Spotlight on Women Entrepreneurs
Zita Cobb has been described as a multimillionaire tech executive turned social entrepreneur, arts patron and innkeeper. The Fogo Island native is celebrated for her work in leading the creation of Fogo Island Inn and its role in helping to drive the economy of the tiny coastal island.
She’s been featured in national and international publications, inducted into the Business Hall of Fame, and awarded the Order of Canada. But Zita Cobb’s connection to her community and the foundation that led to her success started much earlier, long before Fogo Island was a sought-after tourism destination.
For Zita Cobb, growing up on Fogo Island in Newfoundland and Labrador was her entry into entrepreneurship and the world of business. The small island (population 2,244) was home to hardworking fishermen (like her father) and their families.
“Can you imagine going out in a little wooden boat on the North Atlantic and putting a hook in the water to catch a fish to support your family?” says Cobb. “You had to know the risks you were taking. You made your own decisions about ‘is this the day to go or stay home, what gear?’—all those decisions. There’s nothing more entrepreneurial than that.”
Being the only daughter among seven children also provided Cobb with valuable lessons that would guide her through her life.
“I grew up in a very small house with a lot of boys. And learning to navigate all the testosterone was just a part of growing up and understanding how to work with them was something I knew before I ever started my career.”
But it was Cobb’s father (the smartest man she ever knew, she says) who instilled the key advice that guided her through her career. “He would say, ‘What people think and feel is only important if it affects what we do. It’s what we do that matters.’”
“Entrepreneurship isn’t about money,” says Cobb. “That’s the great confusion about it. Entrepreneurship has to do with action. An entrepreneur is simply someone who has some vision about how things might be, and commits themselves to getting there, even though they don’t have all of the resources that they need to get there under their control.”
Cobb’s early years left significant impressions on her in other ways. She contracted tuberculosis when she was five and spent a year in a sanitorium, which she says was a difficult but defining experience.
“I got left at the door at the age of five at this enormous institution. It was like Lord of the Flies as there wasn’t enough staff to supervise all the kids, so it became an amazing lesson in figuring out how to belong.”
Cobb says the early independence she experienced drove her to leave the island in 1975 to study business at Carleton University in Ottawa.
After graduation, Cobb and a friend set off on a trip to see all of North America. Unfortunately, their used van broke down in Western Canada, so that’s where Cobb got a job and started her business career. With hard work, a love of knowledge and a willingness to “do everything but invent the products,” Cobb went on to become chief financial officer of the high-tech company JDS Fitel, and then senior vice-president of strategy for fibre optics manufacturer JDS Uniphase.
In 2001, at the age of 42, Cobb retired and began to rethink how she could help Fogo Island, which was struggling from the full effects of the collapse of the cod fishery.
“If there is one thing that defines how I see the world it’s community,” says Cobb. “The basic organizing unit of a dignified human life is a community. Everything we need to sustain ourselves is available in a healthy community. And at the root of a healthy community is an economy, and the people in that community have to have some agency over that economic activity.”
It was that philosophy that led Cobb and her brothers, Alan and Anthony, to begin Shorefast Foundation in 2004. Since then, they have developed several different businesses driven by the importance of place. The organization has created outlets for academic learning, geotourism, microlending, boat building, arts creation and more. The flagship business is the Fogo Island Inn—developed as an economic and cultural engine for the community.
“I am driven to help people understand that business is a tool that belongs to all of us, and to be able to use it is not that complicated,” says Cobb. “So we got the idea to start some businesses on the island that were logical given the inherent assets of the place; businesses that would serve and support cultural heritage.”
Part of what Shorefast does is expose young people to business. Cobb says her advice is the same every time.
“You can do anything you want, and you need to remember there’s nobody handing out invitations. It’s not like a lineup you can get in. You just have to start. And once you start, never stop and never stop starting.”