Fujiflim recruitment reveals NC’s secret weapon: Women in economic development

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by Lawrence Bivins — April 7, 2021 .

Last month’s announcement by Governor Roy Cooper that FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies would create a 725-job cell culture production facility in Holly Springs was history-making in its scale and impact. The Japan-based company intends to invest as much as $2 billion in the plant, making it North Carolina’s most capital-rich project in memory. When complete in 2024, the facility will add $5.5 billion to the state’s GDP over the following 12 years, according to an analysis by the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division (LEAD).

But “Project Galaxy,” which pulled together a vast array of local and statewide partners, may also mark the first instance in which women in North Carolina’s economic development circles ushered an opportunity of this magnitude to fruition. The project was a collaborative win engineered by key municipal, county and statewide economic development leaders – all of whom are females in a profession once dominated by men.

“Economic development projects are kind of like giant jigsaw puzzles, and every piece needs to be in place,” says Adrienne Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber houses Wake County Economic Development, which spearheaded efforts to highlight the superiority of the Triangle’s talent and workforce assets over those of College Station, Tex., which also put on a full-court press to land Project Galaxy. Cole cites the pivotal role played by Irena Krstanovic, director of economic development for the Town of Holly Springs; Katy Parker, business recruitment manager at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC); and Ashley Cagle, assistant executive director of Wake County Economic Development.

“Those three women were with the project from the beginning,” Cole says. The team even gave up their holidays to keep the effort moving forward. “They were determined to win this transformational project for North Carolina.”

Cole herself rose from the economic development profession and has helped make it a more common career choice among women. A New Bern native, she accepted a position as economic developer in Pamlico County in 1996 before taking on leadership duties in neighboring Carteret County. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Cole says. “The whole profession has evolved.”

Among the skills that spur success in the economic development world are some at which females typically excel. “Women are fantastic collaborators,” Cole says. They also display a willingness to bring unconventional partners to the table and rarely obsess about getting credit. “Some of the qualities women bring is the ability to listen and know what the client is asking,” she adds.

Holly Springs’ Krstanovic says the ability to manage relationships helped facilitate her success as an economic development professional. “There is an aspect of economic development you cannot teach, and that is how to build valuable relationships,” she says. Krstanovic began as a project manager in 2000 and was named economic development director in 2016. While Project Galaxy landed on her desk last fall, the seeds of Holly Springs’ success in attracting the massive facility began much earlier, she says. “The town started work decades before with land planning, zoning, infrastructure and site design,” Krstanovic explains. “We made the decision years ago that we wanted to be competitive for this type of project.”

Representing a municipal government, Krstanovic’s focus was on specific site qualities, infrastructure needs and other local factors. Project Galaxy’s overall momentum rested with EDPNC’s Parker. “Katy was the one who really pulled the partners and organizations together,” Krstanovic says. Numerous state agencies, educational institutions and local governments supported the win, along with far-flung entities ranging from Duke Energy to the North Carolina Japan Center. “It was really important to have the right players involved at the right time so we could close the gaps and pull the project across the finish line,” Krstanovic says. “Katy was invaluable in the role of keeping us all together.”

The 2009 election of Katherine Thomas, then an economic development executive at Progress Energy, as president of the North Carolina Economic Development Association (NCEDA) marked a seismic shift for women in the state’s economic development community, recalls Dr. Patricia Mitchell, a longtime local and state economic development leader now on the public administration faculty at Appalachian State University. “Organizations are important entities,” says Mitchell, who served as NCEDA’s president in 2019-2020. “They have culture, structure and leadership.”

Sharon Decker’s appointment as NC Commerce Secretary in 2013 kept the momentum going. “She could bring out the very best in women,” says Mitchell, an assistant Commerce secretary at that time. “She could do it subtly or she could do it forcefully.” The economic development profession’s most successful women are those who are not only effective in their positions, but take the time and consideration to mentor others. “It’s a gift,” says Mitchell, who notices that women now comprise about half the App State students pursuing an economic development track in public administration programs.

That squares with ongoing state and national surveys of the economic development profession. “You see about 50 percent women, but they don’t represent the top positions,” says Crystal Morphis, founder of Creative Economic Development Consulting LLC in Elkin, N.C. “While there’s been considerable advancement, men still hold 64 percent of the director-level positions,” she says. Frequent travel and an abundance of night meetings may prevent some women, especially moms, from advancing in the field, says Morphis, who began her career in 1996 as Surry County’s business retention and expansion manager. “You have to be able to travel at the drop of a hat to meet client expectations.”

Motherhood didn’t stop Ashley Cagle’s rise to her current position at the Raleigh Chamber – though the journey wasn’t easy. Cagle began her economic development career in 2011 in Montgomery County. Now the mother of three, she recalls waiting sheepishly until the 20th week of her first pregnancy to inform her board she was about to become a mom. “I was afraid of how they might react,” Cagle says.

Cagle, who joined Wake County Economic Development in 2014, says the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the always-delicate balancing act between parenthood and the aggressive workload of an economic development professional. “Trying to split time between work and home-schooling brought a new level of complexity,” she says. But support from her superiors at the Raleigh Chamber – including Cole, also a mother of three – is vital in moments when she feels spread too thin.

In attending meetings and work functions, it’s not uncommon that Cagle looks around and realizes she is the only woman in the room. Still, she has conditioned herself to be undaunted. “I’ve really learned that I don’t have to be quiet,” she says. “I can speak up for myself, my organization and my community.” In less than four years with the chamber, her role there has advanced from project manager to vice president, and she now oversees all business recruitment and expansion projects. “I feel like the sky is the limit,” Cagle says.

Original Article Source: WRAL TechWire