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‘Gear for Good’: How Cotopaxi’s founder got the idea for his one-of-a-kind business

Davis Smith smiles for a photo in the Cotopaxi store at the City Creek Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News

Just this week, an eyepopping color-blocked Cotopaxi jacket and “ugly-cute” Cotopaxi slippers were highlighted among CNN’s Editors’ picks for October. You may be familiar with the outdoor gear company whose colorful designs stick out in a crowd. But did you know that Cotopaxi was born out of a young boy’s experience growing up throughout Latin America while his dad worked for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Company founder Davis Smith knew as a kid that he wanted to do something to make a difference in areas of the world where poverty is prevalent. So when he started Cotopaxi, a for-profit company, he opted to have the company certified as a B Corporation, a type of business that balances purpose with profit. According to Cotopaxi’s website, “B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk. Certified B Corporations are part of a community working toward not only being the best in the world, but also being the best for the world.” These companies are committed to making the world a better place.

Read on to learn more about how Smith decided to start Cotopaxi, why he feels that God knew the desires of his heart, and how God helped him make good on a promise he made to himself as a young boy.

Listen to the full interview with Davis and his wife, Asialene, by clicking here or in the player below. You can also read a full transcript here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Morgan Jones: Davis, one thing that you’ve talked about a good amount is the idea that you kind of came into business thinking that you would create a business with somebody, and because of that relationship, the business would kind of thrive. And you’ve talked about how, you know, now you view it as you find people with certain skills and put a team of people together. And so when you finished that business in Brazil, you ended up starting Cotopaxi, which is what people probably best know you for now. And that’s what you kind of tried to do is build a team of people. Tell me a little bit about why you think that is so important.

Davis Smith: Yeah, you know, after that experience in Brazil, I started rethinking everything, really. Did I even want to be an entrepreneur anymore? What I really cared about was like helping people and I was like, “I haven’t accomplished that. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 10 years. I haven’t figured this out.”

I was discouraged, and I had this really unique experience where we’d all set New Year’s resolutions for family home evening. Luckily, Asialene is so much better at this stuff than I am like—making these things happen. But I set a New Year’s resolution that I wanted to change somebody’s life. That was my New Year’s resolution. And Asialene makes fun of me because my goals are not . . . [Laughter] you’re supposed to have goals that are like SMART, I guess. Like measurable, attainable–I can’t remember all of them. But my goals are not very good. And Asialene always reminds me that I need to be more specific or whatever. But it was a very broad, but I had this vision of life, I wanted to change somebody’s life that year. And it was now May, I hadn’t changed anyone’s life, it just one more thing to add to the discouragement that I was feeling.

And I’m laying in bed. And I’ve been thinking about this nonstop around this desire that I’d had. And pretty soon I started having some ideas that came to my mind—around how I might be able to have an impact and to accomplish this lifelong goal that I’d had. And I was really tired; I’d actually just flown in from China. And so it’s like you had to fly through the United States or Europe and then down to Brazil. So it’s a very long trip. I was feeling jet-lagged and tired, and I just wanted to sleep. But I had these ideas rush into my head. And I ended up just rolling over and typing some of these ideas onto my phone, thinking if I wrote them down I could just forget them and go back to sleep. And the ideas kept coming.

So I ended up getting out of bed, and I went on the couch with my computer and just started writing down these ideas. And I ended up spending the entire night, the entire next day, and the entire next night on this couch. And I’ve never had an experience like this before in my life; I’m sure I never will again. But the entire idea for Cotopaxi came to me. The business model, our name, our slogan, “Gear for Good.” The early ideas for this Questival, this 24-hour adventure race. I knew how to go make a difference. Through business, I could go make a sustainable impact on people’s lives.

And for me, it was really an amazing experience because it gave me hope that God knew me, that he understood what my desires were—and while I was feeling discouraged, and I felt like 'Man, I’ve spent 10 years building something that’s just not helping me get where I want to go.' I look back and I was recognizing that the Lord gave me these experiences that I needed to have to be able to go build Cotopaxi. I couldn’t have built that when I was 24. I needed more experience, I needed to go have some success and have some failures along the way. And one of the learnings that I had was around team building, that I wanted to go build a team that really kind of—I knew at this point, I knew where my strengths were and I knew where my weaknesses were, and I needed to go build a team around me that offset a lot of those weaknesses that I had.

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