Zita Cobb Public Matters Lecture: the Art of Knowing and the Business of Caring

You can study business and still be a good person,” Zita Cobb affirmed as her sold-out talk drew to a close. Cobb was this year’s selected speaker for the 5th annual Public Matters series, a collaboration between Museum London, the Public Humanities and the School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities at Western.

Her story has been one of immense success and deep compassion for her home, Fogo Island, for which she created a foundation called Shorefast and an inn which has since spun itself into several smaller successful businesses.

On March 2nd Cobb spoke about place-centric economics and business strategies that can be put in place to solve our globalized crisis of belonging, which she attributes largely to our misplacement of values.

“It’s going to seem like I’m talking about Fogo, but I’m talking about us,” she began, making it clear that what happened on Fogo Island is possible anywhere and with anyone—we’re all florets on the same cauliflower sharing the same stem, as she puts it.

Our biggest problem, in Cobb’s eyes, is that we don’t know what we value most, and that we’ve confused what is worth valuing for what seems valuable. She spoke about the dangerous divide between inherent value and economic value, and the further separation of economic value into real material benefits and speculative or gaming value. The relationship between humans and money is a strange and confusing one that distorts the way we see and value our fundamental needs as community members. But Cobb believes that, with a little more mindfulness and a slightly more holistic view of the systems we function in, we can change from servants of the economy to masters of it.

Cobb is a self-declared capitalist, but she knows that there is a good way to do business, and then there is the most common way to do business. Her solution for the power hungry pure-profit based businesses and the unsustainable not-for-profit businesses is to reinvest value into sacred capital — cultural, natural, social, physical, and human capital — and to turn all businesses into social businesses. That entails a fundamental evolution of business motives from making money to solving a problem, as well as a recognition of the intrinsic power of place. A good social business should respect all forms of knowledge and share with its community the same fate, instead of one profiting at the expense of another.

Fogo Island functions as a microcosm of what can exist in a larger sphere, where the community owns and directly profits from its businesses, and the people are not treated as cartoons for wealthy tourists to gawk at from a distance, but rather respected as locals on a global scale.

Cobb strongly advocates for a global network of local places, and her beliefs are echoed in her actions; all the sourcing required for the globally recognized Fogo Island Inn begins first by looking in Fogo, then Newfoundland, then Canada, the United States, and so forth, excluding any country without labour laws. She believes that the local can participate in a global market without compromising nature, culture, or humanity.

In her presentation, she showed an image of an economic nutrition fact sheet—just like one you would find on your food items — for a chair produced in Fogo. The audience murmured in admiration of the image which indicated the percentage of money that goes toward things like labour, packaging and delivery, surplus, etc. so that the consumer knows the exact distribution of wealth before they buy the product. If all businesses had these labels on their products, perhaps it would be harder to ignore the corruption of large corporations. “With every book you buy on Amazon, somewhere a little book store dies,” said Cobb. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to immediately see the effects of purchasing goods that are not made or sold locally. “We are all victims, and we are all perpetrators.”

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is another strategy that Cobb suggested businesses adopt. It is a strategy that focuses on what a community has, knows, loves, and misses, as opposed to focusing on, and isolating, problems after they have arisen. It proactively uses the value a community already has to increase its own sustainability and protect itself against risk and external influences. Though Cobb started a charity, Shorefast, she argues that charity is not a long-term solution for two main reasons: people don’t always appreciate being on the receiving end of charity, and money will always run out. The solution? Self-sustaining business—but not business alone.

Public QA with Zita Cobb at Museum London before the 4th year SASAH class.

After the devastating collapse of the fishery, Fogo Island was revivified by the arts, beginning with the National Film Board’s Fogo Process, which consisted of digital storytelling as a means of unifying the population, and currently with the Fogo Island Arts program which brings artists from around the world into residency and supplies them with gorgeous studios to produce work inspired by the land. Cobb described the necessity of the arts in business as an honouring of different ways of knowing, which consequently allows for more and better avenues to answer a question or solve a problem. Cobb’s careful attention to art also relies heavily on the way that art bridges the gap between the past, present, and future particularly in the physical manifestations of the Fogo Island business.

“You have to hold on, and reach out,” she said, explaining why the buildings on Fogo can seem very contemporary but still maintain traditional elements. The architecture of the Fogo Island Inn is a perfect example of a calculated preservation of past tradition and an extension into a modern reality through a combination of details in wallpaper, colours, and material, and the starkness of its tall and unique geometric shape. In addition, Cobb spoke to the significance of seeing the old and the new existing on the island in the same moment, explaining that the two give value to each other by virtue of the time shared between them.

Even if Cobb hadn’t made a fortune and gone on to create an eco-friendly social business that preserves the nature and culture of her home island, she would still invigorate audiences by the mere energy she brings in her principles of living. In her eyes, you may have all the brilliant ideas in the world but they don’t mean anything unless you do something about them. She held us all responsible for the communities we live in, and we must act accordingly, reinvesting value into the sacred capital we all hold buried in our quotidian lives.

Zita Cobb is a business woman who cares, and who is motivated by her care to use the tools business has given her to create something economically efficient and astoundingly poetic. She told us that we must find meaning before we can create meaningfully, and it is through this lens that we must turn our gazes to the communities we are a part of and the businesses that we are not.

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