ZITA COBB, AKA THE PRODIGAL DAUGHTER
CAUSE: Pioneering socially responsible luxury with a contemporary edge, by reimagining the hotel as a conduit for social enterprise, human connection and artistic expression.
ICONS: Fogo Island Inn and Fogo Island Arts, officially owned by the Shorefast Foundation
MOTTO: “We are more ourselves when we have figured out how to be in a relationship with the other. Business can help us do that. Business has helped us do that.”
“I think that the big question that lives in all of our lives is, ‘how do we belong to the world?’”
Things get existential pretty quickly when you’re talking to Zita Cobb. The founder of the Shorefast Foundation is not your average hotelier, in the same way that the property owned by it, Fogo Island Inn, is not your average hotel.
As a native Fogo Islander who resettled on the island (off the coast of Newfoundland) following a successful career as CFO of a technology company, ideas around return and identity are a natural preoccupation for Cobb. Her Inn is not just a hotel, but also a physical representation of this “big question” about how to belong. It is a place that attempts to resolve modern tensions between self and other; culture and nature; and business and life.
“I think most contemporary travellers are trying to get away from the kind of reductive materialism and hyper-real, seductive societies we’ve built for ourselves,” Cobb reflects. “We’re not looking for distraction any more: we’re actually looking for wholeness and for deeper engagement.”
Travel has always been both an escape and a journey – except today, we are escaping from “the great age of separation, a world that is increasingly siloed” and journeying into our innermost selves. Referencing the concept of ‘Zerressenheit’ – eloquently translated by philosopher William James as “torn-to-pieces-ness” – Cobb states, “Why do people travel? We all have some memory of some time in our life when the world felt whole: it felt right. And then you get torn to pieces…I think when people come to the island, they feel given back to themselves in a very powerful way.”
Part of this return to the self is engendered by the raw, untamed interactions with nature that a visit to Fogo Island entails – or as Cobb puts it, being “immersed in the really powerful and utterly uncontrollable gestures of life”, whether that means encountering a herd of caribou or standing on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Wilderness offers an “essentialising” respite from the capitalist ideology of perfection and acquisition that leaves us inert, anxious and uninspired; as Cobb theorises, “The hyper-real society kills creativity. The creative traveller is looking for a world where everything isn’t packaged and served up to them, because there’s no room for imagination in that.”
This stands in contrast to the ‘bucket list’ approach to travel, which disturbs Cobb – “Why would I interrupt this delicious place that’s so hard to get to in myself to be tweeting or Instagramming?” – in that it removes travellers from the daily conflict between their digital and actual selves and allows them to “have a relationship with time” and place. “It kind of lets you give up some of your shit…it confronts you in your own nonsense about whatever our society has become a little obsessed with.”
What makes Fogo Island Inn truly unique, however, is the way in which this determined philosophy is integrated into its business and operational aspects. It exists under the umbrella of the Shorefast Foundation, a registered charity set up by Cobb and her brother that uses “business-minded ways to achieve social ends”. The Foundation also comprises Fogo Island Arts, an artists-in-residence project including a smattering of standalone studios within easy reach of the Inn; and Fogo Island Shop, where an international high-end clientele can purchase designs made to order by Islanders.
Whilst a shop filled with expensive items might seem incompatible with a breach from addictive materialism, Cobb disagrees. Purchasing a chair from Fogo Island Shop is an intimate experience whereby you understand who made it and how, providing a link with a people, culture and time. “It’s not anonymous: you understand the business model and where your money went. Meaning doesn’t fall out of the sky: we make meaning, and that’s the beautiful thing about life. Objects can help us do that.”
Similarly, the unexpected presence of international contemporary artists amidst the island’s rocky terrain goes beyond creating a press-friendly talking point. “You’ve got these things that on the surface are incongruous, but on a deeper level absolutely belong together, because they’re about place and ideas and life and meaning,” Cobb says, “It’s really about the tension between constraints and possibility – and when you are confronted with that, it’s exciting. It’s vitalising.”
Fogo Island Inn is fuelled by this tension, signposting a new way for businesses to reconcile the search for profit with the search for meaning. As Cobb expresses, “There are two reasons for a business to exist: for financial profit, or to solve problems and contribute to the fabric of society.” She admits that achieving the latter takes dedicated investment of all kinds of resources, alongside a shift in attitudes, but “you see it working. Employment is up, enrolment at the school is up; Fogo Islanders generally have a deeper awareness of our own identities, our own possibilities. Because we are more ourselves when we have figured out how to be in a relationship with the other…The Inn and its projects have woven Fogo Island back into the story of the world. Business can help us do that. Business has helped us do that.”
Cobb has faith that whilst this mindset takes effort, investment and courage, the travel industry (and society at large) is moving along the right trajectory. “We have been in this dangerous dam with an extreme form of individualistic capitalism, and I really think that we all accept that this is not taking us to a good place – even the people who have amassed great fortunes. We all want to contribute to the common wealth, because that’s how we belong, how we make things count,” she says. “We’ve been told somehow in our business thinking that you’ve got to make a decision between two opposing things; you have to choose business or life. Which is nonsense…if we live in this lovely tension between what seems to be opposites, underneath that there is a place where they come together.”
Indeed, the Inn itself was designed in the shape of an X – but unlike a cross on a treasure map, it isn’t an end point, but a starting point. Asked about the next step for the Inn, Cobb contemplates, “What I think and hope we’ve done is to leave room for the world to unfold and evolve and emerge in the way it wants and needs to. The Inn is like a Trojan horse for ideas – in this place where all of this comes together, God knows what might happen…”
This willingness to embrace an organic, rather than mechanised, sense of order underpins Cobb’s thinking. Fogo Island Inn allows us to rebel from our previous assumptions; confront the “big questions” of our existence; and ultimately return to ourselves with a wider sense of possibility, coherence and wellbeing – both in business and in life. As Cobb summarises, “Every community has potential. Every person has potential. So the more we can do that helps people see that the world underneath the torn-apart world that we seem to be living in is whole – and in that place, business is a part of reinforcing the whole – the better.”