A Twin Cities engineer's quest to understand love led her to entrepreneurship and the moniker, "Love Engineer."
Alex Merritt, a trained mechanical engineer, is the founder and bubbly host of Dessert & Discussion, an evening of conversations about relationships served with delectable treats.
"Dessert & Discussion helps the genders break down barriers and build amazing relationships," the 37-year-old said.
Singles and married couples are all welcome to her events held at different locations in the Twin Cities. This year, attendance and frequency have doubled.
And Merritt's growing business not only provides relationship insights but it also fills a gap in nightlife options for Twin Cities professionals of color. For that reason, Dessert & Disscussion recently partnered with Make It. MSP — an initiative to make the Twin Cities a top destination for talent.
Merritt officially launched the business in 2015 in the Twin Cities but it began in 2009 in her living room in California.
Merritt found love and gender dynamics mystifying. So she invited male and female friends over to watch relationship movies and have candid conversations.
"I don't want to cook," so she told her guests to come after dinner for dessert. "And I want you to be really clear about why you're coming so hence, discussion. Dessert & Discussion was my overt way to make sure people were clear about what they were coming for."
They came and it was one epiphany after another.
"What I thought would be a two-hour experience with people in my living room...turned into 1 in the morning of men and women really having one 'aha' and enlightening experience after another," Merritt recalled.
Over time, the get-togethers became regular events, happening every three months.
"And then eventually it grew to more strangers than friends in my living room," she said. "And then I realized there was an absolute need."
Since then, Merritt's taken Dessert & Discussion to Boston, Chicago and other American cities, and hosted them in Dubai and Curacao. She charges $20 per person.
In 2016, she created "War of Love," a card game that encourages intimate conversations. She's sold more than a thousand decks.
The business is still her sideline. A St. Louis native, Merritt studied mechanical engineering and has worked at General Mills for most of her career.
"Engineering is all about solving complex problems and doing it in a scientific methodical way that helps you understand cause and effect more than anything," she said.
Mechanical engineering is not the typical career path for a student of human relationships. But Merritt said it was preparation.
"My fascination with how and why relationships works and my technical background and the way I think about the world and it's how I've married the two of them," she said. "So I'm able to help people understand intellectually and therefore feel comfortable translating it emotionally."
Over the past three years, she's hosted 45 events that on average attract 30 people. But so far this year, her events have been monthly instead of quarterly and she expects 60 at her next event.
The event's purpose broadened in a region where research indicates professionals of color feel socially isolated and are likely to move away.
Tiffany Orth of Make It. MSP says a 2016 survey found romance, or the lack of it, was a prominent reason professionals of color were more likely to leave the Twin Cities.
"We heard a lot about love and dating and relationships and how, particularly if you just moved here, it's hard to find those types of connections in this Minnesota culture we have here, where everyone stays with the people they grew up with," Orth said. "The data also suggest people are much more likely to leave if they don't have those roots, if they don't have that partner."
Orth said Make It. MSP is trying to counter that trend with partnerships like the one they've made with Merritt to provide more ongoing social events.
Alex Merritt is single herself. When people point it out, she has a ready response.
"I tell people I'm a student and teacher in this class."
Merritt said Dessert & Discussion is taking up more of her time as it continues to grow. She eventually plans to run it full-time and expand the business through licensing.
Merritt's next event with Make It. MSP is March 25. It's entitled "The State of the Relationship."