TORONTO ― Zita Cobb captivated the crowd of hospitality executives, educators and students at yesterday’s Icons & Innovators Breakfast Series at the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

At the age of 42, Cobb left her high-level role at a fibre-optics giant to pursue personal interests, philanthropic work and to revive her beloved community of Fogo Island, N.L., which was devastated by the demise of the cod fishery. As innkeeper of Fogo Island Inn and president of Shorefast Foundation (which operates the inn) in Fogo Island, Cobb is a staunch supporter of social entrepreneurship ― using business models to solve social problems.

“We started the inn to grow another leg on the economy,” said Cobb. “I deeply believe in business … and I believe that small communities can and should own businesses. We take business as a tool and create an economic asset that belongs to the community.” As the inn operates and reaches a surplus, those funds get reinvested in the community through the Shorefast Foundation. “Every business can be a social business; it’s all a question of degree,” she added. Other communities can adopt the same principle of asset-based community development, said Cobb.

Architecture, design, craft, art and food working synergistically is a key tenet of the inn’s business model. “Modernity does some terrible things,” Cobb explained. “We’re losing track of the sacred. Everything has been commoditized, virtualized, globalized, so where is the sacred, in the secular sense? One of the most important questions we need to ask and answer is, if you’re a business owner, how do you fit in the whole ecosystem? How are you influencing the entire world?”

Given the inn’s remote location, procurement was a challenge and the mandate was to remain as local as possible in order to grow the economy. However, everything couldn’t be sourced locally, so the team created a set of rules guided by originality and integrity. Items were purchased from Fogo Island first, then Newfoundland, then Canada, then other traditional trading partners. “But under no circumstances would we be buy from a place that didn’t have basic labour laws and basic environmental protection laws,” Cobb noted. “As consumers we have more power than we do as voters and I can’t wait for the day to come where everything we buy has a label that tells you where the money went.”

Giving back to the community is ingrained into the philosophy and Cobb wants to take that spirit across Canada. Shorefast Foundation is currently working on a toolkit to guide other small communities into similar ventures. “If you have imagination, money will come,” said Cobb. “If a community can define for itself, what do we love about this place, follow that thread. It’s going to take you to something that is of value.”

The next Icons & Innovators Breakfast Series will feature superstar chef Susur Lee and runs September 30 at the Toronto Region Board of Trade. For tickets, click here.

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