Zita Cobb takes on the ultimate entrepreneurial project

Millionaire Zita Cobb has set her sights on transforming a windswept Canadian island into an artist's paradise.

When she retired at 42 as one of Canada's richest women, Zita Cobb "did what most people just dream about", says The Toronto Star. "She spent four years sailing around the world on a 47-foot yacht."

Now Cobb has returned to the tiny Newfoundland island of Fogo a barren rock set amid the churning, icy waters of the North Atlantic intending to spark "a cultural and economic revival". This April, she opens the island's first hotel.

It's not an obvious vacation spot, noted Fast Company magazine in 2010. "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's 2,700 inhabitants are scattered between a handful of isolated fishing communities whose names (Seldom, Tilting and Cobb's own birthplace, Joe Batt's Arm) date back to their original English and Irish settlers.

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Life on Fogo was always spartan, but it became near impossible in 1992 when the Canadian government reacted to dwindling cod supplies by declaring a moratorium on fishing, wiping out the island's economic mainstay.

Nonetheless, "we have 400 years of culture here, which has incredible value", says Cobb, who has thrown some $10m into a three-pronged attempt to preserve it (see below). Having made a fortune from high-tech companies, she sees the revitalisation of the island as the ultimate entrepreneurial project.

Cobb is a slender woman in her early 50s, with "the distinct composure one often finds in people who've done well in business", says The New York Times. Her rise was certainly extraordinary. The sixth of seven children born to illiterate parents, she grew up in a house without electricity and running water.

Aged five, she was diagnosed with TB. "We didn't have a hospital, but when the Christmas seal boat came around, everybody lined up on the dock and you got a chest X-ray." There followed a year in a sanatorium on the mainland and no contact with her family. "I think I came out of that fully independent."

At 16, Cobb left the island to study business at Carleton University in Ottawa. She then took a string of jobs at Canadian-based oil companies before joining a fibre-optic equipment outfit, JDS Fitel. By 1999, when it merged with the American company Uniphase, Cobb had risen to become chief financial officer. Two years later she quit her post, exercising stock options worth $69m, and set off on her world odyssey.

It was only a matter of time before Cobb returned to Fogo. "I wanted to see what was out there, but I never stopped missing the rocks and the winds of home." "What I'm doing here," she adds with feeling, "is really more innovative than being in the top management of a fibre-optics company."

Her aim is to make Fogo an international destination for the arts and, in turn, tourists. It will be interesting to see what she makes of it.

'If you want things to stay the same, they have to change'

Like many self-made philanthropists, Cobb's first instinct was to create a scholarship programme to give young people the same breaks she'd enjoyed but then she was buttonholed by a Fogo mother. "You're just paying our children to leave," she said.

"You look smart enough. Can't you do something to make jobs?" That conversation was to form the basis of Cobb's Shorefast Foundation, says Keith Bellows in National GeographicTraveller. The name is symbolic. "A shorefast is the tether that joins a cod trap to the shore," Cobb explains. It's "a metaphor for realising the importance of holding on to physical place and tradition".

There are three main components to the foundation, which Cobb runs with her brother, says Susan Gough Henly intheToronto Star. First, there's the Fogo Island Arts Corp, which has built six artist studios and is funding three-month residency programmes for guest artists. Cobb hopes it will put the island on the cultural map.

Then there's a microfinance fund, which is making enterprise loans to locals. Finally, "there's the income-generating piece of the puzzle": the Fogo Island Inn, a sleek 29-room hotel, "committed to sustaining local traditions by finding new ways with old things". While the chef dreams up delicious recipes incorporating fish, berries and caribou, the hotel will also act as a showcase for traditional local crafts, such as quilting.

So, can she achieve her aims without alienating the locals? The hotel, with its cinema and library, is intended as much for them as for visitors, and profits will be reinvested in the community.

Yet there have been rumblings of discontent, says Jim Lewis in the New YorkTimes. Some complain the cost of housing has gone up; "others are irked that she hasn't built, say, a swimming pool instead of those artists' studios". Cobb also worries that "she's tampering with the scale of the place".

But she consoles herself by quoting from Guiseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard. "If you want things to stay the same, they have to change."