By Stephen Wilson

In 2017, a first-year student from Turkey sat in the basement of Acopian Engineering, in what was then the IDEAL Center, interviewing for a fellowship position with a recently hired Yusuf Dahl.

Rabia Demirelli ’21 became a member of the inaugural cohort of student entrepreneurs involved in what is now the Dyer Center. Surrounding her were upperclassmen, some who had started ventures before and others who would go on to win collegiate pitch competitions.

She never sought that glory. She was the “outlier,” more interested in what she calls the “big picture” work: what students wanted and what the center could create. Her vision over four years has helped to define her college experience and shape a silent but profound legacy.

That silence ends here.

Demirelli was involved in the social entrepreneurship club in her high school. There she participated in competitions, offered design-thinking training, led community involvement projects in the arts, and attended the Caretakers of Environment conference in Denmark.

So getting involved at Dyer was a natural fit, something she loved to do.

She dove in by co-founding the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization (CEO) club on campus and worked to host events and workshops, bringing in alumni and local business owners. She traveled to its nationwide annual conferences—one year in Kansas City, another year in Tampa, and then on-screen when the pandemic made everything virtual.

She went to NYU to participate in a hackathon … not entirely for the fun of dreaming up and executing on an idea but more so for the clarity on whether the College could host such a competition.

After a semester in Germany during her sophomore year as part of her engineering studies and economics double major and German minor, Demirelli returned to the U.S. for a summer internship at RocketCloud, a cloud-based software solutions company. Her networking to land the role took her from contacts in NYC to Bethlehem to Turkey and then back to NYC.

By her junior year, the center finally hit its full stride by opening its new space as part of Rockwell Integrated Sciences Center.

As a fellow, she continued to work behind the scenes, helping to create a task force team focused on marketing, programming, and the maker space. Dyer wasn’t her only innovation outlet. That year she also participated in the Technology Clinic. At both creative outlets, she advocated for leaders to participate in Ashoka, which brings together global changemakers.

When the pandemic hit, visa worries forced her to remain in the U.S., but she made the most of it.

That summer, she interned at Deloitte, but the summer-long program became two virtual weeks. She wanted more, so she began to collaborate with Chris Ruebeck, faculty director at the Dyer Center and associate professor in Economics, and Ben Cohen, associate professor in Engineering Studies. Together, they began to mentor her thesis work while she advanced the cause for social entrepreneurship  at the College.

“Rabia has been a leader throughout her time at Lafayette and has relentlessly pursued her interest in entrepreneurship for four years,” says Ruebeck. “She works not only on her own vision, but a vision that others share. She challenges others to think in new ways and helps those around her to be more confident.”

In her senior year, she helped work on the new four-year fellowship program that launches with applicants and recruits from the Class of 2025. She also served as teaching assistant in the upper-level social entrepreneurship course.

It’s no wonder, given all of this behind the scenes work, that she received the 2020 Emerging Leader Award, which recognizes students who demonstrate considerable leadership potential and have made an impressive transition from exploring to taking the lead toward meaningful change.

Has this change been easy?

Not at all.

“Yusuf is my biggest supporter and my biggest critic,” she says. “He has pushed me past my boundaries over the four years.”

Her own drive has also led to further recognition, earning this year’s Hunsicker Prize for work in the area of small-business studies and the Department of Economics Scholastic Achievement Award for outstanding academic performance in economics and business and leadership in departmental activities.

One of her goals as an international student, which she clearly achieved, was understanding how things worked in a different culture.

“I have learned a lot about building relationships and how to get students to take action,” she says.

But turning a brainstorm into a vision and translating it into action is what she cares about most. 

It’s an energy and thinking she hopes to apply to the analyst role she accepted at Deloitte. “I’m excited to explore what is possible in my career,” she says.

And what would she say to incoming students who will stand upon the groundwork she has laid?

“When an opportunity comes up, show up,” she says. “The best things happen at events and workshops. They are mind blowing and inspirational, and help form connections with amazing alumni and people.”

“I hope I helped create a difference on campus as we took the initial steps to start something and watch it grow with the support of students and alumni,” she says.

Mission accomplished.

The Dyer Center

Promoting entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity

The Dyer Center fosters and sustains a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that increases the creative capacity of Lafayette students to lead and inspire change

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