Soul Stirrers #8: Zita Cobb
Canadian social entrepreneur Zita Cobb is the CEO of Shorefast (which we previously featured) and Innkeeper of Fogo Island Inn. Born and raised during a time of drastic change across Newfoundland, Zita is an eighth-generation Fogo Islander whose business philosophy embodies every aspect of where she comes from, combining a love of community with reverence for nature, a creative instinct, an unwavering spirit of (inter)independence, and a desire to thrive without doing so at the expense of the aforementioned. To do as Zita does is to first understand one’s own roots completely, then use business as a framework to ensure the sustainable continuation of that history in the 21st century and beyond.
While her vision is grand and overarching, a vital part of Zita’s genius is her ability to communicate these ideas in easily digestible terms through visual metaphors like economic nutritional labels and cauliflower florets. Though she is often credited for rejuvenating Fogo Island (and rightfully so), Zita knows that meaningful social change doesn’t come from the top down or any single person. Proliferating imaginative ideas with while inspiring people to act upon and take ownership of these ideas is — surprise! — a much more effective method than simply imposing a blanket solution:
Distributive leadership refers to the sharing of leadership by multiple parties. Detroit’s experience “has demonstrated a critical need to balance traditional leadership structures — where a few individuals with formal roles wield considerable power — with more distributed leadership models. In these models, individuals and institutions work collaboratively to solve critical public problems based on shared power and responsibility and the willingness to adapt as circumstances unfold.
… There were times that Fogo Islanders, separated in their 11 outports, didn’t really have that sense of desperate connection with one another. Attitudes changed, and when they did, possibilities followed. Zita Cobb likes to quote one of her local mentors, a former mayor of Joe Batt’s Arm Freeman Combden. “Freeman used to say, ‘You have two ears. One should hear good things and the other one should be slightly deaf.’ The point is that there are so many reasons not to carry on. People need an overarching idea that they can see themselves in. Ours was simple: we want to be here 100 years from now and look more or less like people our ancestors would recognize. Every Fogo Islander can see something in that. Everything people feel about themselves will follow from action, so you better get out and you better dance.”
All that is easier said than done, of course, since social change is subject to immediate economic and political realities as well as the test of time; even the most innovative of ideas won’t work if people aren’t ready or willing to accept it (ie. an idea can be ahead of its time or eventually appreciated in due time, but fail to launch because it’s not of its time). Therein lies Zita’s resounding success: she has managed to adapt her vision for Fogo Island to contemporary interests and issues without compromising on her values or cutting corners in order to make things happen faster. She saw an opportunity to make a difference, seized it, and took action — making bold decisions like building the inn while considering potential outcomes and consequences holistically. Throughout this journey, Zita has demonstrated utmost integrity as a leader, working at both the conceptual and ground levels to make sure her endeavours reach, benefit, and involve everyone in the community. At the end of the day, Zita simply wants Fogo Islanders to know that they belong here, and that her heart belongs to them.