One of Davis Smith’s (BA ’03) first memories as a child growing up in Latin America is poverty. He remembers children his own age standing around naked because they could not afford clothing to wear. “You can’t see that without being changed,” Smith says.
Smith is the CEO and founder of the Utah-based Cotopaxi, an outdoor products-provider and social entrepreneurship enterprise. “I wanted to use this business to inspire people to do good and then use the profits to alleviate poverty around the world,” he says. And it works. Through the sale of their outdoor gear, from jackets to sleeping bags, they’ve impacted thousands of lives in the developing world.
The focus hasn’t been entirely international though. When starting up in Utah, Smith decided to tap into Utah’s refugee community. “I learned that there are 60,000 refugees resettled in Salt Lake City,” he reveals.
Cotopaxi started employing refugee youth to write thank you cards to those who purchase products. The first session featured pizza for the forty teens and then checks for two hours’ work. However, during the second week of employment, many of the children threatened to quit because they hadn’t been paid. “They told us no one at the store would take their money,” he says. “That’s when I realized that [the children] didn’t know they had to deposit the checks at the bank!”
That is when the Cotopaxi team knew they had a lot of work to do. Before writing the cards, Cotopaxi taught the refugees basic life skills, such as opening a bank account, budgeting, and creating a resume.
A couple of Cotopaxi employees decided they wanted to teach refugees how to code. “We put together a program of 45 kids from six different refugee communities,” Smith says. This became a 20-week program and included sponsors like Adobe and Goldman Sachs.
Through this program, Smith met a brother and sister. “They just radiated smiles and optimism,” he says. As he got to know them, he learned that their parents had died in the Congo. There were six siblings, ages 4–13 at that time. The children walked to Uganda where they lived for five years. Then, they were accepted by the United States for refugee status, flown to Utah, and moved into an apartment to survive in a world they knew nothing about. The oldest is 22 now.
“I now know all the siblings. It has been such an amazing experience getting to know these kids. Their story is not unique. Every single one of these refugee families was settled here because something extraordinarily awful happened in their lives,” he says. “They need us to help them have some chance at a normal life.”
The Cotopaxi team has been excited about the attention General Conference brought to refugees. Every Saturday, they have programs to help refugees, and the parking lots are always empty. After General Conference, though, they had 1000 people show up to help. “It has brought so much awareness to what people are dealing with,” Smith says.
Unfortunately, Cotopaxi doesn’t have the capacity to get 1,000 more people involved. However, Smith says, “Meet some local refugees. As you expose yourself to these people, you will be inspired to help them,” Smith recommends. “You will fall in love with these people.”