Cotopaxi founder/CEO Davis Smith stepping down to serve Brazil mission
Davis Smith is headed back to South America where he grew up and where the seeds of inspiration for Cotopaxi were sown
Cotopaxi founder and CEO Davis Smith is stepping down as head of the Utah-based outdoor gear company to return to Brazil, the place where he grew up and where the first seeds of the idea that would become Cotopaxi were sown.
On Friday, Smith announced he would transition from CEO to become Cotopaxi’s chairman of the board on July 1 in preparation for a three-year calling to serve as a mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Recife, Brazil.
Founded in 2014, Cotopaxi has followed through on its “Gear for Good” motto, doing business as a Certified B Corp while growing to some 300 employees and surpassing $100 million in revenues in 2022, doubling its 2021 sales volumes. Achieving and maintaining B Corp certification requires verified performance and accountability on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials.
Cotopaxi says its good corporate citizenship has aided an estimated 3.5 million individuals who live in extreme poverty.
“Cotopaxi has experienced remarkable growth over the last nine years and is proof that doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive,” Smith said in a press release. “There is indeed a better way of doing business which is putting people and the planet first. We have a team of leaders who believe deeply in our mission to do good in the world which gives me a lot of confidence in this transition.
“I am excited for this next phase in my career as the lifelong steward of Cotopaxi’s brand, purpose, and mission, while also creating the right conditions for me to pursue something of great importance in my personal life.”
Cotopaxi’s current president, Damien Huang, will move into the CEO role. Huang joined the company in May 2022 from Eddie Bauer, where he had served as CEO. He has also held positions at Patagonia as vice president of design and merchandising and at The North Face, where he spent a decade in a number of product roles.
Huang said he is committed to continuing pursuing the vision for Cotopaxi established by Davis over his years of leadership.
“Like all great companies, Cotopaxi thrives not only because of a single visionary leader, but because that leader created and nurtured a culture and team that fuels the vision,” Huang said in a press statement. “We are all part of something more meaningful than our individual roles. This past year, Davis entrusted an expanded leadership team with taking the Cotopaxi brand to its next level, and I am honored to take an elevated role as part of that team.”
Other new Cotopaxi executives recruited over the past year include Grace Zuncic, the former chief people officer of Chobani, and Brad Hiranaga, the former chief brand officer of General Mills, to “drive continued growth and accelerate the company’s poverty-fighting mission.”
Cotopaxi reports the entire executive leadership team, including Stephan Jacob, Cotpaxi co-founder and chief operating officer, will remain in place under Huang’s leadership.
In a 2018 Deseret News profile, Smith talked about drawing inspiration from his upbringing in Latin America before he started down the path that would eventually lead to Cotopaxi.
“I grew up loving the outdoors but also had a deep passion and empathy for people,” Smith said. “I saw over and over again, my entire childhood, how lucky I was. The people I saw every day were just as smart as me, just as hardworking and just as ambitious, but had no opportunity. From that time, I knew I wanted to play a role in changing things for the better.”
How to implement that role was a percolating concept, but one that stayed with Smith throughout undergraduate work at BYU and later while earning an MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Then, he crossed paths with Utah entrepreneurial legend, philanthropist and educator, Steve Gibson. The encounter helped illuminate Smith’s path forward.
“Steve really inspired me to find a way to do good,” Smith said. “And he convinced me to, in a way, follow the path he had taken and become an entrepreneur.”
Over the next 10 years, Smith did exactly that, launching a string of e-commerce companies. While the companies were successful, he still had not zeroed in on that elusive combination of business and altruism. While working on a project in Brazil, he decided to bring his full focus on an effort to find the nexus.
“I believed that business could amplify my voice and message and believed I could get people to work alongside me to do good if I could build a brand that inspired people,” Smith said. “The outdoor industry was a natural fit ... and I felt like this was also an area where people would understand that mission. Traveling and spending time outdoors, I think, connects people with something that’s bigger than themselves.”
Smith rallied with a group of like-minded partners in a remote cabin and took the crucial first step in creating Cotopaxi. But the discussion wasn’t focused on cool and functional outdoor gear, it was all about what the company would stand for.
“We talked about values and the rituals and traditions built around those values,” Smith said. “Core values shape and determine behaviors, behaviors shape and determine culture and culture determines your outcome. If you don’t have core values, your outcomes won’t be what you want them to be.”
And Smith followed that adage, choosing to organize Cotopaxi as a benefit corporation which includes legal obligations to accountability, transparency and purpose. The move was risky, and Smith and his partners were advised to avoid it as a first step because it would likely scare off investors. But in keeping with a penchant for doing it differently, they moved ahead anyway.
Smith said it worked out. Very well.
“I really felt strongly about it, and that if there’s an investor that’s not interested in this mission, then they’re probably not the right backer,” Smith said. “And we did get backing ... from exceptional investors.”
In the same 2018 story, Jacob said there have been easier, cheaper directions to take at nearly every juncture of building Cotopaxi’s products and market reach, but the company has stuck to the harder path which, as it turns out, may also prove to be the most sustainable and successful option.
“It’s a commitment we’ve made as a brand ... doing good is intrinsic, inseparable,” Jacob said. “We’ve shown that you can build a sustainable, profitable, at-scale business that still does things the right way and you don’t have to compromise.”