Women of Western Wake: Irena Krstanovic

It’s hard to introduce Irena Krstanovic, the economic development director for the Town of Holly Springs, without immediately touting her recent accomplishments. Under Krstanovic’s leadership, the Town of Holly Springs landed two giant biotech companies within the same year: Fuijifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies and Amgen. The two companies will add a combined 1,000 jobs to the area over the next few years, solidifying the town’s reputation as a hub for biotechnology and life sciences. Because of her unparalleled success, Krstanovic was recently presented with the Economic Developer of the Year Award by the North Carolina Economic Development Association.

“These processes are extremely competitive and very confidential,” said Krstanovic. “We are really competing globally. When these searches start, they’re looking at Denmark and Japan and multiple sites in the US. To be able to score these tremendous companies is truly transformational for the region and the state, not just for Holly Springs. You can be in the world of economic development your whole life and not work a deal of that magnitude.”

Krstanovic started her career in economic development almost 22 years ago with the Town of Holly Springs, joining former director Jenny Mizelle in a dynamic two-woman team.

“I met Irena when she applied for a position as the economic development coordinator,” said Mizelle. “As we developed as a team, I came to rely on her toughness and strategic thinking, which are valuable qualities in an economic development leader. Irena is intelligent and business focused, and yet always had time to listen to residents and small-business owners who would just drop in the office and talk about the opportunities in Holly Springs.”

Following Mizelle’s retirement, Krstanovic stepped into her current role of economic development director, but continues to credit much of her success to her predecessor’s hard work and foresight.

“I would definitely say that Jenny Mizelle was my inspiration,” said Krstanovic. “We’ve done a lot of great things in Holly Springs, like landing Seqirus, the largest flu manufacturer in the world — that was Jenny’s project. We’ve done a lot of other things, like a library and a cultural center, but that’s not the kind of thing that makes the news. Jenny paved the way with nothing, but I had something to work with. Jenny is a visionary — she said she wanted to make Holly Springs a major life sciences hub for NC, and today that’s what we are.”

Contributed photo

Giving credit where credit is due seems to come naturally to Krstanovic, who has nothing but wonderful things to say about her colleagues and the town that she’s called home since 1999. Born and raised in former Yugoslavia, she earned her degree in international economic development from the University of Banja Luka before moving to the US with her husband 24 years ago.

“We bought a house in Holly Springs in 1999, and I started to work for the town a few months later. I consider myself to be almost a native at this point,” Krstanovic said with a laugh.

When asked what she is most proud of, Krstanovic answered with no hesitation — her family.

“I love exposing our children to Serbian language and Serbian culture while also allowing them to be part of this great country and this great culture. I am proud that we were able to grow our family in that way,” said Krstanovic.

Contributed photo

As the mother of two daughters, ages 18 and 15, Krstanovic hopes that both of her girls will see that the sky’s the limit for them in all of their future endeavors.

“I recently received the Glass Ceiling Award from the Holly Springs Chamber, as a woman who has made an impact in my community. I came to this country and was able to build my career with hard work, trust, and collaboration, and become successful in what I do. I just hope my girls can see and learn from that.”

Coupled with supportive parents who prepared her for “whatever life can throw at you,” Krstanovic is most inspired by her late grandmother, saying that not a week goes by that she doesn’t think about her.

“She is truly my hero. She was old enough to go through quite a few wars in that part of Europe, so if anyone had a good perspective on how to seize the day and focus on the family and what’s important, then it was definitely her.”

When speaking with Krstanovic and those who know her, it becomes very clear that Irena is deeply committed to her job — and the success of a small “mom and pop” business means just as much to her as landing those multi-billion-dollar deals.

“I want to make our community more sustainable. Providing jobs and working with our high schools and middle schools to prepare a high-quality pipeline for the workforce is really important to me,” said Krstanovic. “If we can change some kids’ lives by giving them the chance to find a great job within their community, even without a four-year degree, I think we have succeeded.”

Ashley Cagle, the assistant executive director for Wake County economic development, met Krstanovic nine years ago. Although they have worked on numerous projects together over the years, Cagle is most impressed with Krstanovic’s love for people.

“I think one thing about Irena that makes her a good economic developer and a good person, which is a nice combination, is that she’s really interested in and loves people,” said Cagle. “She comes from a background where taking care of your family and your friends is really important. She is interested in their lives, and it is really a joy to work with her.”

The ability to build and maintain healthy relationships with others is one of Krstanovic’s greatest strengths, which serves her well during the handling and negotiation of significant investments. Daniel Weeks, assistant town manager for Holly Springs, first met Krstanovic in 2006 and has since worked with her on many economic development projects. When asked to describe Krstanovic, Weeks says that, as well as being a determined and strategic thinker, Krstanovic is simply a positive person.

“Holly Springs was in the running for the largest biotechnology project the state had ever seen, and not once did she feel like we didn’t deserve it,” said Weeks. “She never doubted our potential. Her confidence obviously resonated with company reps and site selectors. She never once believed that lightning couldn’t strike the same place twice.”

Despite all of her many (well-deserved) accolades, Krstanovic’s passion for economic development has never been about money or power — it’s always been about the people who call Holly Springs home. Krstanovic’s love for her community is palpable, and she insists that her professional success is only a reflection of how great the town is as a whole.

“Successes like FujiFilm and Amgen are what every economic developer lives and breathes for, but it’s just as exciting to work with a small business, because you can see how the transformation and success of the business affects a family,” said Krstanovic. “You truly see the acceptance of the community and how it helps that small business grow and thrive. When you know that you are a part of that, and that you’re helping people live their dreams — and as someone who is truly living the American dream — it’s really special.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *