Summiting Cotopaxi: A Conversation with CEO Davis Smith | Pop-In@Nordstrom Gets Out
Eradicating global poverty might seem unreachable—but Cotopaxi founder and CEO Davis Smith can scale mountains.
“One of my earliest memories is from the Dominican Republic. My family moved there when I was four and I remember seeing children my age on the street who were completely naked. It was the first time I’d seen anything like that, and it just shocked me. I mean, I can’t even describe to you how I felt.”
When four-year-old Davis Smith asked his parents why his life was so starkly different from that of those children, he was told he was simply lucky.
“Lucky to have been born into a family that didn’t have to think about those types of things. That was life changing,” he tells me. “I developed a deep sense of empathy, an understanding that it’s not that some people are always smarter, or more hard-working—but that it comes down to circumstance.”
Smith spent most of his youth living and falling in love with the outdoors in foreign countries—five in 11 years—many of which were gravely impoverished. Early life lessons in privilege and compassion, coupled with a fervent desire to help others, drove Smith to establish Cotopaxi, a Utah-based gear and lifestyle brand. Founded as a public benefit corporation, the for-profit company is dedicated to doing public good by sharing some of the profit generated by colorful windbreakers, stainless steel water bottles and lightweight backpacking provisions that really hold up. This means money can be given sustainably, without relying solely on grants and donations that often dry up before more funds can be raised.
Ten percent of profits or two percent of revenue—whichever is greater—goes to handpicked nonprofit organizations that aim to alleviate the devastating effects of rampant poverty in collaboration with the local communities they serve. The measurable results are then published in annual impact reports, made available to the public right on the brand’s website—because transparency leads to accountability.
I’m surprised to learn this larger-than-life mission is being tackled head-on by a corporate team of less than 40 people.
“Well, we’re only a couple of years old,” Smith remarks. “We still have all-hands-on-deck staff meetings every other Friday.”
It’s a small but highly specialized team. And when you’re designing expertly crafted wilderness gear while also problem-solving unfamiliar and sensitive issues regarding international supply-chain integrity, you need all of the specialization you can get.
“We know the supplier of our llama wool, but who are the thousands of farmers the supplier works with? Are child workers being used—which is common in many parts of the world—and if so, how do we dig into that? If there’s a teenager working full-time to help support a family in South America, do we come in and say, ‘You’re not allowed to work here?’ These are all questions we’re trying to answer right now. In fact, we have a full-time person in Bolivia whose whole job is tracking down original sources of wool and surveying individual practices. I’m going there soon to meet with some of our llama farmers to try to tell their stories. It’s important for consumers to understand the people behind the supply chain.”
Smith’s dedication to chipping away at inequality around the world influences everything Cotopaxi does, from employing as many international workers as possible in ethically operated factories to establishing close, supportive relationships with Salt Lake City’s growing refugee communities.
“There are so many opportunities for anyone to get involved locally as well. Whether it’s with refugee communities, or the homeless, or struggling families. It allows us to build empathy and understanding for others, because sometimes we just live in bubbles and become intolerant—what you don’t understand, you fear.”
This action- and compassion-oriented worldview even permeates his seemingly less extraordinary interactions—evident when, toward the end of our conversation, he can’t help but ask me, “So what about you? Tell me your story.”
I offer a truncated response, then ask Smith if he’s ever summited the real Cotopaxi, a large volcano that overlooks the city of Quito, Ecuador, and the site of many backpacking trips taken with his father when Smith was a teen.
“No, not yet,” he replies. “But I plan to.”
—Photos and text by Mona Lee