’s inspired by community and a vegetable

The Cauliflower

Zita Cobb was fascinated the first time she saw a cauliflower. It was when she moved to Ottawa to attend university. To her it became the perfect metaphor for a healthy world. The florets are all different in size, like towns, villages and cities, but they are connected by a stem whose job it is to bring nutrition to them all. The stem in this case is business. She says if business gets to greedy or pays too much attention to only the big florets, the small ones will wither. This is her metaphor for a healthy money story. Business must make the whole function optimally to be healthy.

To make the connection between money and culture and money and place even more clear, Zita has another dramatic way of communicating it. This version comes with a label.

Economic nutrition labelling

Zita Cobb looked at nutrition labelling. She reckoned that the rationale behind it – increasing people’s awareness of what’s in something to influence their decision of whether or not to buy it – could easily be adapted to help people line their money up with their values. Everything at the social enterprises of Shorefast Foundation is labelled with its economic nutrition labelling. The percentage of moneys spent that stay on Fogo Island and Newfoundland or that go to Canada and the World is identified and shared.

Punt boat and fishing stage, Fogo Island, Newfoundland and Labrador - photo by Karen Anderson

Takeaway Wisdom

I went to Newfoundland and Labrador for a rest and I came back completely revitalized.  Rest, to me, is not always about laying around or getting more sleep.  Sometimes it’s just relaxing enough to see the inspiration that’s all around us. 

I had read about Zita Cobb and Fogo years ago but never dug deep. Being on Fogo Island I had time to watch some of those old NFB films about the Fogo Process and videos of business model talks given by Zita Cobb. I spent time with the locals she’s hired and heard firsthand what jobs and staying on the island means to them. 

I am often very hard on myself as an entrepreneur. I’ve grown my company slowly. I didn’t have tens of millions to kick start things or decades of business acumen. I am creative but the opportunities that side of me brings into my life tends to distract me. Writing a few books, for example, is a huge time suck vortex.

Hearing Zita share the wisdom of her former boss Jozeph Straus, the Founder of JDS Uniphase, with the saying – the most important thing is to keep the most important thing, the most important thing – has given me a new mantra to focus on daily. I know that will be beneficial.

Still, like most entrepreneurs, I’ve bootstrapped and poured any profits back into my business. Going slowly has helped me grow a genuine province-wide network of relationships and with close to 100 partners and 20 team members. I know my company is feeding all the florets that grow from its stem.  I strive to help people become aware of the connections between food, health and a strong culture and community.

After learning about the Fogo Process and what happens when art meets societal challenges, I’m going to spend some time thinking how to bring more artists into my business world. I love the Shorefast philosophy that business is “a tool that can be used to support place and shape relationships. Done well, business allows all of us to contribute our individual and collective capacities to society.” 

I will keep contributing and supporting the places and people I love as long as I’m able in mind and body. Maybe one day, all my small successes will add up to a big one. I’m encouraged by this great mentor, Zita Cobb. If you are hungry for more, I’ll leave you with this core collection of snippets of Zita’s grounded wisdom.

Red building - Fogo Island - photo by Karen Anderson

Note: The story I’ve shared here is a synthesis of articles and videos, I’ve read and watched about Zita Cobb and Shorefast. I’ve attempted to credit statements and ideas accordingly. Any mistakes are solely my responsibility. This is NOT a sponsored post and no words were shared with the subjects prior to publication. All photos were taken by me on my self-sponsored visit in August, 2019.

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