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Utah's Cotopaxi among first funded by AOL founder

FILE - Davis Smith, Cotopaxi CEO and founder, poses for a photo in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.
FILE - Davis Smith, Cotopaxi CEO and founder, poses for a photo in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In a confluence of efforts centered on social consciousness, Utah gear company Cotopaxi is among the first companies to receive funding from Rise of the Rest.

Rise of the Rest is an investment effort — launched by billionaire AOL founder Steve Case and "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance — aimed at discovering and supporting innovation companies outside Silicon Valley and East Coast tech epicenters.

The fiscal infusion, announced Friday, will help Cotopaxi expand its branded brick-and-mortar stores in select U.S. cities, with a Utah store slated to open in Murray's Fashion Place mall, adding to the company's original, and only, retail space in downtown's City Creek Center.

Cotopaxi CEO Davis Smith said he connected with Case last summer during a Rise of the Rest tour stop in Utah, and it became clear that Cotopaxi's committment to giving back — the company commits 2 percent of its revenues to fund projects in the developing world — was simpatico with the goal of Rise of the Rest to seek out and fund startups in rural and out-of-the-way U.S. locales.

"(Case's) vision is that a lot of the innovation that will be coming out of the U.S. will not be out of Silicon Valley or New York or Boston but the rest of the country," Smith said. "Places that are ignored. I think he really connected with what we're shooting for with a Utah brand that's looking beyond ourselves. It's a great fit."

The Rise of the Rest mission statement has also resonated with a veritable all-star list of business titans with the likes of Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Eric Schmidt (Alphabet), Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Henry Kravis (KKR), Sara Blakely (Spanx) and numerous others tagging in as stakeholders. The New York Times characterized the backers of the $150 million startup fund — managed via another Case endeavor, Revolution — as possibly "the greatest concentration of American wealth and power in one investment fund."

While there are far larger funds out there, the intent of Case and Vance's effort is to leverage the resources, and expertise, of some of the most successful people in the country to kickstart businesses that are attempting to rise out of the dust of post-industrial, flyover states.

Vance, who earned national recognition after his book become a touchstone of political insight amid the 2016 U.S. presidential race, was a featured speaker at the recent Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City. In what may have been a sly foreshadowing of future investment, he was sporting a Cotopaxi fleece during a presentation in which he lauded the vibe of the Beehive State's innovation business scene.

"Founders and CEOs that become too insular, too selfish, end up suffering and so do the ecosystems they work in," Vance said. "One of the things I've seen in Utah, and that I really like, is the collegiality among tech entrepreneurs. The ecosystems that do well … recognize they're all playing on the same team."

Besides plans to grow their portfolio of real-world retail outlets, Cotopaxi has also struck deals with REI and Nordstrom to carry a selection of their products.

Part of Rise of the Rest's strategy for finding up-and-coming businesses in out-of-the-way places has been to stage bus tours through middle-America. That's how Case and Smith connected and it continues to be part of the group's approach. In a statement, Case noted his enthusiasm for both the first round of investments and continuing the ground-based search.

“Both the Rise of the Rest bus tour and fund are helping to raise the visibility of promising startups in cities across the country. We could not be more excited to announce our new investments and the next five stops on the bus tour,” said Case. “For the past four years, we have been encouraged by the entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders we’ve met on our tours and are excited to invest catalytic capital into these Rise of the Rest regions.”