Sometimes, you come across a social business -- just like Cotopaxi, where Davis Smith is CEO -- that has a bit of je ne sais quoi. Everything seems just right: the branding, the business model, the mission. In this way, Cotopaxi comes across as a package of good.
SocialBusiness.org talked to Davis Smith to learn more about the story behind what we see on the other end: the people, the inspiration, the ritual and, sometimes, the mess and grit of it all.
Four Questions with Davis Smith
1. How did the idea for the business model come about?
In 2001, I participated in an unpaid non-profit internship in Peru that changed my life. During this internship, I took some time to go to Cusco so that I could visit Machu Picchu. My first day there, I befriended a little street kid named Edgar. Having lived in Latin America for 15 years, I immediately connected with this little kid. I didn’t have much money, but I began buying an extra meal every day and looking for Edgar. It was the highlight of my day, every day. I could see it meant a lot to him, and that gratitude made me want to help him even more. My last night in Cusco, I was walking back to my hotel when I saw two children sleeping on the side of the street –- one of them was Edgar. Someone had stolen his shoeshine kit and he was too afraid to go home and confront his father. It was heartbreaking to see my little friend with so much fear. I gave him some of the little money I had, knowing I’d probably never see him again. The next day as I sat on a bus waiting to go to the airport, I saw Edgar running up to the bus. I opened the window just in time to say goodbye to him as we drove away. He ran next to the bus, waving and smiling, with his other hand tightly gripping a large bag of candy he had bought to sell on the streets. I made a commitment that day that I would make a difference in the world. I went to Cusco to see Machu Picchu, but it is actually the memory of Edgar that has dominated my memories of Peru over the last thirteen years.
After several successful runs as an entrepreneur, I knew I was ready to fulfill that promise I had made to myself. I also realized that I could have the largest impact if I could build a business with the purpose of supporting my interest in doing good. Cotopaxi is a vertically integrated outdoor gear and apparel brand, with a social mission at its core. We have a pack called the Cusco, which raises money for a little school in Peru that helps lift street children out of poverty. Every purchase of this pack gives one week’s worth of education to a street child in Cusco. Every one of our products has a story to tell, and a specific cause it supports.
2. How did you decide to join this sector?
My father was an adventurer, so my family moved to Latin America when I was four years old. We lived in developing countries during the following decade. I grew up backpacking, camping, exploring and traveling, so I’ve always had an interest in the outdoor industry. My last two businesses were e-commerce businesses, so when it came time to build a social business, it was natural to gravitate towards e-commerce and the outdoor space. People who love the outdoors, adventure and traveling seem to understand and share a common interest in helping those in the world who are in need. The connection between packs and education, water bottles and clean water, etc. also seemed like a great fit.
3. How do you get your inspiration?
Identifying your passions and finding a way to incorporate them into your professional life is challenging, but incredibly fulfilling once you find a way to do it. I find I often get inspired while doing something I love… traveling or spending time in the outdoors. The inspiration behind Cotopaxi happened while in Peru, but the full idea didn’t come together until years later, right after returning from a trip to Asia. Immersing yourself in your passions is one of the best ways to find inspiration.
4. How do you reset yourself to be creative? Do you have any rituals?
Creativity seems to come in waves for me. I’ve started a few successful e-commerce businesses over the last ten years and have used the same system to come up with each of my ideas. First, I would suggest making a written list of ideas with a friend or fellow entrepreneur. You need someone who you can be accountable to, so doing it with someone else is critical. Second, I find that the more I discuss my ideas with others the easier it is for me to identify more and better ideas. It typically takes time for me to get into the creative zone, so it is something you need to really force yourself to do in a disciplined and structured way.