When I was in undergrad, I read an article in the student newspaper that changed the trajectory of my life. The story told of a successful entrepreneur who sold his business and moved with his wife to the Philippines. They bought a large colonial mansion, but not for themselves. They ended up living in a small and simple apartment for the next three years and used the large home to give room and board to poor Filipinos to teach them how to start businesses. Every two months, they’d graduate a class and admit another 25 individuals. They were changing lives.
I cut out that article, put it in the clear face of my school binder and carried it around for the next two-and-a-half years. In 2004, just a couple short months after I graduated, I returned to campus to attend a social impact conference. To my surprise, I saw this man, who I admired, getting into an elevator. I jumped into the elevator, knowing that I would have at least 30 seconds where we would be uninterrupted and where he couldn’t escape. He graciously invited me to meet him at his office in a couple weeks. I quickly accepted and began preparing a pitch where I asked him to allow me to expand his school to Latin America.
His answer was simple, “Davis, if you want to change the world, become an entrepreneur and then use your money and experience to help people.” I took his advice seriously, and just a couple months later I started my first business.
There was one particular experience that impacted me more than any other. My desire to help others began as a child living in Latin America, where my father was an expat. I am the second of eight children, and my dad didn’t have an enormous salary, but my mom and dad taught us the importance of giving and helping others who had less than we did.
In 2001, I participated in an unpaid nonprofit internship in Peru. Towards the end of that internship, I took some time to go to Cusco so that I could visit Machu Picchu. While there, I befriended a little street kid named Edgar. I didn’t have much money, but I had a lot more than he did, so I began buying an extra meal every day for Edgar. It was the highlight of my day, everyday. I could see it meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to me.
My last night in Cusco, I saw two children sleeping on the side of the street – I was shocked when I recognized one of them as Edgar. Someone had stolen his shoeshine kit and he was too afraid to go home and confront his father. It was heartbreaking to see such a small child with so much fear. I gave him the little cash I had, hoping it would make a difference. The next day as I sat on a bus waiting to go to the airport, I saw Edgar running up to my window. I had just enough time to say goodbye as he ran next to the bus, waving and smiling, with his other hand tightly gripping a large bag of candy he had bought to sell on the streets.
I made a commitment that day that I would make a difference in the world.
Last year, after nearly a decade as an entrepreneur, I knew I was ready to fulfill that promise I had made to myself. I also realized that the best way for me to positively impact people was to use the talent I had for building businesses. If I could build a large, scalable business where a portion of the profits was used to do good, I knew I could have that lasting impact.
So I built a company like nothing I had built before. Cotopaxi is a vertically integrated outdoor gear and apparel brand, with a social mission at its core. Every one of our products has a story to tell, and a specific cause it will support. We have a pack called the Cusco, which will raise money for a little school in Peru that helps lift street children out of poverty. If you buy our India water bottle, you will provide someone in India with clean water for six months.
As business leaders, we have an obligation to make the world a better place. There are millions of “Edgars” in the world, and it is our challenge to find and help them. My hope is that, as Wharton graduates, we can each look for ways to do more, to look beyond our own needs, and help others.
This story was written by Davis Smith, and the full version originally appeared on the Wharton Entrepreneurship blog on April 15, 2014.