Entrepreneur Zita Cobb's social conscience lands her in the Business Hall of Fame

Zita Cobb's Shorefast Foundation has been working for years to revitalize not just her home on Fogo Island, but Newfoundland and Labrador, as well.

'Everything starts with believing,' says the woman behind the Fogo Island Inn

The Fogo Island Inn, as seen on Canada Day 2018. (Submitted by Raymond Wang)

Zita Cobb's Shorefast Foundation has been working for years to revitalize not just her hometown of Fogo Island, but Newfoundland and Labrador, as well.

Now, Cobb is one of four 2020 inductees being added to the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in the spring.

Cobb worked in the high-tech industry for years before retiring and returning to the place she grew up, where she developed the Shorefast Foundation, which aims to build cultural and economic resilience on Fogo Island.

"At the centre of a community is its economy. If there's no economy, there's no community," said Cobb.

"That's why I think business is such a beautiful human tool — we invented it, and if we use it in ways that strengthen the things that are real and valuable and important, like community, then that is a home run."

Everything starts with believing.- Zita Cobb

Developing the world-renowned Fogo Island Inn, outfitted by local craftspeople, has proven a success for Cobb. The inn has been featured in international media outlets like CNN, National Geographic and GQ UK, to name a few, and visited by notable celebrities and politicians alike.

The whole purpose of social entrepreneurship, like the kind she has pursued with Shorefast, is different than regular entrepreneurial pursuit, Cobb said.

Zita Cobb sits as moderator for a discussion when former U.S. president Barack Obama stopped in St. John's. The two sit on chairs handmade in Fogo, Cobb's hometown. (Courtesy of David Howells)

"You start a social business to solve a social problem," Cobb told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"We didn't start the Fogo Island Inn or any of the other businesses we have out here so that a person or group of people could make financial return — we started it because we were a community that needed to put another life in our economy," Cobb said.

The Shorefast Foundation puts its profits back into the community, operating a number of different businesses and employing people in the Fogo area.

Cobb, who received the Order of Canada in 2017, said any company could switch its focus to social issues.

"I mean at Amazon, Jeff Bezos could get up tomorrow morning and decide he's gonna run Amazon like a social business. It just takes a small shift in priorities," she said.

A woman with short hair smiles.
Zita Cobb, pictured here receiving the Order of Canada medal. (Seamus O'Regan/Twitter)

Cobb said she doesn't believe many of the 200-odd inductees into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame have had a focus on social entrepreneurship, and she hopes her addition signals a change in focus across the country.

"They tell you that you're recognized for your whole body of work," said Cobb.

"But I really think it has a lot to do with the fact that, as humans, we're trying to ask better questions — and one of those better questions is — what is a better relationship between business and community? And how do we use business in a way that strengthens the most important things, like nature and culture? So I think that it's a good sign, it's a signal, that we're just better aware."

This is the view from one of the rooms at the Fogo Island Inn. The Inn operates year-round and draws and employs many of the local people who cater to guests who travel to Fogo from all over the world. (Jane Adey/CBC)

This type of business pursuit isn't without its challenges, Cobb said, but having faith in community is a good place to start.

"Everything starts with believing. I think it was Henry Ford who said, 'Whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can't, either way you're right,'" Cobb said.

"We believe deeply in this place and Fogo Islanders have fought hard over many centuries to live here — it's not easy ... but if you believe deeply enough then you will act, and I think that combination of believing and then acting, once you start, the world really does move with you. But if you don't believe, you're not gonna start."

Cobb will formally be inducted into the hall of fame at a gala dinner in Toronto on May 7.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show