Looking back, we can probably point to pivotal moments in our lives that set us on our current path. It could’ve been a “yes” from someone or to someone. Or encouraging words said at the right time from the right person. It could be a move across the country (or world) for a career change. Or an experience, like the first time we feel the balance and breeze of a bike without training wheels.
For Davis Smith, one of those moments came on a trip to Peru. Smith had spent the majority of his life moving from state to state and country to country. His father was an engineer whose job took the family out of the United States to the Dominican Republic, then Puerto Rico and then Ecuador. Smith also lived in Bolivia, Peru and Argentina as a Mormon missionary. He even spent three years in Brazil, where he started his second venture.
Latin America was a home for Smith and he loved it. After graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in (of course) international studies, Smith wanted to share the culture he adored with his wife. They took an unpaid internship at a nonprofit in Peru.
AN UNLIKELY EXPERIENCE WITH EDGAR
A trip to Machu Picchu was beckoning. As Smith and his wife were eating at a park bench in the main plaza in Cusco, they noticed children running around trying to shine shoes. “One kid kept trying to polish but I didn’t want him to because I was wearing tennis shoes and it would ruin them,” Smith says. “He was nine years old but looked about seven. I offered him food and I’ll never forget the way he ate it. It was shocking. They weren’t just working for extra money. They were doing it because they had to eat to survive.”
The child’s name was Edgar and he shared the food with all of his friends. Smith and his wife looked for Edgar everyday they were in Cusco. The final night they were in Cusco they did find Edgar. He was sleeping on the street because his father was an alcoholic and abusive.
“Right before our bus was leaving, we gave him all of the cash we had,” Smith says. “As our bus was leaving, he ran beside it for as long as he could. We went to experience Machu Picchu but we have thought about him more than Machu Picchu. I’ve thought about him everyday for the last 14 years.”
SMITH’S FIRST E-COMMERCE VENTURE
The experience deepened Smith’s passion for Latin America while furthering his pursuit to help others. Smith’s other passion was entrepreneurship. He wanted to start his own business. And he did so in the most unlikely space. Immediately after graduating from BYU, Smith and his cousin, Kimball Thomas, built Pooltables.com, which exploded into the largest online pool table retailer.
“I had the idea I could make my own brand overseas and then offer the tables direct to customer,” Smith explains. “My passion was building a business, not pool tables.”
After nearly seven years and developing retail outlets in four states, Smith and Thomas decided to sell the business to Billiards.com. Why? For MBAs. “I didn’t want to be the pool table guy my entire life,” Smith says. “People thought we were crazy. We were basically dropping out of this highly successful business to go to business school. But we both thought an MBA would leverage us further in whatever we wanted to do.”
WHARTON ON THE MIND
So while Thomas decided to attend Harvard Business School. Smith applied to just one school and was accepted. “Wharton had a dual MA in international studies,” Smith says. “It was just one extra summer semester before I started the MBA.” The Lauder Program is a joint-degree program that allows students to get ample international experience while earning an MBA.
After a summer spent in Argentina and Spain, Smith officially began Wharton’s MBA program in 2009. From the beginning, Smith realized Wharton was rooted in an entrepreneurial mindset. “I was first impressed with the responsibility the schools gives students to run all of the organizations,” Smith says. “They empower students to run the school. Everyone thinks of Wharton as a finance school, but so many people were creating startups.”
The startup bug was contagious. In 2010, Smith and Thomas raised $40 million in venture capital to build an e-commerce site for infant products, dinda.com.br (baby.com.br). It quickly became Brazil’s top e-commerce site in that category. The randomness of selling billiards and baby products, and doing it very successfully, almost makes the idea of pursuing an MBA seem crazy.