Ann Arbor’s Merit: Using e-Commerce to Send Kids to College

David Merritt’s e-mail sign-off reads “stay remarkable,” and it’s clear he takes that motto seriously. The son of parents dedicated to helping others—his father is the pastor of a Detroit church—Merritt, a former captain of the University of Michigan men’s basketball team, says he’s always been conscious of young people’s needs.

“Especially kids in the inner city,” he says. “What they go through has always weighed on me. I want to present something positive.”

The answer, he hopes, might be found in a clothing store.

Merritt is the founder of Ann Arbor, MI-based Merit, a fashion line that dedicates 20 percent of its sales to help kids from Detroit pay for college tuition. The sharp-looking T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and accessories are sold online and in Merit’s shop on South University Avenue.

The tuition donations are routed to a nonprofit educational program called FATE, which Merrit also heads. FATE holds monthly workshops for 23 students, many of whom attend Detroit’s Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. The FATE program is designed to teach the kids about entrepreneurship, finance, and other topics through partnerships with businesses—partners include Fathead and some of the startups based in Detroit’s Madison Building.

Merritt plans to stick with the group of students as they complete all four years of high school.

“The name FATE speaks to the notion that how much money they have, their skin color—their fate is already determined,” he says. “We flip that on its head by saying what you put into it is what you get back.”

Merit customers can keep track of the group from Jalen Rose Academy and get to know the beneficiaries of their purchases through the students’ profiles on the Merit website. After each purchase, shoppers will receive a personal message from one of the students in the FATE program. The site also displays a running tally of how much money has been raised toward scholarships.

“Our goal is to change how purchasing impact has been done,” Merritt says. “We really want the customers to immerse themselves.”

Merit is partially backed by a group of sponsors that includes Plante Moran, Zingerman’s, and Ekpe Udoh, another former U-M basketball player who now plays in the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks. Merritt is also working with U-M’s School of Social Work to gauge the effectiveness of the FATE program. If it works to keep kids in school the way he hopes, Merritt wants to replicate the program in other schools and cities.

“That’s my passion: to offer opportunities to kids so they can see what they’re capable of,” Merritt says. “We want to establish a strong e-commerce presence and really connect people to our cause.”

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