Cotopaxi is an Outdoor Company on a Mission
By Jess Smith
It was an internship trip with his wife to Peru that started it all for Davis Smith. While in Cusco on the way to visit Machu Picchu, a little boy, ragged and hungry, insisted on shining Smith’s shoes (despite them being tennis shoes). Smith and his wife gave him some food, and after that they’d regularly see little Edgar around town and bring extra food for him every time they ate.
Late one night they noticed Edgar, curled up on the side of the road, too scared to go home, having lost the shoe-shining kit that helped support his family. The couple gave Edgar what money they had on them, and when they were leaving the next day, there was Edgar, running alongside the bus, waving and smiling in true appreciation. It was after this trip to Peru, with this memory stark in his mind, that Smith conceptualized Cotopaxi.
Named for the magnificent stratovolcano in Ecuador – where he grew up camping and hiking – Cotopaxi is the world’s first company to incorporate as a Benefit Corporation and raise venture capital. Cotopaxi’s mission is to create technical and resilient gear in order to assist the one billion people living in extreme poverty.
With their “Gear For Good” movement, Cotopaxi has been compared to other philanthropic ventures, such as TOMS, but the large difference lies in the necessities. Cotopaxi donates at least 10% of profits to non-profit partners in the developing world, providing what communities and individuals actually need: clean water, shelter and education. The purchase of a Cambodia water bottle, for instance, provides a person in Cambodia with clean water for 6 months. The Cusco backpack provides tutelage for a child in a Peruvian orphanage for a week.
With so many brands in the market, Smith knew that the outdoor gear world was a competitive environment. He’d been brought up roughing it on hiking and camping adventures with his father and brothers. Through his extensive experience as an entrepreneur – he founded Baby.com.br, Brazil’s start-up of the year in 2012, and was the founder of PoolTables.com – he knew what his focus needed to be. “It was an obvious choice” Smith says. “I want to help people. The idea is to create a company that can make a positive change in the world, and I am proud to be part of something that is going that extra step, making a difference and not just in it to make profit.”
Co-founder Stephan Jacob, who worked at a non-profit organization in Indonesia and had met Smith at the prestigious Wharton School of Business, felt just as impassioned about changing the face of the outdoors industry. “The outdoor industry is ripe for this kind of disruption,” Jacob told Wharton MBA students during a March 27 talk on campus, Wharton Magazine reported. The “disruption” that Jacob is referencing here is the unconventional cut-out of the third party retail markup. By selling their products online, direct to consumer, Cotopaxi is able to maximize proceeds to their individually selected non-profit partners, eradicating administrative fees and making Cotopaxi a true trailblazer in the burgeoning outdoors industry.
With initial backing from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and respected e-commerce entrepreneurs such as college buddies Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa of Warby Parker, Andy Dunn of Bonobos and Brian Lee of The Honest Company, to name a few, Cotopaxi launched in April 2014, with huge local support in Utah, their home base. In keeping with Cotopaxi’s adventurous, purposeful and yet lighthearted personality, the brand held an unconventional event – a 24 hour non-linear outdoor adventure race and music festival titled Questival. With plans to have a follow-up event in the San Francisco Bay Area in Fall 2014, and another in Austin, TX, the Questival was a roaring success – complete with llamas, the mascot of Cotopaxi. In fact, over 3,000 “selfies with llamas” were taken over the course of the 24 hours.
As the mascot and symbol of Cotopaxi however, the llama is no joke. “When I first saw a live llama as a kid in Ecuador, I thought ‘What are these things? They’re crazy!’” Smith says. “But they’re also kind animals. They represent ruggedness, adventure, the outdoors, and kindness, basically what the brand is all about.”
A crucial entity for transport and clothing in many of the countries that Cotopaxi has non-profit partners, the llama also represents the hard-working and industrious people that are involved with Cotopaxi, and for whom Cotopaxi exists. Smith says, “The llama is all of us. The designers of our wares, the farm-workers in Peru, the adventurers buying our packs, the people creating our products, and the families and children whom we want to support.”
Smith’s desire to help under-privileged communities comes not only from meeting Edgar, but from his upbringing in Latin America and first-hand experiences with communities in need. “There are just so many kids out there, like Edgar, who are in need of a warm meal, shelter and the basic tools and knowledge to get themselves out of poverty. After thirteen years, I recently returned to Peru to work with one of our non-profit partners, and while I was there I went in search of Edgar again,” Smith reminisces. “I took the last photo I had of him, from 2001 when he was nine, and went to the main square. A crowd started to form as I asked people if they’d seen him, and then one young man came up and said he knew Edgar, and that he’d shined shoes and slept on the streets with him as a kid. He even knew how to find him and that very next day I met him back at the steps of the cathedral where I had last seen him, fifteen years before.”
For Smith and Jacob, it’s ultimately the satisfaction of knowing their hand-picked team of award-winning and talented designers, marketers and employees, are making a difference for kids like Edgar everyday.
The Superfood Connection
Isula Nature sells Maca and helps Peruvian children
Another pairing of a great product and a mission to make the world a better place is Isula Nature Inc. The company, founded by entrepreneur Rafael Tolmos, sells Peruvian organic superfoods like maca root in pill form.
Health food advocates have known for decades that maca is an incredibly nutritious root from the Peruvian Andes, and a growing body of scientific studies have shown it to be a “superfood” in the best sense of the word.
To meet the growing demand for maca in the United states, as well as help children in Peru overcome challenges with regard to diet and poverty, Mr. Tolmos has set up Isula Nature to funnel 5% of its total revenue into a non-profit called Meals, Toys and More that is currently working in the Peruvian highlands to work with at-risk children.
“Maca is Peru’s gift to the world. Its profound benefits are only now being appreciated as a supplement to a bland, nutritionally incomplete, first world diet. To close this loop and have the children of Peru ultimately benefit from the sale of maca through Isula Nature is a dream come true for me as an entrepreneur,” said Tolmos in a recent interview with ASJ.
Maca is referred to as an “adaptogenic” herb that balances the hormone system and supports healthy energy and immune function without blasting one’s nervous system with chemical stimulants. I started taking Isula Nature’s Maca pills about three months ago on a daily basis. Personally the benefit has been to facilitate the reduction of my coffee intake down to about one cup a day in the morning, as maca is a “gentle stimulant” that results in a higher level of focus and energy throughout the day, eliminating my need for that afternoon cup of strong coffee.
— Matt Niswonger