By Stephen Wilson

It’s a common sight on a campus: a mentor with a whiteboard marker jotting down discussion ideas as students sit around a table with laptops open.

But this mentor and these students are … wait for it … entrepreneurial.

It’s a word that makes them flinch.

Not because they aren’t interested in entrepreneurial ideas and innovation. Hardly. These students are the first cohort of fellows at the IDEAL Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

They flinch because of the stigma that word carries.

“We have to market the center to students while educating them about what it really does,” says one.

To them the word “entrepreneur” implies that students have to have a product or service already developed to be at IDEAL. Or, worse, that only certain majors can be drawn in, like engineering or economics.

“We are working toward transformation, not incremental changes,” says Yusuf Dahl, director of the IDEAL Center.

Dahl and the fellows are making a mind map of the various stakeholders’ needs, challenges to engage those stakeholders, and what is needed to make the program best in class. Over the last few months since he joined the College, Dahl has worked with the campus community to invigorate the program with a renewed direction.

“IDEAL is the place where students should want to roll up their sleeves, feel passionate about ideas or causes, collaborate with other innovative thinkers, and always ask, ‘Why not?’” says Dahl.

He has casual expertise the students relate to that is pragmatic, inspiring, and honest. Dahl honed these skills on the streets and in the classroom. He founded an affordable housing development and management company in Milwaukee that grew from a single two-family property in one of the city’s poorest ZIP codes to more than 200 residential and commercial units.

He was a graduate fellow at Center for Information and Technology Policy at Princeton University, where he earned a Master of Public Administration degree.

The student fellows are engaged and ready to build a platform so all students at the College can connect with the programs, processes, and inspiration that will fill the center.

And dispel thoughts that can make some folks squirm when they hear the word
“entrepreneur.”

The new fellows include several amazing students:

  • Zechariah Nelson ’19, engineering studies and international affairs double major, who has participated in an immersion program in Bangladesh with a Noble Prize winner, interned in Nepal, and founded a manufacturing business that sells college-themed wooden bowties;
  • Alesander Homsi ’19, mechanical engineering major, who placed first in dragster design, serves as a resident adviser and co-founder and vice president of the Arab League at the College, and helped build a school in Jamaica during a global service immersion trip;
  • Chirag Nijjer ’20, engineering studies and economics double major, who is a Posse Foundation Scholar, worked as part of the management team at a Manhattan developer, and was co-founder of his high school robotics team;
  • Rabia Demirelli ’21, who created content and then helped lead design-thinking training as an intern in Istanbul, led community involvement projects in the arts for school students, and attended the Caretakers of Environment conference in Denmark;
  • Talia Baddour ’20, mechanical engineering major and psychology minor, who created social media vaccination campaign clinics in California, participated in an Alternative School Break trip to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and makes a tasty liquid nitrogen ice cream;
  • Charles Evans ’19, government & law and Africana studies double major, who earned the Aaron O. Hoff Rising Star Award at Lafayette, co-founded Concerned Student Coalition, and plays a mean piano as well as popular music on student radio station WJRH.

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