Charting the Path to 100,000 Learners: 
Merit America Opens the Door to New Careers

By investing in Merit America, the Clark Foundation demonstrated the power and the payoff of taking a risk on strong leaders, who needed only capital to translate their crystal-clear vision from a 15-person pilot to a thriving organization that has prepared more than 7,500 people to succeed in new career paths.

Transformative Career Training with Scale and Self-Sufficiency

Merit America’s founders, Rebecca Taber Staehelin and Connor Diemand-Yauman, were committed from the start to three major goals: Developing fast, flexible pathways to remunerative careers for people in low-income jobs and without college degrees; designing a technology platform that would enable the organization to easily scale up; and bringing in enough revenue to eventually make the organization self-sufficient.

The founders focused on participants who needed to work while enrolled and providing them individual coaching to create accountability and support. With their previous experience in online education at Coursera, Taber Staehelin and Diemand-Yauman proposed a program platform where coaches, administrators and participants could operate in the same space and track progress in real-time.

Merit America’s model included building relationships with large and small companies to learn about their pressing needs. Equipped with that knowledge, the organization could steer participants toward in-demand professional certificates and connect them with employers that pay salaries high enough to transform lives. 

“We wanted to create an organization that delivers on the promise of the American Dream for 53 million talented Americans who are stuck in low-wage jobs by allowing them to get the skills, certificates and coaching they need for great new careers – without quitting their day jobs, without taking on tons of debt before being certain that there is a successful outcome, and with the support that we know folks need to really succeed,” said Taber Staehelin.

We wanted to create an organization that delivers on the promise of the American Dream for 53 million talented Americans.

Rebecca Taber Staehelin
Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Merit America

An Unproven Concept & Risk-Averse Funders

In pitching their idea to philanthropies, Diemand-Yauman and Taber Staehelin received enthusiastic responses, but no funder wanted to commit money to a nascent, unproven organization, no matter how exciting the concept. Foundations and other funders generally like to see a track record of success, because there’s little financial incentive for supporting a high-risk concept, leaving Merit America in a bind. Without adequate funding, they couldn’t launch; but without a track record of success, they couldn’t attract funding.

Through a mutual connection, Taber Staehelin met Joe Del Guercio, Clark Foundation President and CEO, who was seeking innovative ideas to address labor force challenges. Del Guercio and Clark Foundation leaders told her they were impressed with the concept and thought her background was ideal for the venture. When Clark suggested she come back to them after attaining some results, Taber Staehelin asked what would make the Foundation more comfortable in becoming the catalytic investor needed for the organization to launch. Del Guercio asked for time to think it over. 

The Foundation followed up asking for the founders’ business forecasting and more details about their concept, projected impact and goals. Clark Foundation leaders were impressed by Merit America’s emphasis on the learner experience, which would be shaped by identifying participants with the potential to succeed; developing an efficient and inclusive education platform; and aligning training to directly meet employers’ needs.

The Clark Foundation believed in Merit America’s focus on adaptability and scalability, along with the long-term revenue strategy, fostered the potential for significant impact and longevity. But most of all, Clark Foundation leadership took a chance on the nascent organization because of the people behind it. The Clark Foundation agreed to become the catalytic investor with $500,000, hoping its funding would be an incentive for others to contribute to a matching amount. 

“Mr. Clark was a big believer in betting on people that he believed in, because he thought people like that make immediate and significant change,” said Del Guercio, referring to A. James Clark and his philosophy of strong leadership and investing in people that has guided the Foundation since its inception. “It’s pretty rare to find a combination of a really unique business idea, a focus on sustainability and an incredibly talented entrepreneur who’s leaving the business world to come to philanthropy.” 

Diemand-Yauman and Taber Staehelin were equally impressed by the thoughtful questions that Foundation staff posed to them, and were ecstatic to win their support. “Disbelief and the utmost gratitude,” said Taber Staehelin of her reaction to the Foundation’s involvement. “Every funder says they want to be catalytic but then they don’t want to take the chances. The Clark team was unique because they were truly willing to be a catalyst for change.”

Trust-Based Philanthropy Yields Results

As with all its grantees, the Clark Foundation trusted Merit America’s leaders to decide how to best utilize its funding. “We defer to the staff and the organization. They’re the ones who know the work, they have the vision for what needs to be done,” said Del Guercio. “So we trust in them to make the most of the funds. Our number one priority is to learn and understand what you’re doing and to ask how we can be of the most help.”

With this trust-based approach and flexibility, the Clark Foundation prioritizes comparing results to goals – and helping recalibrate if needed – over rigid benchmarks and excessive reporting. The Foundation and Merit America’s leaders share a commitment to long-term data and milestones, which provide measurements for success, create a basis for in-depth conversations between funder and grantee, and enable the organization to make a strong case to other potential funders. 

The partnership fostered by this approach allowed Taber Staehelin and Diemand-Yauman to speak candidly to the Clark Foundation about challenges as well as wins, and how lessons learned informed adjustments in strategy. “That level of honesty is something we see as central to our partnerships. It’s a crown jewel in a lot of our relationships,” said Del Guercio.

Exceeding Expectations

Having bet on Merit America’s founders, Clark Foundation leaders say that the organization has exceeded its expectations at every step of the way. As a result, the Foundation invested an additional $750,000 in 2019, which would allow Merit America to continue scaling its efforts, hire additional staff, and recruit and educate larger cohorts of participants. 

By that time, the organization had successfully scaled its programming, going in 15 months from a 15-person pilot to supporting more than 230 learners. Merit America also demonstrated its impact on participants; of the 125 alumni at the time of the second grant, 85% were working in new careers with over $15,000 in average annual wage gains.

Merit America had also established corporate partnerships, including with Google, Amazon and JP Morgan Chase, which have the resources to validate the program model, hire graduates and provide sustainable revenue. And with independence a priority for both the grantee and the funder, Merit America had successfully leveraged the initial Clark Foundation grant to raise $4.9 million in funding. 

Today, Merit America is the largest nonprofit of its kind in the country, with proven impact and unprecedented scale. By the end of 2023, Merit America will have enabled 10,000 people to embark on new careers paying a projected cumulative total of more than $400 million in near-term salary increases. Eighty percent of its learners complete the program, and alumni move from average pre-program salaries of $26,000 to average salaries of $50,000 three or more months after completing the program, a change that alumni describe as life-altering. The future earning potential of Merit America alumni also increases, often accompanied by better benefits and working conditions. Even more importantly, learners move from feeling stuck in a low-wage job to having a career they love with potential to grow.

Merit America now operates nationwide with a staff of more than 190, evolving as it matures. The organization is forming partnerships with smaller, local businesses and adjusting its programming to meet the needs of those employers, as well as the corporate titans that have employed its alums. 

Before the organization launched, training programs for people without college degrees reached fewer than a total of 100,000 people each year. By contrast, Merit America aims to enroll 100,000 learners in its own program annually by the end of the decade, and is ahead of its target to drive a total of $1 billion in wage gains by the end of 2025. In addition to attaining the scale that its founders envisioned, Merit America is on its way to becoming financially independent, with partial payments from graduates and fees paid by partner employers.

Believing in strong leadership and an innovative model paid off for the Clark Foundation, Merit America, and, most importantly, the people whose lives have forever changed because of the Foundation’s willingness to invest in the founders’ vision. 

From Students to Scholars: Strong Relationships and Role Models Help Black and Latino Boys Succeed

As part of its longstanding emphasis on investing in education in Washington, DC, the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation sought to partner with innovative schools that took creative new approaches to student success. ​They found one in educator Shawn Hardnett, the founder and CEO of Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys Public Charter School, who was focused on creating a school full of caring adults for his students and expanding student horizons. The Clark Foundation was one of the school’s first funders, supporting a compelling new school model that emphasizes equipping students with the social, emotional, and academic skills necessary to thrive in and out of the classroom.

A New Model to Improve Outcomes for Black and Latino Boys in DC

Hardnett understands the untapped potential of and challenges faced by Black and Latino boys. Of 29 boys that grew up with him in Rochester, NY, only five graduated from high school and only Hardnett finished college.  

If it hadn’t been for Hardnett’s favorite biology teacher in high school who insisted he attend college and become a teacher, Hardnett said that he likely would not be an educational leader at the vanguard of cultivating well-being, confidence and aspiration in Black and Latino male middle school students. This experience remains a powerful reminder to Hardnett of the crucial role that supportive adults play in the lives of students.  

By 2017, Hardnett had been working for several years in DC to improve educational outcomes for Black and Latino boys, many of whom came from backgrounds with trauma. That trauma often manifests itself in what many educators view as behavior challenges requiring discipline and may lead to suspension. 

But as Hardnett notes, these students cannot actively participate in their education if they miss three to five days of school multiple times a year. In addition, many Black and Latino boys are several years behind grade level academically, which can lead schools to incorrectly place them in Special Education classes. Hardnett said that no number of educator trainings he conducted or new approaches in schools seemed to make a difference in improving outcomes. 

So Hardnett and his team set out to redesign the student experience for Black and Latino boys with a new public charter school. But before establishing the school’s mission and focus, the founders wanted to hear and gain insights from their target student group and from men who had grown up in similar circumstances, attended college and now had successful careers. 

Hardnett and his co-founders interviewed 450 Black and Latino boys and 150 Black and Latino men. From their answers, Hardnett knew that student-teacher relationships, positive adult role models, and an emphasis on mental and emotional wellness was critical. “Black and Latino boys are the population that is furthest from opportunity. And as you are furthest from opportunity, you are furthest from support. The resulting behaviors often manifest as violence. And so we decided two things. One, we were going to do this for Black and brown boys. Two, we were going to do it with Black and brown men who look like them and are from their communities. And so 65% of my staff is Black men.” Hardnett said.

Investing in an Innovative New School Model in DC

The Clark Foundation prioritizes supporting students in the Washington, DC area, the place Mr. Clark considered his home and found much of his success. He understood the importance of investing in the next generation and was committed to creating opportunities for students to reach their full potential. 

As a longtime funder of education in DC, the Foundation also recognized the difficulty of moving the needle on student outcomes through traditional school models. Though Statesmen’s model was new and unproven, the Foundation believed that Hardnett’s unique approach could enable Black and Latino boys living in under-resourced communities to thrive socially, fulfill their academic potential and imagine a future for themselves grounded in stable careers and communities.  

Another focus of the Foundation was to partner with visionary leaders who have a deep understanding of the challenges that DC students face. With the combination of strong leadership and his innovative model, Hardnett’s team was an ideal partner for the Clark Foundation. “We had gotten to know these leaders. They had spent time listening to school aged boys about their educational experiences and were thoughtful in designing this school. They adapted along the way and we trusted this team to build a school that serves Black and brown middle schoolers in DC really well. Statesmen exemplifies how a school can educate and support young people in DC and beyond,” said Danielle Hamberger, Director of DC Education Initiatives.

The Foundation was also interested in showing other funders and educators how philanthropy can effectively support new school models, like Statesmen’s single-sex, public charter school focused on improving outcomes for middle school Black and Latino boys. “We believe in this team and the Statesmen scholars.  These students can achieve academic and personal success and deserve a school culture and community that is designed to foster this for them,” Hamberger said.

We need to see ourselves in the teachers. We need to see ourselves on the walls. We need to see ourselves in the curriculum and materials.

Shawn Hardnett
Founder and CEO, Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys

Holistic Well-Being Fosters Academic Success

The Clark Foundation invested an initial $817,000 in Statesmen Academy to support Hardnett’s request for mental health services, a director of student life and instructional support for teachers. 

Knowing first-hand the challenges his potential students faced, the transformative influence that involved adults could make in their lives and the lack of funding to provide adequate counseling, Hardnett decided to initially focus on the mental and emotional well-being of their teachers.  

“A well-regulated adult in front of every child results in well-regulated students and an environment that regulates, where the boys see emotionally healthy and stable men who look like them,” Hardnett said. Statesmen provided one-on-one therapeutic support sessions and group counseling to their staff. Focusing on the mental and emotional well-being of teachers multiplies the effect of high-quality therapy in the classroom, and equips them to deal with manifestations of trauma, such as behavioral outbursts, inspire their students and begin the process of healing.  

Rather than utilizing traditional disciplinary measures, which Hardnett views as counter-productive, Statesmen approaches most behavior requiring intervention as a result of an unmet physical, psychological, emotional or social need. Hardnett said that many of his students come to school not realizing they are acting out their trauma, but that their anger and the lack of support they feel are their everyday normal. Instead of detention or suspension, Statesmen relies on counselors to work with each student on addressing their specific needs and establishing behavioral goals, as well as a social worker who connects families with community-based organizations to ensure their basic needs are being met. 

Hardnett believed that a key to making the students emotionally secure enough to absorb the school’s positive messages was to give them a glimpse of who they could become. “We need to see ourselves in the teachers. We need to see ourselves on the walls. We need to see ourselves in the curriculum and materials. We need to see ourselves in the books. We need to be affirmed through what you are providing for us,” Hardnett said of his students. Relationships between adults and students, and among students, are a linchpin of the school, which has as its mission that each boy is “known and loved.”

Hardnett was also determined to expand the horizons and aspirations of his students. In 2022-23, the seventh and eighth graders went to Spain, France and England. Hardnett said the trip changed their lives, showed them there is a world beyond Washington, DC and prevented “identity foreclosure.” The students practiced “traveling well” by short trips to colleges and cities near DC. These experiences influenced their behavior when visiting private high schools, which are eager to meet more prospective students from Statesmen.

Academic Growth, Healthy Behaviors

Statesmen’s results speak for themselves. In 2023, 53 eighth graders became Statesmen’s first graduating class. Graduates have enrolled in public and independent high schools in DC with strong student supports, including School Without Walls, Thurgood Marshall Public Charter School and Benjamin Banneker High School 

Hardnett watched his students excel in their academics within the school’s holistic approach. The attendance rate is at an impressive 91% and standardized test scores are steadily growing, and in many cases at a more rapid pace than their peers.  Notably, the standardized test scores for students deemed “at-risk” and having been classified needing Special Education – traditionally low-scoring groups – increased more than other students. 

Alongside their schoolwork, the boys at Statesmen also have excelled behaviorally and emotionally, an integral piece of the puzzle for their current and future success. Behavior and disciplinary incidents improved, including shorter length of crisis incidents – an outburst that once might have continued for two hours may be over in 10 minutes, Hardnett says.  

In 2021, the Clark Foundation contributed a four-year, $1 million grant to Statesmen for general operating expenses and to support the school in meeting its full potential. Hamberger said by then that Hardnett was well on his way to his goal of transforming not just the school experience for Black and Latino boys but the trajectory of their lives. 

“At Statesmen, I see middle school students showing up to learn, engage, achieve, and support their fellow scholars.  I see caring educators who want to be a part of their educational success.   I feel joy and pride in the building, and I see a lot of hard work happening.  Schools strive for this type of culture,” Hamberger said.

With Hardnett’s hope that Statesmen graduates will return to their communities to be agents for change, the Clark Foundation believes that this new kind of charter school model can have a positive ripple effect across DC. Hardnett said his team is examining how to successfully replicate the Statesmen model and codify those elements for those interested in tapping them. Hardnett also hopes that he can turn over his job someday to one of his students: “We are eager to get to the point where one of the boys who attended the school works for the school, eventually leads the school and works with a group of alumni to reshape the community with a plan of their own.”