KATIE PALMER TALKS WITH PURE CONFERENCE SPEAKER, ZITA COBB, ON PEOPLE, PLACE AND PAYING IT FORWARD
WORDS BY KATIE PALMER
There’s no doubt that Zita Cobb is wealthy. A Google search suggests that her fortune, earned as a high-powered executive in the technology industry, amasses somewhere in the region of $69 million. In 2000, she was reportedly the third-highest-paid female executive on American payrolls. But what makes Zita Cobb truly rich is not how much money she has; it’s how she’s chosen to spend it.
After retiring in her 40s, first came a well-meaning move into philanthropic activities, awarding scholarships to young people from the tiny Fogo Island in Newfoundland, where she grew up. Until, that is, she was called out by a straight-talking local mother who resented her for effectively paying their children to leave – the local population was already whittling dramatically as a result of the collapse of the Island’s cod fishing industry (its only real industry, if truth be told).
Not to be perturbed, Cobb instead invested her attention and a hefty chunk of her own money into building Fogo Island Inn. The Inn is, she admits, essentially an extension of herself, in that both are driven by a fundamental belief in the preservation of culture. Why does she consider this so important, I ask? “Because the cultures, like the culture here on Fogo Island, that are based on and emerge from the natural, contain the knowledge that is critical for any human path forward.”
The modern world, stresses Cobb, has a tendency to misguidedly prioritise business and technology over nature and culture (and that’s coming from an ex-technology CFO). “I have never met a person that disagrees with the statement, ‘Nature and culture are the two great garments of human life,’” she says, quoting economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, “but I meet many people that don’t always conduct their lives and their businesses in service of nature and culture.”
But “the happy news,” Cobb assures, “is that it’s not that hard to change it – really all we need to do is turn that upside down, so you have business and technology as servants of place… By definition, if you put place in the centre then you’re going to put human community in the centre, and then all of your actions are optimised for that, or at the very least are mindful of that.”
Fogo Island Inn belongs to Shorefast Foundation, a registered charity that uses “business-minded ways to achieve social ends,” which Cobb set up in partnership with her brother, Anthony. They also founded Fogo Island Arts under the same umbrella: an artists-in-residence project facilitated in part by a smattering of standalone studios within easy reach of the Inn and accessible only by foot, designed by the same architect who dreamt up its distinctly non-traditional aesthetic, Todd Saunders.
Among the Island’s first resident artists were a carefully selected set of international furniture and textile designers, whom Cobb drafted in to collaborate with local craftspeople on furnishing the Inn – an intuitive solution for reconciling authentic local flavour with international five-star appeal, yet one that is nonetheless not so easily arrived at by your average hotelier. “The part I’m most proud of is that we made this Inn together. We Fogo Islanders, along with, let’s say, a hundred people who came from away – those people came and worked with us and helped us translate our traditional furniture and boat building and textiles traditions into the contemporary.”
The project, which initially only came about in the face of an empty Inn and the fiercely moral dilemma of how to fill it, has metamorphosed into Fogo Island Shop, where an international high-end clientele can purchase designs made to order by Islanders. As well as providing a source of local industry, this process serves another important purpose: “We will not forget, believe me, how to build a boat as long as we’re building Bertha Chairs, because it’s the same knowledge – and so, even though we don’t need those little boats anymore, we need chairs, so we haven’t lost the knowledge. That is to me an example of using financial capital to invest in cultural capital and social capital.”
The notion of alternative types of capital, as theorised by author Charles Eisenstein, is something Cobb buys into wholeheartedly. He claims that money is not, as commonly assumed in today’s capitalist society, ‘sacred’ or an end in itself, but simply a means to other, truly sacred forms of capital derived from nature, culture, society and spirituality. Similarly, Cobb insists, “The Inn isn’t an end in itself; the Inn is nothing more than a vessel to carry the history and the learnings of living here in a way that helps connect us to the modern world… I think what we’re trying to figure out is a higher fidelity relationship between financial capital and sacred capital.”
When I ask if she believes that the high-end experiential travel industry as a whole has a duty to aid the creation and preservation of sacred capital, she vehemently agrees. “If you can afford to do good and right, you’d better do good and right. At the high end of the travel industry, we are the mediators, or the convenors, of the connection points between guests and hope.”
“I don’t think it’s okay to make a living from a tourism project that preys on a community for an inadequate amount of financial reward or reinvestment in that community, so I think we’ve got to really look in our souls about where the money goes. We should not be leaving behind as little as we can get away with; we should be leaving behind as much as we possibly can financially.”
For a businesswoman who seems perhaps surprisingly generous with her hard-earned cash, I wonder what being ‘rich’ means to her? “I think a rich life is to live a life where you have some idea of who you are and then feel the joy that comes when you are useful… That takes faith, and quiet, because self-knowledge doesn’t come from rushing around. So I think the richest life is the life that has managed to carve out that faith and has that kind of connectedness to self and to others and to the human community we’re part of.”
So, which of her two lives – one as a high-powered exec on a multi-million dollar salary, and the other as the non-profiting founder of a social enterprise – does she feel has been richer? “In my previous life I was the Chief Financial Officer of a technology company that really was an enabler of the digital revolution, so there is a lot to be proud of there. That was rewarding for sure; but I think what I’m doing now is so much richer for me, because I’m an eighth-generation Fogo Islander and where is the line-up of people that know and love this place and have the financial means to have done something to be useful? So I think this is a more unique purpose that I can serve.”
When I point out that she may not have been able to serve this purpose without the financial reward that her first incarnation afforded her, she muses, “I’m not Buddhist, but the Buddhists have this beautiful expression about following the path that wants to emerge – I think the order of things in my life needed to be that way.”
Hear Zita Cobb speak live at the PURE Conference 2015 on Monday 9 November, brought to you by Tourism Australia.