Davis Smith: Making the World a Better Place, Through Entrepreneurship

Davis Smith - Cotopaxi headshotDavis Smith’s (WG’11/G’11) inspiration for becoming an entrepreneur was always to have a positive impact on the less fortunate. He founded Baby.com.br, Brazil’s leading baby care e-commerce site, while still a Wharton student. Then, in the fall of 2013, he chose to move on from Baby.com.br in order to pursue his dream. Read more Davis Smith: Making the World a Better Place, Through Entrepreneurship

Startup Philanthropy: The WBPC Social Impact Prize

By Chris Balme, C’03/W’03, co-founder of Spark

Business plan competitions are a powerful way to hone your strategy and pitch, gather feedback, and potentially win recognition and early support for your venture. Until recently, these benefits were largely confined to traditional business plans, not social enterprises. That pattern is starting to change, and this year Wharton launched their first Social Impact Prize. Here’s the twist—at most schools, prizes like this are a unique track, just for social enterprises. At Wharton, the Social Impact Prize is integrated into the overall Wharton Business Plan Competition, meaning that an enterprise has to compete on both business terms and social impact terms. A tough bar, but a great challenge to entrepreneurs.

Dana Cita3 cropped smaller
Susli Lie WG’14, Team Leader of Dana Cita

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Entrepreneurship: A Tool For Social Change

By Davis Smith, Wharton MBA’11, Arts & Sciences MA’11, serial entrepreneur, founder of Cotopaxi

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.

Edgar, on my last day in Cusco
Edgar, on my last day in Cusco

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Take Some Risks To Change The World

By Davis Smith, Wharton MBA’11, Arts & Sciences MA’11, co-founder of Baby.com.br and Dinda.com.br

In June 2013, I met with a group of Lauder students on a rooftop in Rio de Janeiro with a stunning view of Botafogo Bay and Sugar Loaf Mountain. After encouraging the students to look beyond traditional job opportunities and take risks that would allow them to “change the world,” one of the students asked me if I felt I had changed the world with my businesses that sold pool tables and baby products. The question was sincere, but it stung. Unbeknownst to him, I had been asking myself the same question in the previous months and had already decided I was going to make a change, but this student’s question increased my sense of urgency to take my own advice.

While I was at business school at Wharton, my cousin and I closed a $4.3 million round with a PowerPoint and a killer domain, nothing more. Brazil was hot, and we knew it. It wasn’t by coincidence that we chose Brazil or the baby market. We spent our first year in school coming up with 60 business ideas, which was facilitated by my involvement in the Venture Initiation Program. During the summer, I was fortunate enough to receive a Wharton Venture Award, which allowed us to rigorously research, vet and test our plans. By the end of the summer, we had narrowed the 60 to 1 and knew that we had a game-changing idea.

Just two years earlier, my friends, family and neighbors thought I was crazy. My cousin and I had started PoolTables.com out of undergrad, and had grown it into the largest retailer of pool tables in the US. When we told people we were going back to school, nobody understood. Life was good, but we believed MBAs would give us the knowledge and networks needed to build something truly meaningful. We sold our business, essentially burning the ships. It had seemed reckless, but now appeared brilliant.

Within eighteen months of the Baby.com.br launch, we had raised $40 million and built a business that had become a household name in Brazil, especially among young families. Our team consisted of one of Brazil’s biggest celebrities and many of the most seasoned e-commerce professionals in the country.

For all the company’s successes, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. We were battling fierce competitors, Brazil was incredibly difficult to navigate, margins were slim and our business was extremely capital intensive. Despite these challenges, we found ways to push the business forward. We launched Dinda.com.br and continued to see our businesses grow beyond what we’d ever hoped. It was every entrepreneur’s dream-come-true. However, after three years of working on the business, I unexpectedly began feeling it might be time for a change.

Once again, the comments of old began: You’re crazy to leave your company now! Just as before, people didn’t (don’t) understand the timing. I admit that stepping away was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever made. My decision to leave was based on two major factors that I couldn’t work around:

First, I was unhappy with our founding dynamics. My cousin and I had worked together for years, building some amazing businesses. There are partnerships that work well; in fact, ours had worked for a decade, but running a business as Co-CEOs was taxing. Ultimately, as many founding relationships do, our friendship began to sour. Trying to salvage our relationship became more important to me than power, control or money. I felt strongly that it was time for us to part ways as business partners.

Second, I wanted to make a bigger difference with my work. My reason for becoming an entrepreneur in the first place was to have a positive impact on the less fortunate. My co-founder, family and friends knew this. It has always been my life’s passion, largely driven by the fifteen years I’ve lived in the developing world (nearly half my life). Around this time, that desire to do good began to burn deeper than ever before.

Just four months after meeting with those Wharton students in Rio de Janeiro, I left my day-to-day role at Baby.com.br/Dinda.com.br and moved back to the US to begin my next adventure. Cotopaxi will be launching in Spring 2014.

1. Davis headshot - smilingBio: Davis Smith is a serial entrepreneur, a graduate of the Wharton School and Lauder Institute’s Class of 2011. He is the founder and CEO of Cotopaxi.

Entrepreneurial Intern Fellows: The Social Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurial Intern Fellowships are available to Penn/Wharton Undergraduates and First Year MBAs. They are awarded to students who plan to spend the summer in an entrepreneurial setting and who demonstrate both a commitment to entrepreneurship at Penn and to pursuing an entrepreneurial career. To apply, click here.

By Katlyn Grasso W’15, 2013-14 Neff Entrepreneurial Intern Fellow at WomenElect, Buffalo, NY

How did you find the position?

I was introduced to the founder of WomenElect in the summer of 2012 through the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. After learning about her vision for the company, I strongly identified with its mission and asked to join the team.

What was your motivation for working at a start-up this summer?

I have always pursued nontraditional internships because I like to put myself in challenging situations that foster personal growth. As a young entrepreneur, I wanted to learn how a successful business is built and apply those lessons to my own ventures.

What advice would you give to students interested in working at a start-up this summer?

Working at a start-up is the best way to explore your entrepreneurial interests and apply what you learn in the classroom to real world business situations. The best way to find a position is by reaching out to companies and identifying how your talents align with their goals.

As a social entrepreneur, I believe that developing innovative solutions to societal problems is not only a philanthropic effort, but a responsibility of business leaders: to be a force for social good. My passion in life is empowering girls to pursue their goals in the face of incessant pressure and criticism. Growing up in an environment that nurtured female leaders, I have never thought that gender dictates success. Unfortunately, this ideal is not reflected in the American political system. Although women make up 51% of the population in the United States, they constitute only 18% of Congress. Diana Cihak created the start-up WomenElect in 2012 as a solution to this problem, by preparing women to say, “Yes, I want to run for office!” Interning at WomenElect allowed me to utilize my passion for entrepreneurship to address a critical topic, inequality in government.

Based in Buffalo, NY, WomenElect provides a comprehensive year-long leadership development course for women interested in running for public office. This nonpartisan program includes extensive training in public speaking, image development, media relations, and fundraising. One of the most important aspects of WomenElect is mentoring. Potential candidates are paired with successful female leaders from a variety of industries to guide them through the overwhelming process of deciding to run for a political position. Upon joining the program, women are not required to run for office at any particular time. WomenElect helps women evaluate what public offices they are best suited for and the appropriate time to enter the political arena based on their professional and personal obligations. This organization is committed to empowering women to achieve their highest potential by making a positive difference in their communities.

My responsibilities as a WomenElect intern included managing the organization’s social media presence, conducting a competitive analysis to prepare for expansion, and identifying sources of funding. I strengthened both my qualitative and quantitative skills by conducting national research on nonprofit growth and providing leads to more than 500 donors. WomenElect’s commitment to collaboration and personal growth was extended to every employee, even the interns. The best part of being a member of the WomenElect team was the creative control I had over my work. At the beginning of every week, Diana would provide me with a list of objectives to complete, but it was my job to determine the most effective ways to design and implement these projects. By working on an initiative from conception to completion, I was able to observe the measurable impact my work had on the company. The executive management team was supportive of every project I undertook and reassured me that my opinions were valued.

After working with WomenElect, the only career path I can see myself pursuing is that of an entrepreneur. I was excited to go to work every day because I felt that my contributions to the company were helping to advance the role of women in politics. Due to the support of Wharton Entrepreneurship, I was able to refine my entrepreneurial abilities and push the boundaries of social impact innovation. Currently, I am developing a female empowerment start-up for high school girls to raise awareness about leadership development

Katlyn Grasso pic smallerBio: Katlyn Grasso is a junior from Hamburg, New York concentrating in finance and strategic globalization (individualized concentration). Katlyn is the Managing Practice Leader of the Wharton Small Business Development Center, Vice President of Media for Wharton Ambassadors, a member of the Knowlege@Wharton High School Advisory Board, an Ambassador of Entrepreneurship, and performs with Soundworks Tap Factory. Katlyn is passionate about social entrepreneurship and working with startups, and she is now a member of Wharton Entrepreneurship’s Venture Initiation Program with her startup GenHeration.

The Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook, Expanded

By Nadine Kavanaugh

Last July, our own Ian “Mac” MacMillan, Dhirubhai Ambani Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Dr. James Thompson, Director of the Wharton Social Entrepreneurship Program, published an initial edition of The Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook. And then they did an amazing thing: they invited readers to join The Social Entrepreneur’s Advisory Group, to respond to what Mac and Jim had written. Hundreds of social entrepreneurs, from founders to CEOs to philanthropists, and from countries around the world, joined the group. (Read more about this process on our blog and from the Wharton Digital Press.)

Working with the Advisory Group, Mac and Jim revised and expanded their book to include even more real-world wisdom to help social entrepreneurs “pressure test, plan, launch, and scale your enterprise.”

TODAY, we are thrilled to announce the release of the expanded The Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook. Buy it here.

Social Entrepreneur's Handbook