If you’ve traveled, you’ve seen the destructive nature of capitalism. But can we lean into it and still make an impact? Better yet, can we use it as the very instrument for change? Davis Smith joins us today to share his story and emphasize the possibility of building a thriving business with a focus on social impact.
If you’ve traveled, you’ve seen the destructive nature of capitalism. But can we lean into it and still make an impact? Better yet, can we use it as the very instrument for change?
Davis Smith joins us today to share his story and emphasize the possibility of building a thriving business with a focus on social impact. Davis is the Founder and CEO of Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear brand with a humanitarian mission.
In this episode, he breaks down the methodology behind a purpose-driven business and the potential it has to effect change. Growing up in South America and being exposed to extreme poverty really informed Davis’ passion for impact, and he shares his fascinating path to linking social impact with business.
Davis illustrates what the world would look like if more businesses operated according to the Cotopaxi framework, and illuminates how, from his experience of sourcing investments, it seems to be women who have a greater understanding of impact and the future of business.
We also discuss the responsibility of the consumer to make a change, along with the nuances of where businesses are failing and how they can shift gears to move from destruction and extraction to meaningful impact!
The Better World Weekly is a weekly newsletter written and published by Grow Ensemble Founder and Podcast Host, Cory Ames. For the latest insights, analysis, and inspiration for building a better world, join the 1000s of changemakers and social entrepreneurs from all sectors all over the globe who get this email in their inbox every Monday.
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Davis Smith 0:00
Anyone that's traveled, you can see this anywhere, but especially if you've traveled, you've seen the destructive nature of capitalism. I've seen rivers that used to be tropical rivers, the jungle that are now just slow moving sludge, you know of garbage in like a tar almost, you know, seen rain forests where I grew up in Latin America and South America that are just completely devastated reefs that I used to swim out and love when I was a kid that I've gone back to that have completely crumbled and that are just dust on the floor. We are destroying the planet. And we have to think differently about how we consume and this isn't just on businesses, it's on all of us
Cory Ames 0:41
Is purpose driven business, how we fix capitalism? This is the subject of my conversation today with David Smith, the founder and CEO of Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear brand with a humanitarian mission.
Hey, y'all, Cory here from the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcasts as always so grateful to have you listening in special conversation here today. I've been following along with Cotopaxi for a long while, participated in one of the very quest evolves that Davis mentioned, as a key to Cotopaxi these early growth at participate in one of those in San Antonio a few years back, but have very adamantly supported this this company for some time. And it was a really wonderful privilege should to be able to talk about some of the nitty gritty of the the philosophy and as well methodology behind purpose driven business, and what sort of potential it has to impact change. So we'll get to this conversation with Davis here very soon. But before we do, I want to invite you to sign up for my better world weekly newsletter, this my weekly newsletter that I write, curate, and publish myself send out every single Monday. This is my discussion with our community of changemakers here at grow ensemble from all sectors all over the world, go to grow ensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join into that discussion. Alright, show without further ado, here is Davis Smith, founder and CEO of Cotopaxi.
Davis Smith 2:23
Cory, thanks for having me, this is this is really fun been looking forward to this. You know, it is an interesting path to impact. And I will say also, it wasn't what I originally thought I'd be doing. So I grew up in Latin America, I moved there as a four year old, moved to the Dominican Republic with my family, my parents, I ended up spending all my my childhood and youth in Latin America in a number of different countries. And I had known since I was a kid that this is what I wanted to use my life to do was to find a way to help people. And specifically, I wanted to fight poverty, seen so many amazing people that were just crippled by poverty. Now, these are people that could have been amazing. Business leaders, amazing creators, amazing entrepreneurs. And instead, they have no future in a lot of ways. And it's heartbreaking to see that they have no opportunities to get out to escape the poverty that they were born into. I actually suspect that I work in the nonprofit world or something connected to impact directly. And it wasn't until I was in college that I met a mentor, a man named Steve Gibson, who had started a nonprofit. He'd been a successful entrepreneur, and then started a nonprofit. He was around 60 years old. And he and his wife moved to the Philippines and started helping teach entrepreneurship to people living in extreme poverty. And these individuals would join their the school that they started a school that had 25 people at a time, they lived in residence for two months. And they learned how to create a little micro enterprise like smaller than a small business, like a lot of times, just employing themselves and maybe their their spouse, and maybe even their children. And some of the stories were just amazing. I mean, they were teaching and changing the lives of 1000s of people. Some of these entrepreneurs had gone on to hire hundreds of employees. It was very inspiring to me.
And I had actually an article of this man into the story of his nonprofit that I carried around undergrad every day and it was in the front cover of my clear face binder. And I just happen to see him getting into an elevator on campus one day, I ran down the hall. I stuck my arm the elevator door was closed and I jumped inside and of course he was trapped. He had to talk to me and I had to give a true elevator pitch and he's someone that had changed 1000s of lives. He was a multimillionaire, I was a nobody. And he was so kind and he was flattered that I recognized him and he invited me to me with him and a couple We extend his office. And so I took the opportunity and I'd prepared a little pitch that I was going to convince him to, to let me go work for him. And I wanted to expand his program from the Philippines to Latin America, where I'd grown up. And I gave him the whole spiel. And by the end of the spiel, he, you know, he's smiling and nodding the whole time. And in my head, I'm thinking, I'm nailing this, like, I'm gonna get to work for my idol, this is gonna be amazing. And he goes, at the end, he just says, Davis, I love how passionate you are about impact and about finding a way to make a difference to this place of the world that you really love. But he said, you know, what I see in you is that you would be a great entrepreneur, you shouldn't work for a nonprofit, you'll be able to go make a bigger impact by finding your own path, maybe 10 or 20 years down the road, you'll be able to figure out a way that you can go have your impact, like I've had mine, and it was really great advice. I've stayed in touch with Steve Gibson, he's close to 80. Now, we get together maybe once a year for lunch and stay connected here and there by text. Over the years, I've heard, I've heard him tell a lot of people that he sees in them, they'd be a great entrepreneur. So he really didn't see anything special in me, it turns out, but he kind of put me on this different path that I never really considered before, which was a path of using entrepreneurship in some way to be a force for good in the world.
Cory Ames 6:16
Was there any internal resistance that you experienced? First, conceiving that maybe the nonprofit world or something, as you thought to be more directly connected to impact was going to be your path, your profession, perhaps how you chose to pursue your own personal mission? Did you have any resistance? Or did you kind of jump in with both feet, given that sage advice, it seems.
Davis Smith 6:38
I did jump in with both feet in terms of entrepreneurship. After he told me that I was like, determined to become an entrepreneur. And it was like, Okay, I have a mission. Now I know what I need to do. And, of course, I didn't know anything about entrepreneurship. I had studied international studies in undergrad. So I didn't have a background in business. But I was really passionate about this idea of finding a way to help. And so I spent 10 years building two different businesses that had nothing to do with social impact. And I didn't know how to link impact with business. It wasn't obvious to me, I did have a couple ideas in those first early months of exploring entrepreneurship, that connected social impact with a business idea. Both of those ideas I kind of dabbled with and tested. And they both failed. They just they didn't work, I kind of jumped to another idea that I had that didn't have a connection to social impact. But all of our passwords and that business were referencing social impact, even though the business did nothing to to have social impact. But it was on my mind constantly. I just didn't know how to link them. And it took 10 years as an entrepreneur before I, I had the idea of building code epoxy, which really connected this idea of building a brand with purpose that could scale and over time could have a much bigger impact than if I was just doing something on my own.
Cory Ames 7:57
So Davis, I've heard you mentioned this a few other times in conversations, I took some opportunity to digest and listen to you before our chat here. It took you 10 years to figure out how to link impact in business or how to use business to do good in the world. I'm curious to jump into that a bit more as to really did you have to figure out like what was it exactly was the missing link for you to bring what then became Cotopaxi after that.
Davis Smith 8:27
My first two business was they were ecommerce businesses as well, similar to what I'm doing now. The first one even had a physical component of our own retail stores kind of like I have now with quarterbacks as well. So it's like, if this one is so obvious, why didn't I figure this out before? Or was that missing piece and I need to 10 years to really kind of understand how to build a business. And I do remember feeling quite frustrated. While I was in Brazil, like why haven't I figured this out yet? Like why am I spending these critical years of my life, I was in my mid 30s 3435. And it was like, Okay, it's time for me to go do something like I was feeling a lot of urgency and feeling discouraged that like what I've done so far just didn't seem to connect the dots of like, what my desires were. And, you know, I thought of impact every day. It was like it was on my mind every single day. And actually, I'd set a goal, a New Year's resolution in 2013. I wanted to change somebody's life. I put it on a poster on the mirror in the bathroom. And my wife always makes fun of my goals, because they're not very good goals. You're supposed to be smart, right? Like, I don't even remember what the acronym stands for. But it's like specific and measurable and attainable and some other things. But my goals are never that good.
But it was like it was just the idea behind how I wanted to use my life. I wanted to be aware of like others and look for opportunities to help and lift somebody one night. This is an early May. So it's been, you know, four or five months into the year and I was laying in bed just feeling really discouraged about what I was doing and like Why haven't I figured this out and how am I going to go accomplish this goal that I had my whole life. Some ideas just started coming to me, I got out of bed and I went and sat on the couch. And I ended up spending that entire night on the couch the entire next day and the entire following night. on that couch where the idea for quarterbacks he came to me and everything from our slogan gear for good to, we started with these events called Quest levels, these 24 hour adventure races, I had some early ideas of that in there. But it was just this idea that I could build a brand and a business that could sustainably create profit that would then allow me to go focus on helping others. I knew that what I saw in Brazil, and other places I lived in Latin America, there were amazing nonprofits that I was connected to, I'd volunteer at. And some of them were doing amazing work. But their impact was so limited because they weren't great fundraisers, they were like, they're constantly begging for money. And I just felt like this is something I could help solve. Like, if I could build a brand that could sustainably create profit that I could go then support these amazing nonprofits, they can then focus on what they're really great at, which is impact and I can help them on the side of like, helping provide the funds they need to go do the good they want to do. And so all sudden, it just connected the dots where it's like, Yes, and I started seeing other brands like TOMS Shoes, of course and and Warby Parker, which was started by some classmates of mine in business school, and some other brands that were figuring out ways to have impact with their brands, and all the dots kind of started connecting. And I thought, okay, I know what to do. I know how to build a brand, I know how to build this business. And I want to weave impact into every little aspect of, of the brand and the experience.
Cory Ames 11:33
How consistent Do you feel like Cotopaxi is today? With perhaps with those notes, were that you you scribbled in that journal or wrote into a Word doc? How if we were to review that versus what's it looking like today? Would we see it?
Davis Smith 11:49
Yes, yeah, in fact, I reviewed it, not more than like a month or two ago. And I actually went and shared a bunch of the notes with my executive team, I was honestly shocked how like dead on it was for like, what we're doing now, eight years later, with that early vision of what I thought we could accomplish, I remember one of the things I wrote was that this needs to be bigger than just one brand, I believe that there was an opportunity to help with this movement, creating a movement where hopefully I can inspire, if I wrote, If I could inspire 1000 other businesses or entrepreneurs to go find a way that they could have impact themselves, that's going to have a much bigger impact than if I just focus on my own thing. And so I think one of the missions of quarterbacks has always been inspiring others and moving others to do good with us alongside us. And so if we can gather others to join us in this movement, all the sudden, we could change the world together. And so that's definitely a big part of the ambition for this brand.
Cory Ames 12:43
Huh. What spurred you to dig the notes back up? Was there some particular moment or milestone that wanted you to, to reflect on him?
Davis Smith 12:51
I'm very reminiscent I love thinking back to moments in time that trigger certain directions. And I've actually referenced the notes quite a few times over the years. But it's always fun to go back. I even went back recently and found some old my first emails that I sent out to people about the idea, you know, some of the earliest team members that joined, I found an email of like, there was a guy that designer at the north face that I tried to convince to join the business. And he ended up saying no, but you know, finding that email thinking, oh my gosh, like, it was just an idea. Like, there was nothing really there of why when he joined, even though like, who in the right mind would join this little startup, like people had real jobs, but in my mind, it was like I was on to something that was huge, and an opportunity to really make a huge impact on the world. And I really believed in it and maybe was a little bit blind, to how others might see it differently.
Cory Ames 13:41
Sure, it seems like that it's something of a requirement for ambition in social entrepreneurship. You mentioned there, Davis, the movement of inspiring other entrepreneurs and business leaders to see the potential for creating impact through business. Likewise, what that can do is another chapter here to Cotopaxi and what's to happen next, I'd love to talk about that kind of on a wider scale. Perhaps use Cotopaxi as some comparison too. But there is a prevailing narrative that business and industry generally is destructive or extractive where is it failing in what are some of the the levers or things that if changed? Would have business work in a different way to where we'd see more Cotopaxis than we do right now.
Davis Smith 14:29
It's a conflict even for me, where it's like, how do we do this in a completely different way? That's not destructive at all. Because the reality is that I mean, capitalism, in some ways is this amazing tool 200 years ago, 94% of the world was living in extreme poverty under $1.90 a day. I was born in 1978. I'm 43 in 1978 that had been cut down to 40%. When I graduate from high school is 20%. And now it hovers around 9%. We are eradicating extreme poverty. It is amazing, like this time that we are living on the planet is an extraordinary time. And a lot of that happened in places like India and China where there was like an opening of markets that all of a sudden allowed people to pull themselves out of poverty, largely through the principles of capitalism. At the same time, anyone that's traveled, you can see this anywhere, but especially if you've traveled, you've seen the destructive nature of capitalism. I've seen rivers that used to be tropical rivers, the jungle, that are now just slow moving sludge, you know, of garbage in like a tar almost, you know, seeing rain forests, where I grew up in Latin America and South America that are just completely devastated reefs that I used to swim out and love when I was a kid that I've gone back to that have completely crumbled, and that are just dust on the floor. We're destroying the planet. And we have to think differently about how we consume and this isn't just on businesses. That's an it's on all of us, like, how are each of us consuming? And all of us are guilty. All the single use plastics that we use every single day, it's like, how do we do a better job as consumers? And how do we get businesses to be more accountable to how they're think about manufacturing and producing product, I don't have all the answers. We aren't perfect as a brand. But it's something that we deeply care about. And 94% of our products last year were made of remnant or recycled, or responsibly made material, most of that being remnants. So we're using leftover materials from these other outdoor brands that many of you know and probably love. But we use the same factory as them. And we have these remnants that we're able to use, we're not dying, putting dyes into rivers, we're not using plastics, Virgin classes to go create materials, we're using leftovers remnants. So that's a great step in the right direction. At the same time, I don't miss the solution, we have to do better. And we're working as a brand to figure out what are the next steps? How do we take this a level further? And we're still exploring, like, I don't know, all the answers. But I think that's important also, for people to have the courage to say, You know what, I'm not going to be perfect at figuring this out. And I'm going to make some mistakes along the way. But I'm going to try it anyways, I'm going to have the courage to do it, even if people criticize at times because I didn't do it right. Or I didn't do it perfectly. If we can all just have the courage to take those steps forward and say, Okay, let's do it. Just do it a little bit better than has been done. It's not perfect. Yep. We'll figure it out together.
Cory Ames 17:20
Hmm. What do you think is the differing roles of business or government or individuals, you know, consumers in the business context to effecting these types of change? Because there's oftentimes arguments or pointing fingers of, you know, they have to change they have to change or whatever. What do you see the balancing act between all the different responsible, accountable price?
Davis Smith 17:43
Yeah, I mean, I think this changes when everyone together is in unison, moving in the right direction. So I think government plays a role, they can play a role in encouraging good behaviors and discouraging bad behavior. I think that's important. But government alone can't regulate us to do this, right? We need businesses to choose what's right, number one, because they want to do the right thing. And I feel a lot of hope here, because I look at the younger generations, they feel very passionately about these things. When I go to a college campus, I go pretty frequently to go speak to students. Last week, I was meeting with a bunch of students, they're asking me questions that I had not even thought about when I was in college. Even when I was in grad school, you know, I weren't 10 years ago, the founder of Chipotle was there. And he was talking about this new way of thinking about treating animals. And he talked about how like the pigs and the chickens they use, or like open range, and like, it was like, wow, like they're not being stuck in these pens. And it was like, this is really inspiring to see an entrepreneur thinking differently. And I remember one of the students asked, do Would you consider yourself a social entrepreneur? And the founder was like, I don't know what that means. Is that like social media? Like what do you mean social entrepreneur? This was like, maybe 11 years ago, this is just such a new conversation. And I'm really inspired by these young people that are so passionate about it. So that gives me a lot of hope, because the future leaders of businesses and organizations are going to be these people that think different. At the same time, business leaders will make the right decision when it's expedient for them. And sometimes they'll just make the right decision, because it's the right thing. And I think there's a lot of those. But the reality is that other businesses probably won't move until they feel the pressure to do so. And that only happens when consumers change the way they consume. So we as individual consumers need to do a better job of supporting the kind of brands or businesses that are doing things right. If we say yes, we care about this, but then we go and we're buying products at retailers or from brands that aren't doing this right, just so we can save an extra dollar or two, that sends a signal that this stuff doesn't matter. And so all of us together have to figure this out. We all have to move in the right direction together for this change to happen.
Cory Ames 19:51
I'm curious what because this seemed like an important first step when you bought back the first business you started pooltables.com and Understand you did that recently, one of the first steps you took was to reincorporate the business as a benefit corporation. So I'd be interested to hear, what do you think the benefit corporation structure offers as a tool, or a lever in this, this exact conversation, we're talking about changing the paradigm in business.
Davis Smith 20:20
This is a fun story, right? It's, you know, that first business that I talked about where all the passwords were connected to social impact, they didn't have any social impact at all, very random business called pool tables.com. It's exactly what you think it is selling pool tables on the internet, my first business and I really loved it, even though I'm not really a pool player, I loved creating something and, you know, building something of my own, and the learning that happened there, you know, I sold the business, my cousin and I built together, we sold the business after like six and a half years. So that was over a decade ago that we sold it but we maintain a small percentage of ownership in the business. And fast forward over a decade, the owner says he reached out and said, hey, just want to give you a heads up and you know, a quick update, you know, I'm selling the business, I have a buyer, that's gonna buy it. And the business is about twice the size it was when you sold it. So not really explosive growth, but it's grown a little bit over the years. And, you know, my first thought was, congratulations, Tim, you know, that's great. He's looking to retire. He's in his 60s and had a few different businesses kind of under his belt, and this is one of them. But the more I started looking at it, it was like, you know, what, I didn't know what I was doing in my 20s. I know better what I'm doing now. Like, I think I know what to do with that business now. And that dream that I always had an easy business to do good through that business. Like, I think I actually know how I could do it. And so I actually reached back out to him and said, Hey, would you consider letting me buy the business back?
After some negotiation, we figure out a way that I could do that. And the day that I bought it, I converted it to a benefit corporation. And to answer your question, anyone that wants to get into new habits, you understand the value of telling others about where it's like, Okay, I'm gonna start exercising, and I'm going to tell everyone, I know that I'm going to exercise every single day. And also, there's like, the social accountability, where it's like, okay, everyone knows that I've committed to this. Now I've got to do it. There is some something similar in business where you say, Hey, I'm putting a flag in the ground a stake in the ground, I'm saying, This is who we are, like, we are going to be different. We are going to use this brand to go fight poverty, we're going to think more about sustainability. Like how do we go create a brand where the wood of the spool table, you know where it came from, you can go trace it and track it and say, Okay, I've rainforest wasn't cut down to make this pool table. And this what I know exactly the story behind it. And so when you make those public commitments he incorporate as a benefit corporation. It's amazing what that does to like, motivate you to be like, Okay, now we've said it, now we got to go do it. And so I think that is a lot of the power that comes behind it. And of course, there's like the legal commitments, you know, every couple years, we have to legally we have to go provide an impact report to the state of Delaware, where we incorporated and there's some of those things, but that's not really what drives I think, impact, you know, your desire to go have impact. It's number one, it's in the heart, like, what do you really care about? And number two, it's like, okay, we've told everyone, we're doing this. Now we're accountable. And I love this accountability that we have. And let's go share with everyone how we're doing it. And you know, what we're learning along the way.
Cory Ames 23:12
I just have to ask, because I did visit the website before this conversation, where is redesigning the website on the list of priorities.
Davis Smith 23:20
It's like priority number one. It's like, it's so funny. Like the website, I think it actually looks worse than it did when we sold the business like in 2009, or something. So there's a lot of work to do with this little business, we've already made some little changes, I hired a CEO who's amazing, we've made some changes. And we're seeing every week we're having record breaking weeks. So even small changes have already started to have an impact, the web redesign that's going to be happening, we're going to replatform over to Shopify, so that's going to take a little bit of time, might take six months or so to get that to fully transition over. We had a really fun meeting a couple weeks ago, or maybe a week ago with a professor that I know at a local university that specializes in social impact. And she's helping us think through how we can go We've impact into this brand. I have a bunch of ideas already, but love bringing experts that can help me maybe rethink what I'm thinking. And so we're making progress. I'm not a very patient person. So this is it's hard. When you start something from scratch with impact is woven in from the beginning. In some ways, it's really hard but in other ways, it's really easy because it's just woven into everything you do. It's a little harder when you come into a business that's been around for 18 years, and you have to go change things that have been done a long time in a different way until it takes a little bit of time so I've tried to be patient with myself and with the business as we make that transition but I'm super excited about it.
Cory Ames 24:41
It is very exciting endeavor and potential case study it seems working through your thesis of business and its capabilities for for doing such impactful good. I'm wondering because full circle to pooltables.com and I know you hired a CEO so your involvement will be different this time around. But what is some of the formula or the playbook that you're incorporating to add more impact into that business? Right away. And it's just interesting to note, you know, it took you, as you mentioned, a decade to figure out how to integrate the two good in business. Turns out it wasn't the business maybe was just the toolset and a little more wisdom. But I'd be curious to hear what are some of the principles or things that you're reviewing and looking at,
Davis Smith 25:24
I'll tell you this, if a pool table business can go make the world a little bit better, any business can do it, right. And so that's my hope is to show, you know, no matter what industry you're in, no matter what type of business you are, there are an amazing ways that you can go find impact around the world. And so kind of the things that I'm thinking about, number one, it's around redefining culture. So we've gone through a process of creating a mission statement where the mission statement involves impact. And so we're starting to go through this process of creating that that story that we can talk about internally, we've gone through a process of identifying core values, and one of the core values that we've identified is impact. And how do we change culture? You know, how do we create rituals and traditions internally, that reinforce that it's small things every day, it's about providing opportunities to go volunteer together as a team, it's maybe an opportunity where the employee of the year or something gets to go visit, you know, our impact partner, down in Mexico, or in Peru, where we're working? It's been really disciplined about like, where do we want to have impact? And how do we want to have it and so I can speak from, you know, the perspective of Cotopaxi every day, I get a dozen emails of people saying, Hey, we're doing this amazing thing and around the world, and we need your help, or you financially support us. And the temptation is be like, Yes, I love what you're doing. I love like, I love that you're doing good, and like, How can I help you. But if you really want to have the right kind of impact and scalable impact, you have to be very disciplined. And you have to be able to say no most of the time and just say, we know exactly where we're going to focus. And this is how we intend to have that impact. And so we're going through that process right now with the pool tables business, and we're getting more and more clarity every day around how we're going to accomplish it and who we're going to be supporting and why it's a really fun process. Even for a business that's been around. It's kind of an entrepreneurial startup, feeling all over again, for anyone that's listening, you know, if you're in an organization, whether it's a for profit, or nonprofit, just going through these steps is really invigorating and fun. It's worth diving into and exploring.
Cory Ames 27:32
it's just great to have side by side with the example of Cotopaxi because they're just such contrasting like feeling businesses and vibes. And so to have them both set, a very ambitious mission aligned in fighting poverty, then I'll be very interested myself to follow along and see what happens with with pool tables calm, but to transition a little bit back to Cotopaxi. Davis, with a business like that setting such an ambitious target of any extreme poverty. Where do you begin to tackle such an ambitious issue and problem looking from the business lens? Like what does that start to look like? I know there's the Cotopaxi Foundation, which is not necessarily something that all businesses do. You have different forms of give back and stuff like that. But that's different. I'd be curious to hear, especially as you mentioned, the discipline. How do you start to approach an issue like this, where there's so many different organizations, people as well, focusing on this important issue?
Davis Smith 28:29
You know, I knew poverty was going to be the core focus of what we tackled, but we didn't need to do some work. You know, my first year in the business I, I oversized, packed, I knew nothing. I knew nothing about this world. And so I did, obviously, I didn't do a really great job, but I cared about it. And I was really passionate about it. So we identified some nonprofits to support one of them was in Peru, an organization that supported children's street children and I had a special connection to Peru, I live there and had developed what's become one of the most meaningful friendships of my life with a little boy that was, there was a shining kid that over 20 years later, I'm in touch with like, every week, I supported an orphanage in Bolivia, I had been a missionary. I was a Mormon missionary, when I was 1920 21 years old, lived in Bolivia, I lived in a little tiny town, removed from really any kind of civilization. Very, very small. And this orphanage, I used to visit it when I lived there. And I've gone back a number of times since I just felt a really special connection to this place. And they don't they don't have phones or internet or anything like that. The only way to get there you take, you know, obviously fly to a number of different cities that you'd have to take a long, like 12 hour bus into the hills and get to the civil town. So a year into the business. I hired a Chief impact officer. And, you know, she came in she moved to Utah. She'd never been to Utah before came from Silicon Valley. And was this like really experienced impact expert. And she sat down and we said Okay, like, talk to me about the impact that you're having talking about, what are you doing already? And I kind of talked about these nonprofits that we were supporting, and I was feeling really proud. Like, I was like, so proud of the work that we've done. And she's like, wait, wait, tell this orphanage in Bolivia? How did you get them the money, I was like, I just went down there a few months ago, and I like deliver, I just gave them cash. I gave these these nuns that are running the orphanage, I gave them cash. And like, they were blown away, like they couldn't believe it. I'm feeling happy about what I've done. She's like, Davis, like, what did they do with it? And I was like, I have no idea. She's like, so you're not measuring impact at all? And I was like, no, like, I don't even know what that means, really. And she's like, well, you how do you know, they didn't just steal the money. And it was like on they wouldn't like their, their nuns like in this little town, like, you know, there's no way they would and, but I learned some valuable lessons, which was, you have to have a lot more discipline around, if you want to have impact, and you don't want to have negative, unintended consequences, you have to be much more disciplined. And so she helped us put a structure in place that was much more discipline, which was, you know, we identified healthcare, education and livelihood training as three core pillars of focus, which we believe those three pillars are inextricably linked to poverty alleviation. And we focus specifically on the Americas, Latin America is our key area of focus. And so we've developed a framework of where we're going to go have impact how we're going to do it. And we've developed a framework of the type of organizations that will work with, and there's all sorts of measures that we look at in terms of like, how do we measure these organizations and type of groups that we want to work with. But that's some of the learning I've gone through, I'm still not an expert. At the end of the day, I'm still like, an entrepreneur that loves impact. And that's learning as much as I can. But we have experts on our team, we have an impact team at quarterback see that they are experts, and they're working to teach me, you know, I can learn along the way. But it's been a really fun process.
Cory Ames 31:48
I think that's an incredibly important point. Because there is this paradigm in maybe conventional entrepreneurship, that people will want to pursue a very successful venture and perhaps make a bunch of money. And then ultimately, then they're going to focus on giving back to the world or leaving the world a better place. But they're like, first and foremost, you know, I need to pursue this business success strictly. But I think it's a very important lesson to learn that, you know, as seriously as people pursue business and entrepreneurship. These issues in the world, like poverty, as an example, are extremely complex and extremely nuanced as to what's going to affect what and what will actually produce the outcomes that we're looking for, like people spend their lives similarly, and determine what's the best way to to solve those issues. On a global scale, you need the time applied, you need the expert input and support to be able to properly address those.
Davis Smith 32:39
Yeah, absolutely. And that would be some advice I would give any entrepreneur that's thinking about wanting to have impact is go get some experts, and doesn't mean you have to go hire a chief impact officer, you know, 12 months into your business. But maybe it means hiring someone as a consultant or bringing someone onto your advisory board that's an expert in this and giving them a little bit of equity in the business. But you know, if you're going to be really committed to it, and you really want to have the right kind of impact, you're going to make a lot of mistakes. And you know, the fewer mistakes you can make, the less damage you're going to do, unintentionally, the better, and you get the right people around the table. It's amazing the kind of impact that you can have together.
Cory Ames 33:15
It seems like this thread or this theme of getting the right people around you as it's been something that you've reiterated in other conversations, articles, features, time and time again, as is being what's allowed Cotopaxi to develop and evolve into the business that it has. I'd be curious to hear a little bit more. And I know you've shared about this in other capacities. But what are some of your philosophy around getting the right people around you in Cotopaxi? How do you think about that?
Davis Smith 33:42
Yeah. You know, when I was in business school, I was really intimidated. I was surrounded by people that I just felt were 100 times smarter than me. I was like, how did I even get in? It was like a mistake or something, you know, that I got into into Wharton and the first year I remember really feeling that and a lot of self doubt. And I think imposter syndrome like I think I think it's just normal human behavior to maybe feel that way. Maybe others around me felt the same. But I remember thinking wow, like everyone here would be an amazing entrepreneur. Like every I was telling everyone, you should be an entrepreneur, like your ways smarter than I am, like, I'm sure you could have a ton of success. And I think what I learned along the way was that I was smarter, like I did well in school, but like some of those people were exceptionally brilliant. But what I found really ended up mattering more than being exceptionally brilliant was your ability to get people to believe in what you believe in and to rally people around something a common cause. And that's something that I found that I was good at was like, I was very passionate about certain things. And I had the ability to bring other people around me that are much smarter than me and that they could help me execute on those big ideas and those visions and so, but unable to do that. Number one, I think learning how to sell I think is important, not just a business just in life, just understanding how to communicate vision and a passion and maybe it's selling to consumers, maybe it's selling to your team, future team to get them to join you, it's investors and donors to get them to believe in what you're doing. So I think that's an important piece of this. I think another part is like truly building exceptional culture, you have to invest in creating a place where people want to be, they might be inspired by you, or by your vision or mission. But like, if you create a place, that's not fun to be at, every day, you lose people. And so for us, it was, you know, we defined our core values before we sold a single product, we knew what we stood for, we developed rituals and traditions that reinforce those values. We were true to those values, and we talked about them every day. And so I think building great culture is a really important piece of assembling and retaining the right team.
Cory Ames 35:49
along a somewhat similar thread is is the resources to do so I know that there's an important investment that happened with Cotopaxi recently with veins, double Impact Fund $45 million. And I know this isn't the first investment that Cotopaxi has received. But I'd be interested to hear what makes this different in so significant.
Davis Smith 36:09
There's different ways to build organizations, right in the for profit space, which were in as a benefit corporation were a for profit entity that then uses our profits to go do good. You can build a business through debt or through equity, my first business, the pool table business, it was bootstrapped. So it was you know, using our own profits and borrowing, I got my parents in my in laws to mortgage their homes, and it was super stressful. But you know, that's how we built that business. And after doing that, once I was like, I don't ever want to do that, again, that was very, very stressful. And so, you know, with Cotopaxi, I built it through investors, you know, getting investors that I sold them on this vision of like, we could go build something tremendous together, the next iconic outdoor brand, but that's all focused on inspiring people to do good with us. And we can change capitalism, we can go build a brand that's that inspires the world. And I had, you know, a lot of investors that didn't believe in us. And that's normal. You know, a lot of times it was discouraging. But we had enough investors that believed in us and our first investor, Kirsten Green, from 400 Ventures in Silicon Valley. She believed in us and she'd built some great brands before. And our next investor was a woman named Ellie Wheeler. And we had a few others that followed after that. And following rounds, we had Lauren Iverson and Brooke Harley. And then our last round with Bain Capital was led by Cecilia Chow.
We've had these amazing investors. And obviously, there's a common thread between all those, which is that they're all women. We have male investors. But it seems like at the most critical junctures, we've had women that have led rounds and led the business and they've joined our board. And that's been a really interesting thing to see, I actually believe that women better understand the future of business, they better understand impact than men. Hopefully, that changes, I think it will. But right now, it's really something really unique that I think women investors bring to the table that we've really enjoyed. But we you know, we've raised venture capital, and we recently had this big capital investment, which was very exciting. I've known them for about five or six years now. So they came and visited us in Salt Lake when they heard about us, and we were so small, like, they had no business even coming out to talk to us, like we were, like, we were such a joke. I mean, but it was, but they really were inspired by what we stood for. And, you know, we just kept in touch with them and kept them updated as we grew. And we got to a point last year where we got to a size, the first five years of the business, we were not profitable, we were giving away every dollar we made, and more, you know, we were losing money. And we were giving away money still thick, because we made a commitment to do that. And after, you know, five or so years in the business, we started turning a profit and the business was growing quickly. And we reached out to them. And it was something that made sense. What I love about them is their entire fund is focused on impact. And I've never had an investor where every conversation you have, they're talking about impact and about how you can do more and better. And so they're driving us to even step it up beyond what we're already doing. And I'm really proud last year, we helped one over 1.2 million people living in poverty through our brand. And so I feel like this partner is just a really fantastic world class investor that's going to help us be a better business. And better right impact. It's so far it's been a really fun journey with them.
Cory Ames 39:15
Sometimes the question of what sort of external pressure investment money brings on, I think, especially in the context of impact businesses, and it seems like it's all about the right fit investors for one, but I'd be curious to hear because I know that the investors was still be expecting a return for their investment. And so how does that balance then with the pursuit of Cotopaxi's impact goals along the growth goals?
Davis Smith 39:43
Yeah, they definitely expect a return on investment just like any investor would. And actually, that's what I love about this story is that what we're showing is that you don't have it's not a trade off. It's not like, Oh, you can either build a really good business or you can go have impact. It's like no, you can do both of these. If you own the impact, and you show that that's like authentically part of the fiber of this brand or the business, consumers want to support you. They believe in it because they share those values. And that ends up creating a better business that then it furthers your ability to go have impact. And so that's what we're trying to prove is that you can do both, it's not a trade off. But yeah, certainly, they're gonna expect us to create those returns. At the same time, there are different expectations, my compensation, and my executive team compensation is now tied to impact metrics, which it wasn't before. And I love this, it's like, this is amazing, you know, this feels really good. And so they're bringing in a level of expectations that is different than what we had. And there's tough decisions that have to be made as you take on investor like this as they expect something really great. And so there's things that we're having duck level and do differently, or better. But my experience so far is when you have the right partner that's values and mission aligned, that, you know, you're in it together, and so far, I felt complete alignment in the direction that they've helped us navigate.
Cory Ames 41:01
Obviously, you can't tell the future. But how does this change? Cotopaxi? I know you're seeking a president, you're going to still maintain that the CEO position, but what changes for Cotopaxi after an investment like this?
Davis Smith 41:14
Yeah, there are some changes. And that's one big one query is, you know, that search, it's, you know, if I've been honest, like I'm nervous about I'm a little scared, it's like, I gotta get this one, right. I've never built a brand that scaled, like, let's say, from 100 million to 500 million, or to a billion. We need someone that's done that before. And can we figure it out? Probably, but I think it'd be a lot more fun. If we bring someone along with us that's done it before that has the playbook that can help I love growing and learning. And if I can bring someone in, that can help me learn to be a better CEO and to grow. I'm very excited about that idea. So but this has definitely been something that been as we've been talking, it's like, they're saying, hey, you know, we've been part of a lot of brands, and this is an area where we think you'd actually really enjoy having someone alongside you that that's done this before that can help, you know, help in that journey. So if we'd not raise money from Bain, would we be hiring that role? Probably not. And that's what I love about this pressure, you know, it's helping us, you know, think differently than we would have otherwise. And it's, you know, doing harder things.
Cory Ames 42:16
I'm really interested to know, from your perspective, what would you think the world would look like? If as many businesses as possible, were like, Cotopaxi, were like, folks, I know you've referenced before Allbirds Warby Parker, maybe what pooltables.com will be in a few years to come? What do you imagine that world would look like, in contrast to our experience of business right now?
Davis Smith 42:42
It's fun to imagine what that might look like. It's maybe hard to envision exactly. But I will say like, I think it's a it's a world where, number one, we've eradicated poverty, that's so achievable. We're so close. And, you know, we're just a tiny, little brand. And I look at the impact the impact that we've been able to have as a small brand. And I just think, man, if we had every business that's much bigger than us, the CEOs and these brands have megaphones, they can affect change in such big ways, if they're willing to just do it. And so, I think we eradicate poverty, we change how we consume and I look at all birds. So inspired by Joey, Tim over at Allbirds. Those founders, Joey was a classmate of mine in business school along to Warby Parker founders, and just thinking about how they're creating products so differently like using, of course wool, which is so much more sustainable than what you see other shoes made of even the soul of the shoe is made out of, I think eucalyptus or something like, it's like totally biodegradable, it's this amazing new way of thinking about product, I have a pair of their joggers and his hoodie of theirs, they have like the carbon footprint is like printed on the exterior of the product. It's like, they're changing the way that we think about how we make product. And if every brand every business was thinking about, and we can all do it differently. That's the beauty of it. Like, my passion is around poverty. And I love the outdoors. So it's like I built this brand that's focused on that. But like, we have so many gifted and talented people in business, they have their own passions. And if we all tackled these our own passions in this really rigorous way, I think we could fast forward all the social change that we're that we're all fighting for the last few years where you're hearing about it, we can fast forward this in such an amazing way if we can get businesses to get behind some of these big rocks that we need to move as society.
Cory Ames 44:31
So do you see that the constraint perhaps to a Cotopaxi or an Allbirds, or other businesses making the impact that they'd like to as resources and well, if those levers were switched on, and we be able to have the momentum to alleviate poverty as an example?
Davis Smith 44:50
Yeah, you know, maybe it's resources. I kind of don't think it's resources though, but I could be wrong, but I think I really think it's around will and enlightenment And I say enlightenment in that when I was an undergrad, I knew nothing about this stuff like I never even heard about it. So it was like, it wasn't until I'd been exposed to it a little bit that I was like, Oh, yes, like, that is a path that I think I could figure out. And do. You know, when I go talk to students at universities, like, that's what I'm hearing constantly, as they reach out to me on LinkedIn, or whatever it's like, they'll reach out a year or two later and say, I've gone down this path. And it's totally different. After I heard you speak, I was so inspired by thinking about this differently than I was, and it's about let's go evangelize this new way of thinking, let's help universities, every university should be teaching about impact, like no business school should exist without like a required course on social responsibility. And how do we think about you how to use businesses as a force for good. And I think if we had that happening, people naturally are good. That's what I mean, I believe in that the goodness of people, and people want to have impact, they want to do good in the world. Sometimes they just don't know exactly how. And I'm included, like, I didn't know how to do it. And so if we can just accelerate that of helping young people understand how they can have impact. I think this changes, I don't think it's limited, you know, there's aren't enough resources or whatever to help us get there. I think it's really around helping people understand how to fulfill the desires of their heart, which is to do good in the world.
Cory Ames 46:20
Hmm, what might be your advice to help people understand what it is that they can do? Or should do?
Davis Smith 46:27
I think there's maybe a few things that come to mind. Number one, I think part of it is understanding yourself. I think that's a really important thing is understanding who you are, like, what are your deepest passions? What gifts do you have, all of us have unique gifts. And I can tell just talking to you, Cory, like you have some unique gifts that like that I don't have or the others don't have it? Like, how do you use that, and I think you're doing it right, you've created this podcast that's allowing these great ideas and messages to be shared. And I think a big part of it is like, investing in yourself, especially in those early years. Like, what are you thinking about every day? And like, whatever talents or passions that you have? How do you go find a way? Do you have an impact using those talents, and so that for me, I think is one of them. Another one is finding a way to start volunteering, even in the smallest ways, and or contributing towards a cause in a small way. I talked about Steve Gibson in that that program that you had in the Philippines, when I was a college student, I started donating every single month to that program. And it was like $10 a month, and then it was $20 a month, it was like it was so small. But for me, it felt like a lot, I felt this commitment and this connection with this cause I started volunteering a number of years ago with refugees, and it's like, become one of my deepest passions. And, you know, you have these experiences with these people, and they change you, they inspire you, and you find that like little things that you do can like, put their their life in on a different path and propel them and they're so driven to live, you know, this new life. And, you know, so for me, like committing to a cause. And so that would be the other piece of advice is like, go commit yourself to something, go find something that you think you might be interested in and go test it out, go volunteer, donate a little bit of money, and see if that's something that ends up like really kind of sparking something inside of you. I found it has for me.
Cory Ames 48:19
I think that's really important. Because you can't necessarily think yourself into to knowing what it is that you're supposed to do in the world where you know that you're supposed to make an impact or how you make an impact. And that's what I really like about your story Davis is that it seems experience rich, and then very, very action oriented. It's it's a common thread as well, from previous guests the podcast of it's not necessarily that you need to take the next perfect action. But perhaps that next action, you know, with that initial curiosity or desire, because it kind of seems like a muscle or a habit as you were describing it there.
Davis Smith 48:55
Absolutely. I love that analogy as well. I'm learning that's what's been so fun over the last eight years is like developing that muscle and starting to build some muscle memory and some strength in the muscle and it does take time. It's just like exercising. It's it's really rewarding as you get better and better at it.
Cory Ames 49:13
Excellent. Well, Davis, I want to be respectful your time here. Thank you so much once again. But before we wrap up, do you mind if I ask you a few rapid fire questions?
Davis Smith 49:21
Sure. Let's go for it.
Cory Ames 49:22
All right. So I did see on your LinkedIn that you published a post with some 100 or so books that you consumed over the last year. So I'm curious to hear what you have to say here. What's a recommendation for our listeners a book maybe that's impacted you recently or something that you always come back to?
Davis Smith 49:40
That's fun. I do love reading. And I like all sorts of books. I don't have like a specific genre that I love. But I do love reading books about adventures and risk takers, and especially if they're true stories that are connected to some historical time. There's one book that I read last year that I really loved that no one ever talks about, which is why I think it's kind of fun to maybe suggest it's called island of the last. It happened in the early 1800s. I don't want to give away the entire story. But basically a small crew was shipwrecked on a sub and Arctic Island. And they had to survive for several years on this island, before they were able to try to either get rescued somehow or to get off the island. And the crazy thing, and I don't want to tell you that the ending there. But the crazy part of the story is that it turns out that on the exact same island, at the exact same time, there was another shipwreck. And there was another crew also trying to survive on this island. And neither group knew about each other. And the contrasting stories of how each group fared during the survival time. And how they were led, is just, it's amazing. It's an amazing story of survival, and contrasting leadership between these two crews and the leaders they had. And so I love that book, one of my favorite books from the last year.
Cory Ames 51:04
Great pitch for it, too. I'm sure a lot of folks will pick that up, myself included. So next one for you What's maybe a daily habit or morning routine, if any, that you you feel like you have to stick to
Davis Smith 51:17
every morning, my wife and I and our kids, we read Scripture together, something I grew up doing with my parents, my parents and my siblings, we used to wake up at 545 in the morning, every single day to do this. I honestly as a kid did not love it. So we do it a little bit later than my parents used to do it. But I think it's a great way for us to start the morning together. That ritual, that tradition that we have means a lot to us. That's probably my favorite morning, habit or routine. I also read a lot. I've developed some habits around reading.
Cory Ames 51:47
What's your favorite way to get outdoors Davis,
Davis Smith 51:50
my favorite way of going outdoors is actually survival trips. And that's kind of a unique thing. But I'm going to two and a half weeks on one I do a couple of these a year doing one also in March where I go to a little island or someplace remote in the world that might be in the Amazon jungle. I did that a couple years ago. And for a week I'll bring no food. I'll Spearfish eat coconuts find whatever I can't eat, sometimes build shelters, I just find it incredibly fun. That's my favorite thing to do in the outdoors. Is that solo? No, I never know. So. I bring different people in a few weeks, I'm going with my dad and brothers. And then in a month I'm going with some entrepreneur friends, we do a trip each year together. Well, I always bring people with me. It's a lot more fun to go with someone else.
Cory Ames 52:37
Yeah, I would imagine, man that's that's incredible. And Okay, one more for you. I'm gonna tweak this typical question just because we broke for this podcast with a potty training break. What's your advice for new parents? As I told you, before we hit record, my wife and I are expecting our first what what some of your advice for new parents who? Like you and imagine your wife to have have some serious ambition to do good for the world?
Davis Smith 53:04
Yeah, that's I've never been asked that question. I really like it. You know, we're not perfect parents. But there's certain things that I think we've done well, and that I'm proud of. Number one, I think it's to love unconditionally. I think some great advice my wife and I got when we got married was to never criticize each other. I think the same thing is with your children, I think there's ways to talk about improvements that can happen without being critical. And to not criticize, I love exposing our children to, to new places and ideas. And so I love traveling with them even when they were young. And some people will say, Oh, don't travel with them when they're so young. They never, they can't remember it. But we would never use that. That excuse when reading books, like we read the books from the time they're so young, they don't understand what we're reading, or they don't comprehend it or remember it even at the same time they absorb it all. And so I think exposing kids to experiences that certainly I know growing up in Latin America, it shaped my entire outlook on life, you know, from a very young age. So that's I'm definitely tried to provide those kinds of experiences. Then lastly, service, our family is committed to service and we we spend time every week giving and serving. And so that's something that I think is a great habit to develop as a young person. And those kids that develop a love for that and giving and serving. They're the ones that are going to go out and make a difference in the world as they get older. So and congratulations on your soon-to-be son. I mean, this is just a few weeks away very excited for you.
Cory Ames 54:29
Well, thank you so much and wonderful advice for me to take with us into that adventure Davis. So I really appreciate it.
Davis Smith 54:36
Absolutely. Well keep me updated. I want I want to hear how everything goes.
Cory Ames 54:40
You bet. And lastly here too just to close out this this podcast, where do you recommend folks go to keep up with you? In the many exciting things happening in your world both Cotopaxi and pooltables.com?
Davis Smith 54:53
Yeah, you know, probably the best place is on LinkedIn. I'm active on there. I try to post once once a week or so try To share learnings that I've had along the way, as an entrepreneur, I talk a lot about the social impact and the things that matter to me. I think it's a great platform to learn and share with each other, and to build connections. And I found it to be really helpful and, in some ways, just helpful and cathartic for me to just share what I'm learning along the way. And so I think that's a fun place to connect with people.
Cory Ames 55:20
Perfect. We'll have it linked up at the show post at socialentrepreneurship.fm. Thanks, Davis.
All right, y'all, that's a wrap on another episode of this social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast as always so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well, I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers. On all things building a better world is a newsletter I write and publish send out myself every single Monday go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensembl.com backslash newsletter, to get the next one in your inbox.
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Founder & CEO
Davis is the founder and CEO of Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear brand with a humanitarian mission, backed by Bain Capital Double Impact fund. He is a member of the United Nations Foundation's Global Leadership Council and a Presidential Leadership Scholar. Davis previously started Brazil’s "Startup of the Year,” was Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s “CEO of the Year," and is an EY Entrepreneur of the Year. Davis holds an MBA from the Wharton School, an MA from the University of Pennsylvania, and a BA from Brigham Young University. Davis is an adventurer who has floated down the Amazon on a self-made raft, kayaked from Cuba to Florida, and explored North Korea. Davis lives in the mountains of Utah with his wife, Asialene, and their four children.