Zita Cobb Husband: Transforming Fogo Island with Vision and Passion

Zita Cobb Husband: Transforming Fogo Island with Vision and Passion

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Written By Joe Martin

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A few days ago, I shared the first part of our trip to Newfoundland. Here’s the continuation of our adventure, which led us to the enchanting Fogo Island. We checked out of our St. John’s hotel at the early hour of 5:00 am.

Siobhan, the friendly front desk clerk, was thrilled to hear we were headed to Fogo Island—her hometown. Her parents still live in Tilting, a village there. We humorously promised to say hi for her.

We embarked on the Trans-Canada Highway (TCH) at Mile Zero. Stretching 7,821 km (4,860 miles) from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Victoria, B.C., the TCH is the world’s longest national highway.

My husband expertly navigated through a dense early morning fog while my companion and I napped in the back seat. We were jolted awake by an unexpected sound.

St. John’s—Experiencing “Newfoundland Time”

Upon flying from Washington, D.C., to St. John’s, Newfoundland, we left behind a hot, humid day and arrived to a cool, drizzly evening. The time change, 1.5 hours ahead, was surprising. Newfoundland is the only place in the world that splits the time zone in half, showcasing the island’s unique spirit.

Exploring Bay Bulls & Witless Bay—Whale and Puffin Watching

The next day was sunny, perfect for last-minute whale watching and puffin viewing. We booked a two-hour tour departing Bay Bulls at 11:30 am. The double-decker boat headed into Witless Bay, home to an ecological preserve for seabirds.

At the harbor’s mouth, we encountered a pod of three humpback whales. From the top deck, we saw their long white fins, dorsal fins, and blows clearly. The whales entertained us with tail displays before we moved on to watch the puffins.

These birds, with their black and white bodies and bright orange beaks and feet, seemed almost cartoonish. Puffins nested apart, each in a dug-out dirt nest on the island. We also saw murres, which resembled penguins with their upright stance and formal black and white appearance.

On the return trip, we played tag with another pair of humpbacks, a cow and calf. As the boat sped back to the dock, a gust of wind blew Doug’s Chesapeake Bay Foundation hat into the ocean, its new home.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch in the tiny hamlet of Blackhead, finding shade on the porch of an abandoned house.

Later, we visited the Johnson Geo Centre, a geology museum where we spent two hours learning about Earth’s history and human evolution. Newfoundland, known as “The Rock,” boasts some of the world’s oldest exposed rocks, formed half a billion years ago.

A short drive took us to Signal Hill, a historic Marconi site. We hiked several miles, braving strong winds that were unlike anything we’d ever experienced.

Zita Cobb: A Visionary Leader from Fogo Island

Zita Cobb, CM, a Canadian businesswoman and social entrepreneur, hails from Fogo Island, a small outport fishing community off the North Atlantic Ocean.

As the co-founder and CEO of the Canadian charity Shorefast, Zita has played a pivotal role in transforming Fogo Island. In 2004, she launched Shorefast with her brothers Anthony and Alan Cobb, and she is also the innkeeper of the renowned Fogo Island Inn.

Zita has received numerous accolades for her contributions to the Canadian economy and business world, including the Order of Canada in 2016 and induction into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in 2021.

Shorefast’s mission is to build a resilient community economy on Fogo Island and apply these learnings to foster economically empowered communities across Canada. Zita dedicates her full time to Shorefast’s initiatives.

Early Life and Education

An eighth-generation Fogo Islander, Zita Cobb grew up in a household without electricity or running water, along with her six brothers.

Her father was a seventh-generation inshore fisherman. At six, Zita battled tuberculosis during a year-long stay at a sanatorium, an experience she credits with giving her confidence. She later studied business and graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa.

Career Journey

Zita’s career began with various oil companies in Alberta, followed by extensive travel in Canada and Africa. She joined Ottawa-based JDS Fitel, where she eventually became CFO.

The company merged with U.S.-based Uniphase in 1999 to form JDS Uniphase. In 2001, Zita exercised stock options worth $69 million and left to sail around the world for four years.

The Creation of Fogo Island Inn

In 2006, Zita and her brother Andy founded Shorefast in response to Fogo Island’s economic and cultural challenges. She invested $10 million of her own money, with the Canadian and provincial governments contributing another $10 million.

Shorefast built the Fogo Island Inn, which opened in 2013. The inn is a 100% social business, reinvesting all operating surpluses into the community through Shorefast’s projects and programs. The inn aims to diversify the island’s economy and provide employment.

Recognitions and Honors

Zita was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2016 for her contributions to social entrepreneurship and geotourism. She has received honorary doctorates from Carleton University, Memorial University of Newfoundland, McGill University, and the University of Ottawa.

In 2018, she was inducted into the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame. In 2019, Zita interviewed former U.S. President Barack Obama at a public event in St. John’s, Newfoundland, attended by over 5,000 people.

Fogo Island: A Land of Unique Charm

Newfoundlanders refer to their small fishing villages as “outports,” evoking an air of remoteness. Reaching Fogo Island requires multiple flights, a 60-mile drive, a 45-minute ferry ride, and another drive.

The island lacks fast food outlets, movie theaters, and malls, and neon signs are nowhere to be seen. Homes face the cold, seemingly endless North Atlantic. Driving around the island’s many bays and inlets, one becomes accustomed to seeing picturesque towns from across the water.

The island’s history and culture remain vibrant, with Irish and English accents still evident in local speech. Anglican and Catholic churches dominate the landscape, and directions often start with,

“Go down to the church.” Small graveyards are filled with familiar surnames, linking the present to the past. In spring, blue-white icebergs drift by the harbors, creating a mesmerizing spectacle.

The Impact of the Cod Moratorium

In 1992, the Canadian government declared a moratorium on cod fishing, devastating Fogo Island and other outports reliant on the cod industry.

By then, Zita had left the island to pursue a business degree in Ottawa and later worked in Alberta and Africa. She joined JDS Fitel in 1989 and rose to become CFO, eventually cashing out and becoming one of Canada’s wealthiest women.

Returning to Rebuild

Zita returned to Fogo Island, finding it in decline. Initially, she set up scholarships, but a local mother’s direct question, “Can’t you do something to make jobs?” spurred her into action.

Zita established Shorefast with her brother Tony, investing millions of her own money and securing matching grants from Canadian agencies. She envisioned a sustainable future for Fogo Island, focusing on local knowledge and traditions.

A Vision for Sustainable Community Development

Zita’s comprehensive plan for Fogo Island included a variety of projects: restaurants, a library, furniture making, boat races, oceanic studies, astronomy, theater, and art galleries.

She cataloged local knowledge and built a complex array of initiatives to support the community’s economic and cultural revitalization.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is Zita Cobb?

Zita Cobb is a Canadian businesswoman and social entrepreneur from Fogo Island, Newfoundland. She is the co-founder and CEO of Shorefast and the innkeeper of the Fogo Island Inn.

What is Shorefast?

Shorefast is a Canadian charity founded by Zita Cobb and her brothers in 2004. It aims to build a resilient community economy on Fogo Island and foster economically empowered communities across Canada.

What is the Fogo Island Inn?

The Fogo Island Inn, opened in 2013, is a social business operated by Shorefast Social Enterprises Inc. All operating surpluses are reinvested in the community through various projects and programs.

What are some of Zita Cobb’s achievements?

Zita has received the Order of Canada, honorary doctorates from several universities, and was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame and the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame.

How has Zita Cobb contributed to Fogo Island’s revitalization?

Zita has invested significant resources into various projects aimed at revitalizing Fogo Island’s economy and culture, focusing on sustainable community development and leveraging local knowledge and traditions.

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