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Through Cotopaxi, Davis Smith Hopes to Change the World

I really believe we can change the world.

Each time I’ve been lucky enough to listen to Davis Smith describe his startup, Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear brand with a social mission, I’ve come away feeling inspired. My first opportunity to listen to Smith speak about his latest venture was at Startup Grind Lehi — a must-attend event for Utah entrepreneurs, hosted by our good friend Kyle Shields.

In his interview with Shields, Smith began by talking about his first two startups: PoolTables.com and Baby.com.br. PoolTables.com is now the largest pool table retailer in the United States, and Baby.com.br is the largest e-commerce site for baby products in Brazil.

The story behind each of Smith’s previous companies is fascinating. To start PoolTables.com, Smith and his cousin booked a flight to China in search of a pool table manufacturer — even though they had no connections in the country, and neither of them spoke the language. To turn Baby.com.br into the e-commerce juggernaut it is today, Smith managed to raise more than $40M in venture capital.

But it was the story behind Cotopaxi, the startup Smith will be launching 60 days from now, that I found most compelling. So, a few days after his Startup Grind Lehi appearance, I caught up with Smith to learn more about what he calls “the most important thing I’ve ever worked on in my life.”

“I’ve always had a real interest in having a social impact, and as an entrepreneur it’s always been something that I wish I could do more,” said Smith. “I found that I have a real passion for building businesses, and for being creative and coming up with business ideas, but I’ve wished I could also have a positive social impact.”

Smith had been thinking about social entrepreneurship for many years, hoping to find some way to utilize his knack for creating successful companies to affect social change.

“It was only after I decided to leave my business in Brazil, and came back to the States, that I came up with this idea, which was inspired by a little boy named Edgar,” said Smith.

While attending BYU, Smith and his wife enrolled in an internship program that sent them to work with a non-profit organization in Peru. They took that trip 13 years ago, but the memory of a little boy with a shoe shine kit has never strayed too far from Smith’s mind.

“We went up to Cusco to see Machu Picchu, and when we were in the city we befriended this little shoe shining kid named Edgar,” said Smith. “We started to bring him food; every time we bought a meal, we’d buy an extra meal for little Edgar. It was the highlight of our day; every day we’d find him, and you could see how much it meant to him, and it meant a lot to us.”

On their exciting adventure to a foreign country, the young couple from Utah thought Edgar, the happy-go-lucky shoe shining boy, was the highlight of their day. It’s Edgar, and not Machu Picchu, one of the most beautiful places in the world, that preoccupies Smith’s memories from his time in Peru. And there’s one memory in particular he still can’t shake.

“It was our last night in Cusco, and as we were walking up to our hotel we saw two little boys cuddled against each other on the side of the street,” said Smith. “My wife recognized one of the little boys as our friend Edgar, and so I walked across and sure enough I also recognized his outfit and then him.”

Edgar was sleeping on the side of the street because he had lost his most valuable possession and was too afraid to go home to face his father.

“He was scared his father would beat him for losing the shoe shining kit that helped support their family,” said Smith.

Smith and his wife gave young Edgar what little money the two poor college students had, and walked away wishing there was more they could do. The next day, as they were boarding a bus headed to the airport, a smiling Edgar appeared.

“He ran up to the bus, and he saw us through the window,” said Smith. “He had bought this big bag of candy to sell on the streets with the money we gave him. He kept running next to the bus and waving goodbye as we drove away. I never saw him again.”

The Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Warby Parker, Neil Blumenthal, who is a friend and former classmate of Smith’s from his time at the Wharton School, has been quoted as saying, “It’s not about the amount of wealth you can accumulate, it’s about the impact and change you can create.”

Smith walked away from Baby.com.br — a successful startup by any measure — to try his hand at changing the world. He did it because he believes a great entrepreneur should never be in it for the money. The money will come, but it’s nowhere near the greatest possible reward. Affecting change and making an impact is far more important to Smith at this stage in his career.

“I’m not sure what happened to Edgar, but there are children that need our help — children like Edgar that we should help,” said Smith. “It’s not too late for them. There are millions of children like him.”

In Peru, young shoe shining boys trying to make enough money to help feed their families is, unfortunately, all too common, and all too harrowing, as this excerpt from an article by Rodney Dodig in Peru This Week reveals:

One young boy — he could not have been more than eight years old — was working with his shoe shine box in the winter. At this time there was no place for these homeless young boys to seek shelter at night or even get a meal. This child had crawled into a large electrical switch box for warmth and a place to spend the night. At some point in the night he was electrocuted and discovered the next day by workers.

“The idea behind Cotopaxi is to have a business that can actually make a positive impact on the world,” said Smith. “We’re developing gear and apparel that allows us to make a positive impact. We have a pack called the ‘Cusco’ and it’s going to raise money for a little school in Cusco, Peru that will help little children just like Edgar; give them a warm meal every day, and teach them some basic skills that hopefully they can use to make a living and get out of poverty.

“We have another pack called the ‘Kilimanjaro’ that raises money for a little orphanage in Tanzania that was started by a mountaineer friend of mine. He runs these trips around the world to different mountains — to Everest and to Kilimanjaro. He has an organization called the Human Outreach Project, and he basically used his own money to buy this land in Kilimanjaro, and over a four year period he just had people come there and they’d work for free to build this orphanage. These expeditions that he’d bring would all spend their time working on this orphanage. Now it has 15 little kids in it and it costs $2,000 a month to operate. And he needs our help.”

Social entrepreneurship is currently a hot topic in the startup world, and with the success of companies like Toms and Warby Parker, many entrepreneurs are interested in social startups just from a marketing standpoint. Take any Marketing 101 class worth its salt and one of the first things you’ll learn is people don’t buy products, they buy stories. Smith is a strong believer in the importance of telling a story that resonates with consumers, but he also has one big caveat for other entrepreneurs to consider before thinking of founding a social startup.

“It has to be authentic. One thing that we see a lot of is companies that aren’t authentic trying to use these types of things as marketing ploys,” said Smith. “I think consumers can see right through that. For me, Cotopaxi is more a project where I really feel, number one, we can really impact the outdoor space, build great gear, and build a leading outdoor brand. But the bigger part of this for me is that I really believe we can change the world. We can make the world a better place and we can actually impact life positively.”

When Davis moved back to the United States from Brazil, he originally planned to move to California. He’d lived in Silicon Valley in the past, loves it there, and was always planning on moving back. But as he considered all of his options, he decided to launch Cotopaxi right here in the Beehive State.

“I really felt there was no better place for me to launch this business than in Utah, given our access to the outdoor space,” said Smith. “There is a lot of great technology talent here, and also outdoor product talent. It’s the right place for us to build this business.”

To see a startup like Cotopaxi, and an entrepreneur of Smith’s caliber, choose to be based in Utah is an exciting development for this state. We’re eager to cover their launch, and to witness their progress and success for many years to come.

To learn more about Cotopaxi, visit their website, and follow them on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIN. You should also follow DavisMSmith on Twitter.

Published 2/10/2014