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Davis Smith

Davis Smith
Davis Smith
Davis is the founder and CEO of Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear brand with a humanitarian mission. He is a member of the United Nations Foundation's "Global Leadership Council" and a Presidential Leadership Scholar. Davis was Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s “CEO of the Year” in 2016 and previously started Brazil’s "Startup of the Year" in 2012. Davis holds an MBA from the Wharton School, an MA from the University of Pennsylvania, and a BA from Brigham Young University.



Three Lessons

What an honor to speak to you today, and what an amazing era for you to be at Ensign College. You may know that President Nelson began his schooling at LDS Business College before enrolling at the University of Utah. Like all of you, I also started my college experience at a small school. I attended a community college for a year before my mission, transferred to BYU, and then continued my graduate school education at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. I hope that Ensign College becomes a stepping stone for you as you make learning a core part of your lives. 

I recently joined the President’s Advisory Council of Ensign College. I’m deeply passionate about education, especially business education, and love the role that Ensign College plays in the lives of so many members of the Church. Most of you are likely paying for some or all of your schooling. Many of you are international students and are exploring an exciting new set of opportunities that didn’t exist in your home country. Other students may have challenging family financial situations. Others may have chosen Ensign College because you have a passion for business. Whatever the reason, we’re so glad you’re here, and we can’t wait to see where your paths lead you. 

I moved to the developing world when I was four. One of my first memories was seeing children my age, completely naked on the sides of the street. I learned at that young age how fortunate I was. I wasn’t better, smarter, harder working or more deserving than those kids, but my life would be full of opportunity, simply because of where I was born. From as early as I can remember, I’ve wanted to use my life to help others. 

After a number of years as an entrepreneur, I discovered a way to fulfill that dream of helping others by building a company that could sustainably help others. I moved to the U.S. from Brazil and started an outdoor gear company called Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi is a benefit corporation that was built with the mission of alleviating global poverty. I’m passionate about social impact and passionate about the outdoors. My love for the outdoors extends to a love of adventure and a small obsession with survival trips. I did my first survival trip with my dad when I was 11-years-old. So, what exactly is a survival trip? Well, I strand myself in the jungle or on an island with no food and survive off the land for a week. I grew up being told this was fun. Somehow, I’ve found joy in doing these trips in my adulthood. I want to share three lessons I’ve learned in survival situations that I believe will help you as you go through college and begin your careers. 

1. Don’t be fear-focused, even when sharks attack 

The first day of a survival situation is always the hardest (just as it is starting college or starting a new job) because it takes a lot of adapting.


I recently went with some entrepreneur friends to the Bahamas where we sailed in two tiny sailboats from island to island surviving on fish, conch and coconuts. Midway through day two, we were hungry and desperate for food. Fortunately, we spotted a large mutton snapper deep in a hole of a coral head. With some luck, I had a perfect shot, and we celebrated as I surfaced with the fish. From one moment to the next, there were three sharks just feet away from us.


Your first instinct is to make a fear-focused decision to abandon the fish and swim for your life. We instead adapted our plan. We kept the fish between us, swam backwards so we could face the sharks, and used our spears to keep the sharks at bay. Within a few minutes, we were in shallow water and the sharks abandoned their attempts at our fish.

As we live our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ, we can’t afford to resort to fear-focused decisions. We can’t obsess with things that are out of our control or focus on negativity. We have to be strategy-focused: when everything seems to be going wrong, adapt your plans and find a way to navigate your challenge. Even when sharks attack, don’t lose confidence in yourself. Sharks can be intimidating, but with experience you realize that sharks aren’t as bad as you have built-up in your mind. Just like we did in the Bahamas, face your sharks head-on, don’t back down, and adapt your plan.

2. Have trusted friends and mentors who can guide you 

Surviving on your own is exponentially harder than doing it with others. Earlier this year, I spent a week in the Brazilian Amazon with some friends, hunting and eating crocodile, drinking water from watervines, paddling up narrow rivers, cutting through the jungle with machetes and sleeping in hammocks, all while monkeys swung through the canopy overhead. Unlike my other survival trips, this time we brought a guide.

guided trip

The first day was filled with excitement, but there was a piece of me that felt we didn’t really need a guide. “I bet we could do this on our own,” I vocalized to my friends. Then the night came. The thick humid air filled with deep guttural roars of the jungle’s apex predator, jaguars. As we tried to sleep, we heard intense counter-calling between jaguars and even the sound of a jaguar attacking a sounder of wild pigs, just a couple hundred meters from where we slept. The sound was haunting, equal parts beautiful and terrifying. Throughout the night, our guide tended fires around the camp and helped us relight candles next to our hammocks. While jaguars have no fear of water, they have evolved to avoid fire. Our guide would tell us, “sleep calmly, but don’t sleep deeply.” He wanted us to be aware of our surroundings but not overcome with fear. 

In college and your career, you can rely on friends, mentors, parents and other trusted leaders to help you make the right decisions. Just like we needed that guide in the Amazon jungle, I’ve found in life that survival is a lot easier with experienced friends around me. Communicate with them. Be honest with them. Invest in relationships with them. 

3. Find joy in discomfort and remember that the sun will rise again 

As much as I love the ocean, it also terrifies me. Fifty miles in the middle of the ocean, my cousin and I set up “camp” in our kayaks on top of a reef surrounded by ocean in all directions.

by the ocean

We speared a fish and enjoyed our meal as we took in a beautiful sunset. Things changed quickly. In the darkness, massive waves inched the ocean closer to our camp with the rising tide. There was no land to retreat to as we watched our reef slowly disappearing beneath us. Water rushed through the reef underneath our kayaks, which we had disassembled, allowing us to use them as sleeping pods. I was having a difficult time managing the anxiety I was feeling.

Ultimately, the tide turned just in time and didn’t wash us away. The sun rose in the morning, and boy was it a beautiful sunrise. Our ability to remain calm, to focus on the positive and to stay confident in our knowledge that the sun would rise again was key to our weathering the storm.

In your life, there will be moments where everything seems to be going wrong. Don’t be afraid to push yourself to try new things, to fail, to lead others even when you are still learning how to lead yourself. But, above all, please remember that no matter how dark and scary the night gets, the sun will rise in the morning. 


I served my mission in Cochabamba, Bolivia. As I was finishing my mission, I was asked to go to a bus station in the small city of Sucre to pick up a brand new missionary who had just arrived in the mission. As my companion and I watched people coming off the bus, we saw women dressed in traditional pollera dresses and bowler hats descending the bus stairs with large bags on their backs. Then we saw our missionary with hair so blonde it was almost white. His skin was still pale, the way only a brand-new missionary’s skin would look. He radiated a smile so big that it made us chuckle.


Elder Nate Davis was beaming, and we became fast friends. I looked for opportunities in the last two months of my mission to do splits with him anytime I could. It wasn’t hard to love him because he brought out the best in everyone.

Upon returning from his mission I remember him coming to Provo and staying in the small home my wife and I were renting. He attended LDS Business College and then started a career as a computer engineer. Over the following years, we planned mission gatherings together and would grab occasional lunches to talk about entrepreneurship. We hugged each other joyfully when he was called as a bishop and celebrated the successes of his young children. I remember one day he stopped by my home to say hello. My son, who was 3 years old at the time, loved trains and was speech delayed. Nate laid down on his stomach, face-to-face with my son, and they played trains together. As Nate drove off, my son ran to the front window and stood there watching Nate as he walked to his car and drove away. While my son couldn’t communicate in words, we all knew he didn’t want Nate to leave. A couple months later, Nate was diagnosed with cancer.


Together we had been planning a 20-year mission reunion in Bolivia, which he wasn’t able to attend. Nate lived in a humble home and drove a simple car, but he paid for a number of our mission friends to fly to Bolivia who wouldn’t have been able to afford to go otherwise. Nate is the most generous person I know. A few months later, I sat in a hospital room with his family at his side. He was unresponsive, but I put my cheek against his and, overcome with emotion, I told him how much I loved him. He had been completely motionless, but when I said, “I love you”, he slowly nodded his head and a single tear rolled down his cheek. He couldn’t communicate in words, but I knew he heard me. Within the hour, Nate passed away. He was 39 years old. 

In my mind, Nate Davis should be listed as one of the notable alumni of Ensign College. He lived the mission of the school better than anyone I know. I’d encourage each of you to surround yourselves by the Nate’s of the world. Strive every day to be a better version of yourself. Look for the good in others. Invest in relationships with people that make you strive to be better. In doing so, we’ll all fulfill the mission of Ensign College and, like Nate, become “capable and trusted disciples of Jesus Christ.” 

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen. 


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