It’s hard not to feel renewed faith in humanity after talking to Davis Smith, founder and CEO of Cotopaxi, for 10 minutes. Not because Smith is doing his best to make the world a better place — although he clearly is — but because Smith is a big believer in the goodness of people.
Having lived 15 of his 38 years in foreign countries, Smith is no stranger to different cultures or types of people, and he has chosen to create a company and a brand based on the belief that people are innately good.
“I certainly learned what we all know already, which is that there are great people all over the world, regardless of what faith they believe in or if they have a faith at all,” Smith said. “I think humans, by nature, are good. We all have what Mormons refer to as ‘the light of Christ,’ so I think people naturally want to do good.”
Cotopaxi, a certified B Corp, is an outdoor retailer that seeks to use its profits to "fund sustainable poverty alleviation, move people to do good and inspire adventure," according to its website. The company is very serious about its desire to make a difference in the world. It is the fulfillment of Smith's desire to help people, a desire that began when he was a little boy.
When Smith was a toddler, his father’s job supervising construction for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took his family to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Ecuador. For Smith, this meant adventures with his dad like building their own raft and fishing for piranhas while floating down the Amazon River or camping on an uninhabited island, surviving off fish they had caught themselves with spears.
But it also meant being exposed to extreme poverty.
“Some of my earliest memories...are seeing children my age, 3 or 4 years old, that were completely naked on the sides of the street, and you can’t have that experience as a child and not have it shape who you are.”
His time abroad instilled in Smith a desire to help people, and after returning from an LDS mission in Bolivia, Smith read an article about a man named Steve Gibson. The article told of Gibson’s success as an entrepreneur, but it also told of how Gibson and wife, Bette, founded the Academy, a school designed to help returned missionaries learn how to start and grow a business. According to the BYU Marriott School website, Gibson’s school has helped more than 10,000 returned missionaries in the Philippines, Mexico, Indonesia, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru, among others. There are now 215 Academy chapters worldwide.
Smith cut the article out and put it in the front of his binder where he would see it many times throughout the day. According to Smith, a chance encounter with Gibson on the BYU campus during a social impact conference led to his decision to become an entrepreneur as a means of making an impact on the world.
While Smith had hoped of someday working for Gibson, he says Gibson encouraged him to become an entrepreneur himself and find his own way to make an impact in the world.
A couple of months later, Smith started his first business.
He eventually moved his family to Brazil where he started two businesses, Baby.com.br, which was named Brazil’s “Startup of the Year” in 2012, and Dinda.com. Smith found great success in Brazil. It was there that he learned not only how to run a business but also how to make difficult decisions regarding his work-life balance.
In Brazil the workday is typically longer than the average workday in the United States, with many people working until 7 or 8 p.m. His family lived in Sao Paulo just 5 miles away from his office, but it wasn’t safe enough to walk, and in rush hour his commute could take up to two hours.
Smith soon realized that if he left work by 6 p.m., he would get home in time to have dinner with his family, to help his kids with homework, read books to them and to have scripture study and prayer together.
“And I just made the decision that that was when I was going to leave,” Smith said. “I was going to leave by 6 p.m. And I remember one of our investors kind of challenging us and saying, ‘Why are you leaving? When you leave, your whole team will leave.’ And that’s very odd because most startups are bragging about how late their team works.”
The result was what Smith remembers as “a really special culture.” However, an unexpected byproduct was that because of its commitment to family, the company was able to attract “a tremendous amount of senior talent, women who wanted to work for a company that cared about women," he says. One such woman was a senior leader at Wal-Mart who joined Smith’s company because she wanted to start a family.
“Over two-thirds of our employees were women,” Smith said. “And it was just an amazing place to work. It was confirmation to me that when you stand behind your values, and you choose what’s right, there is oftentimes great benefit that comes from that.”
Smith describes his family’s time in Brazil as “a lot of fun” but he also knew that he had a mission to fulfill: He had to find a way to help people. He initially considered starting a nonprofit but decided that the best way he could help was by building another business.
“If I could go and build a business, I believed that I could make a difference in the world, where I could use the profits from the business to sustainably give back,” Smith said. “If I use the brand itself to inspire other people to do good.”
The Smith family returned to the United States and Smith began contacting connections he had made previously in the Silicon Valley to form his new business. He was raised the largest amount of capital ever raised from institutional investors by a benefit corporation, a corporation with a legal duty to fund a humanitarian mission from its profits. He and his wife narrowed possible headquarters for the business down to Seattle, San Francisco and Salt Lake City. His wife ultimately chose Salt Lake City.
“It’s been amazing,” Smith said of his experience in Salt Lake City. “It’s just been the best place. This entire ecosystem here—the community—is passionate about the outdoors, and Utah is the most generous state in the nation, donating time and money. There are people who have lived all over the world, they speak foreign languages, they’ve connected with different cultures and people, so I think they share a lot of the same values that our business and brand shares.”
With its roots planted in Salt Lake City, Smith began once again to build Cotopaxi, his new business.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Dieter Uchtdorf and it says, ‘The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul,’” Smith said. “And it’s absolutely true. For some, it may be creating music or creating art or cooking and creating something from nothing, but for me, it’s creating a business.”
It is by appealing to this desire within people to be part of “building something, especially something that is bigger than themselves,” that Smith has been able to assemble a team that truly buys into the idea that they and their customers can “do good,” as the company’s slogan says.
Together with his team, Smith has built the “Do Good” mission into everything Cotopaxi does. For example, when you order something on the Cotopaxi website you will receive a handwritten note written by a refugee teenager in Utah. The notes are part of a program, funded by Cotopaxi products, that teaches refugee teenagers valuable skills like how to open a bank account to practice budgeting or how to create a resume.
But the company seeks to help people around the world, not just those in Utah. One of its best-selling products is a jacket that is insulated with llama wool sourced from people in Bolivia, where Smith served his mission. These people typically make $100 per year but Smith hopes to provide them with improved livelihood.
Smith’s optimism and perspective is contagious, and he explains that his positive disposition is based on statistics, the kind of statistics you typically don’t hear reported. According to a study conducted in 2002, in the year 1820, 84 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. In the 1950s, 55 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. But last year, for the first time in the world’s history, less than 10 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty.
“Sometimes we feel like the world is such a scary place and it’s just getting worse, and certainly there are things to be concerned about, but when we look at the world as a whole, the world is becoming much better,” Smith said. “I believe we can eradicate extreme poverty in our lifetimes but can’t depend on the government alone to do that or nonprofits by themselves.
“We need the private sector to play their part. There are a lot of really beautiful, promising things about what’s happening in the world right now, and we can be a part of that.”3 comments on this story
Smith plans to be a player in creating change in the world through the private sector, trusting in his belief that “people want to support businesses that share their values and companies that are looking beyond their bottom line” to make the world a better place.
“We are building the next Patagonia, the next North Face, we are building the next big outdoor brand. We’re doing it right here in Salt Lake, and the mission behind this business is of course building something that can change the world, that can make the world a better place,” Smith said. “So our vision is that: to truly build a business that authentically does good. We want to prove that businesses can do well and do good at the same time.”