Dana Rifai’s family immigrated decades ago to the U.S. from Syria, so perhaps it’s fitting that Rifai naturally gravitated toward a specialty in immigration law as she eyed a degree at Valparaiso University School of Law.
Not so, she said.
“It was to be expected that I would do that because my parents were immigrants. I didn’t want to do what was expected. I wanted to do what I wanted to do,” Rifai said.
It took an economic downturn after graduation to nudge Rifai, then a business lawyer with Burke Costanza & Carberry LLP, toward a career path she said she resisted for years.
“So I did it, grudgingly. But what I didn’t expect is that I really liked it," she said.
Today, Rifai, an intern-turned-associate attorney with the Merrillville-based law firm, is credited with initiating the firm’s immigration practice, where she focuses on employment, family and business matters. She helps secure work visas for immigrants, matching foreign talent with U.S. companies, she said.
As part of her role with the firm, she also serves clients in business transactions, aiding companies as they navigate through complex mergers and acquisitions.
But that’s not all she does. She’s also a mother, a wife, and a school board member at Avicenna Academy, an Islamic school in Merrillville where her 7-year-old twins attend.
Being a school board member there is her "proudest accomplishment," she said.
"There's a huge stigma on my (Islamic) faith, and it doesn't go unnoticed by any of us. We are American, but we're not seen that way," she said.
"This school helps kids understand their faith, not as it is projected in the media, but as it truly is, and helps them become confident members in the community."
Rifai also is involved with the Legacy Foundation, Lake County’s community foundation, and Porter County Community Foundation’s endowment fund initiative. She was recognized in 2013 as the “Up and Coming” Influential Woman of the Year by the nonprofit Influential Women of Northwest Indiana.
Rifai was a founding member of now-defunct Emerge South Shore, a group of dedicated, young professionals that promoted leadership and personal development in the Region through network and community involvement.
She also serves as a curator with TEDxCountyLineRoad, a Northwest Indiana spin-off of TED Talks that promotes big ideas and new ways of thinking.
That’s how she met Matthew Saltanovitz, regional director for the Indiana Economic Development Corp.
Saltanovitz nominated Rifai for inclusion in 2016's “20 under 40”.
“Not everyone will agree with me, but I think I’m free to say this. When we first started out, we had little to no idea what we were doing, and we pulled it off," Saltanovitz said.
"It was a success, and Dana was instrumental in that. It’s about ideas worth spreading, and it was great to see that in our neck of the woods."
Saltanovitz said Rifai has been instrumental in TEDxCountyLineRoad's success.
“What I admire about Dana is her passion for Northwest Indiana,” Saltanovitz said. "Whether it’s for (TedX), or in her career, she’s very driven."