Zita Cobb - Redefining a Community at the Corner of Earth
Updated: Jun 5
Zita Cobb is an inspiring Canadian social entrepreneur who balanced art and high-end tourism to economically revive her struggling homeland of Fogo Island.
Her pioneering solution to transform the small, fading fishing community into a leading centre for design and sustainability, including building the Fogo Island Inn (which has since gained Tripadvisor’s highest possible public rating), firmly places Zita in my list of top inspiring women!
Growing up on the 25km-long Fogo Island, located off Canada’s north-eastern shoreline, gave Zita first-hand experience at how perilous life in remote communities can be. With a population of around 2700, Fogo Island is known as an ‘outport’, which is the name given to small coastal communities along the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which also happen to be some of the oldest European settlements in Canada.
Zita was one of seven children born to the Cobb family, having all-male siblings. Her father worked as an inshore fisherman, like the majority of Fogo residents at that time. At the age of six, Zita battled a bout of tuberculosis and was sent away to a sanatorium for an entire year. She credits the experience with both her survival and for instilling such confidence and independence –traits that would go on to propel her throughout her career.
The island that Zita came home to after her time away felt starkly secluded from the rest of the world. There was no electricity, telephones or radios. Her parents could not read or write, and their 8-person family resided in a 900-square-foot house. Life there felt like it had barely progressed since her ancestors first arrived by boat from England and Ireland.
Zita left for university, completing an undergraduate business degree in Ottawa. She first worked for an Albertan oil company, and then for a firm that specialized in cold-weather engineering. After taking a break to travel around Africa for six months, she joined fibre optics company JDS Fitel (who merged with American company Uniphase), and was, in due course, promoted to Chief Financial Officer. By the year 2000, Zita had become the third-highest-paid female executive in America.
After sailing around the world across several years thereafter, she made her way back to Fogo Island.
Fogo Island was unfortunately going through hardship. Its humble economy was based on cod fishing, but cod had started to become endangered, and the government passed a moratorium to suspend all cod fishing.
At first, Zita offered scholarships for young people to attend university, but it soon dawned on her that she was essentially paying the island’s children to leave. So she wracked her brain for solutions on how to save Fogo Island.
The challenge she faced was how to enhance their way of life while preserving the traditional qualities that made it such a special, close-knit community.
Zita decided to view Fogo Island from the stance of a CFO. She then founded Shorefast in 2006, a registered Canadian charity, with two of her siblings. Through this, she was able to inject funds into the community. She laid out all of the island’s local customs and knowledge and drew up a plan to showcase these to visitors through attractions such as art galleries, culinary experiences, stunning architecture, a theatre, a luxury hotel, and annual boating events.
Zita saw art as the key to Fogo’s reinvention and used this focal point to not only keep their traditions alive and celebrate their culture but to boost their economy and help the wider community stay afloat. Her success with bringing Fogo Island into the 21st Century has been heralded as inspiration for future generations to conduct sustainable business, and her creative efforts have left their community thriving.
Fogo Island is now a hidden paradise where artists come to be deeply inspired by its rugged, scenic landscape. You can learn more about Zita Cobb and the island’s rich and textured history on our upcoming tour to Fogo Island.
Michelle Sitbon is an Art Travel Curator of travel experiences for philanthropically-minded women and organizations with a strong focus on women philanthropic projects, local experiences and art.