Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read

Innovation Agents

How Multimillionaire Zita Cobb Plans to Turn a Tiny Canadian Island Into an Arts Mecca

A multimillionaire tech exec returns home with dreams of turning little Fogo Island into a magnet for the arts.

How Multimillionaire Zita Cobb Plans to Turn a Tiny Canadian Island Into an Arts Mecca
Homecoming Zita Cobb on Fogo Island, in front of her foundation's first artist studio, finished in June | Photograph by Gordon Slade
Homecoming Zita Cobb on Fogo Island, in front of her foundation's first artist studio, finished in June | Photograph by Gordon Slade

On the eastern edge of Newfoundland, in Canada, amid the frigid, churning waters of the North Atlantic, there is an outcropping of bald rock called Fogo Island. It's not the sort of place you would typically think to visit on vacation. Really, there's not much to see, other than a smattering of weather-beaten clapboard houses that cling to the shore like passengers on a life raft. The island (population: 2,700) is home to a handful of fishermen who manage to scratch out an existence despite declining fisheries. There are few trees, and even soil is in short supply; the topography is defined by mounds of solid granite everywhere.

Yet what Zita Cobb sees in this barren landscape is opportunity. The island's most famous resident, Cobb was once a top executive at the tech company JDS Uniphase. Today, she's back on Fogo Island, where she grew up, and her mission is to nurse it back to economic health and foster what she calls "cultural resiliency." Through the Shorefast Foundation, which she founded with her brother Anthony Cobb in 2006, she's spending more than $10 million of her own money, along with $5 million from the Canadian government and $5 million from the provincial government, to make Fogo Island and the neighboring Change Islands an international destination for the arts, and in turn, tourists. "We have 400 years of culture here, which has incredible value. The underlying thing that drives the foundation and me — sometimes I can't separate one from the other — is this belief in the preservation of culture," Cobb says. "I feel it is my watch."

Cobb's own story is the stuff of fairy tales. She grew up as one of seven children in a house with no electricity or running water, and then left to study business at Carleton University, in Ottawa. After graduation, a string of different jobs at oil companies in Alberta, and time spent wandering Canada and Africa, she landed in 1989 at Ottawa-based JDS Fitel, a company that specialized in fiber-optic equipment. By 1999, when it merged with the U.S. company Uniphase, Cobb was CFO. Two years later, she quit her post near the top of the hierarchy at JDS Uniphase, exercising stock options worth $69 million, and left to sail her 47-foot yacht around the world for four years.

After her departure, she set up two philanthropic projects, one that distributed radios in Rwanda and another that provided scholarships to students from Fogo Island. "We were doing a public review of our scholarship program here on the island, and this woman looked at me and said, 'Do you know what you're doing? You're just paying our children to leave,' " recalls Cobb. "That's what started this journey."

The Shorefast Foundation has three key initiatives that aim to improve the island's rocky economic prospects. The first is the Fogo Island Arts Corp., which is building six artist studios on the island, all designed by Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders. The first studio was completed this past June; it's a black-and-white minimalist monolith that stretches out above the ragged shoreline on spindly metal legs, jutting an angular prow out toward crashing waves. It looks completely out of place — the typical Fogo Island house is resolutely traditional and gable-roofed — which makes it a potent symbol of Cobb's ambitions to create a new future on the island. "We have a residency program, where we invite accomplished artists to come and spend some time on the island, in self-directed programs," says Fogo Island Arts Corp. director Elísabet Gunnarsdóttir. "We also have a production program, where we produce art projects, seminars, and workshops."

The second component of the Shorefast plan is the Fogo Island Inn, a low-slung, 29-room, five-star modernist hotel that, when it opens in 2012, is expected to feature a heritage library, art gallery, and National Film Board of Canada "e-cinema," where films can be downloaded and screened on demand. The idea is to create an upmarket hostelry where affluent tourists can stay when they come to see the art, take in the landscape, and experience the culture; with room rates around $400 a night, it will represent a radical departure from the island's existing sub-$100 efficiency units and B&Bs. The foundation hosted a "rock turning" to begin construction this past June. To turn a profit, all of which would be reinvested in the community, Cobb estimates the inn will need to attract some 3,000 visitors a year — about one tourist for every island resident.

The final part of the project is a microfinance fund, modeled after Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, which is already making loans to a diverse selection of local recipients. "Some people are building greenhouses so they can extend the growing season. A woman has a sewing business. The crafts guild has a loan. One guy started a taxi business," Cobb says. "It's anything that's supportive of the local economy, really, that doesn't fly in the face of the broader concept."

The efforts of the Shorefast Foundation have already changed life on little Fogo. "It's kind of put us on the map," says Gary Dawe, mayor of the aptly named town of Seldom, one of the island's 11 settlements. "Quite a few tourists from all over the country — and the States and Europe — have been here already. There was a lady here the other day from Michigan, and she left a little note saying that if anyone had a small house for sale, she was interested in buying."

Cobb says that hearing reports like that make her return to Fogo Island worthwhile. In some ways, the challenge facing her now is bigger than anything she dealt with when she was a tech-industry executive. "What I'm doing here is really more innovative than being in the top management of a fiber-optics company," she says. "We have to find a way to make the social-entrepreneurship model work more broadly." And there's no place to do that like home.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2010/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.