David Merritt and Kuhu Saha sit on tall stools surrounding the sales counter at Merit, Ann Arbor’s new clothing store with a conscience. Both 20-somethings are University alums that graduated in 2008. Now they own their own business and their own nonprofit organization, like the kind you get tax refunds for donating to. And they’re pretty damn good looking.
Intimidated? You should be.
But six years ago David and Kuhu didn’t know what the future would hold. “When I was a senior, I got really into the idea of being a consultant,” David, a former Michigan basketball player, tells me. “But I also had a passion for young people and for the city of Detroit.” Luckily, consulting didn’t pan out and now David feels like he is right where he wants to be — creating a product that he is proud of and giving back to a community he believes in. David is Merit’s founder and seems to be the ideas-man of the two young entrepreneurs. He gesticulates enthusiastically at the merchandise that lines the walls of the meticulously organized South University store as he explains Merit’s aesthetic to me. In his words it is simple, fresh, modern, vintage style with a militant edge. Militant because Merit is fierce about the cause it champions. Militant because it looks good.
Kuhu, the duo’s implementer and executive director of the company’s nonprofit arm, FATE, explains to me what Merit’s cause entails. For every hat, sweatshirt or notebook patrons purchase, 20 percent of the item’s cost is invested in a savings account. Two years from now, the money accrued within that account will serve as a scholarship fund for the 22 students (now sophomores) that have completed the FATE program.
In Detroit, fate is a loaded word. The fate of Detroit’s student population is often seen as predetermined by location and circumstance. The Motor City has been swept up into a dangerous national trend in which every 26 seconds a high school student drops out. In Detroit, one out of every four students will not make it to graduation. Without a college education or a high school diploma, boys and girls who drop out face a higher probability of becoming impoverished, unemployed or incarcerated adults than their peers who stay in school. On a more basic level, those kids miss educational opportunities that are critical for them to realize their full potential as individuals.
FATE challenges that negative trend by retaking the term and making it about bright futures, not preordained failures. The program facilitates the student’s growth through monthly Saturday workshops with Ann Arbor-area companies such as Google, Domino’s and Zingerman’s. In the workshops the students are exposed to different business models and ideas. They also develop personal leadership skills, creative ability and self-confidence. They become — in a cliché, yet important sense — more than just a statistic.
That’s a big deal to Merit’s creators. “We don’t want people to see our cause as some sort of Sarah McLaughlin, ‘Save the Children’ type of crusade,” says David. Kuhu nods adamantly. “We want people to connect with our students. When you wear clothing with the Merit badge, you’re not just helping some faceless street kid. You’re supporting Amari, or Shamon or Jiyah in achieving their dreams of becoming a doctor or a movie director or whatever inspires them to continue their education. That’s why we wanted to make a website where customers can go and learn about the kids in the FATE program and see what they are funding.”
Merit’s new website, meritgoodness.com, launched this past weekend. At the top of its start page, to the right of the badge, are three numbers: college tuition dollars raised, products sold and minutes of class provided. It is a reminder of the merger of commerce and charity, that buyers can be both benefactors and consumers.
As the beneficiary of a first-rate education being a University of Michigan student, I often find myself falling into the collegiate mindset that allows me to shrug my shoulders and say “I’m a just a wittle undergrad! I can’t help anybody!” It is incredibly easy to be lulled into the happy irresponsibility of college life, sure those slices of South University pizza and Urban Outfitters sales rack items are the best I can do right now. I give change to the homeless woman outside of the 7-Eleven on State Street and pat myself on the back. I wake up in the morning and find a receipt from last night’s bar hop and wince … then console myself with a coffee and a cookie at Espresso Royale. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m 22 and all those things are normal — even expected.
But I want to make a difference, as I think we all do. Like the 22 kids who attend FATE, I have ambitions that necessitate higher education and a community who will guide me towards reaching my full potential. That way, maybe I’ll grow up and create something as meaningful as David and Kuhu.
For now, however, Merit offers the opportunity for me to be, in some small way, militant for a cause just by doing something I’d do anyways: shop for fresh clothes. And then lose them. And then buy more, because I need another super-soft tee or a warm beanie or a sweatshirt my friends will want to “borrow.” The numbers on the website will rise and rise, but they won’t be just another statistic. They’ll be part of a cause.