Tribute to IBM engineer and innovator Irene Sterian

Despite being told by naysayers that manufacturing was an unconventional career for a woman, engineer Irene Sterian broke a glass ceiling and spent more than 30 years at IBM/Celestica Inc. And as founder, president and CEO of technology accelerator Refined Manufacturing Acceleration Process (REMAP ), she helped both emerging and established companies bring their ideas to life and drive new Canadian products into the global market faster.

She liked to learn how things were built, says daughter Melanie Katz, and in a 2019 interview, Irene described how she had been drawn to advanced manufacturing. “I was not as attracted to software as I was to hardware,” she said, “and I always thought there was something new to be developed and something new to be built.”

The first child of electrical engineer Dan Sterian and chemist Lya Sterian, Anda Irina “Irene” Sterian was born in Bucharest, Romania, while the country was under communist rule. Freedoms, her father described in his memoirs, were severely restricted. The government dictated where people could work and live, and they were not allowed to travel outside the country without special approval. “As a child, Irene was warned that teachers and other adults were always listening,” says brother Andrew Sterian, “and she should be careful to not say anything bad about the government or communism.”

Though her parents had worked in professional occupations, their pay in Romania was not commensurate with their skills and greatly impacted the family’s quality of life, as most of their income was spent on food.

In 1973, the family left Romania for Italy. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society helped the Sterians move to Toronto in February 1974.

“Arriving in Canada at the age of 11 was challenging,” Andrew says of his sister, “as she had to balance the social complexities of the preteen years in an unfamiliar culture.”

“Irene had to quickly adapt to being Canadian,” her mother says, “which included learning English and catching up with the new school curriculum.” Fortunately, Irene was proficient at languages, learning Romanian, German, French, and English by age 12.

Irene attended Grenoble Public School and Valley Park Middle School in Don Mills, followed by William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute in North York. “She always excelled at school, (especially) in math and science,” says Andrew, “but she balanced her schoolwork with an active social life, often organizing parties.” After high school, she studied industrial engineering at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1985. She received her Professional Engineers Ontario license shortly afterwards and began her first job at IBM.

At IBM, her work involved expanding and modernizing the company’s electronic manufacturing services business. Irene led teams that implemented assembly lines at IBM Canada, according to Loretta Renard, interim CEO of REMAP, and she was an innovator in chip miniaturization and assembly technology.

In 1993, Irene helped Celestica transition from a divestiture of IBM manufacturing into a successful global company. Partnering with academics, equipment suppliers and industry associations, “Irene leveraged the Ontario Green Energy Act legislation to realize a solar manufacturing plant at Celestica Canada,” says Renard. “Creating the new factory required retooling, engineering training and education for solar manufacturing.”

At Celestica, Irene managed teams of more than 50 engineers from around the world who provided advanced technologies for healthcare, renewable energy, aerospace, defense and telecommunications electronics.

Irene convinced her employer to allow her to found REMAP as a separate entity, says Andrew, “because it would be mutually beneficial to Celestica as a business and to the Canadian manufacturing community in general.” REMAP — an integrated shared ecosystem linking hundreds of academic and research institutions, suppliers, manufacturers, not-for-profit organizations, industry associations and enterprises — was her proudest career accomplishment de ella.

“Irene (brought) together people from different backgrounds and created an environment of learning, sharing and innovation across businesses even across competitive corporate boundaries,” says Renard. “She fostered Canada’s manufacturing supply chain, engaging universities and industry partners to form joint ventures that dramatically increased the agility and speed to market of highly innovative products.”

In 2017, Irene helped establish NGen, a $230 million advanced-manufacturing super-cluster in Ontario, the first of its kind in Canada.

A sought-after lecturer and recipient of many awards, Irene presented at more than 70 industry events in the last decade, published papers, contributed regularly to Canadian and global manufacturing standards, and served on several boards and committees. She was also a devoted mentor who volunteered her time to guide hundreds of women in STEM. Under her leadership of ella, REMAP partners have contributed more than 25,000 mentoring hours to date. Irene once told an interviewer that she herself benefited from good mentors and, recognizing that she was in a non-traditional field for women, she wanted to pay it forward.

Her skills in networking and relationship-building helped her become a better engineer, says daughter Lauren Katz. Irene was always curious, adds Lya: “she always wanted to learn more about how the world worked and she was interested in meeting new people.”

Andrew remembers his sister as “fearless, but not reckless.” “Some engineers take care of the mechanical world, some the electrical or the chemical,” he adds. “Irene was an engineer in the world of people.”

At her funeral, Irene’s daughters described her as a force of good—a visionary, an optimist, and an innovative thinker who knew how to get things done, while always being kind. She was a strategic and creative problem-solver, but also a compassionate listener, which made her both comforting and wise, they said.

Professionally, Andrew says, “she ensured that the right people talked to each other at the right times, that everyone’s needs were recognized. (For Irene,) the future of Canadian manufacturing would be determined not by technology but by people.”

And she created countless engineering solutions for manufacturing sites and customers around the world. “Irene’s sandbox,” says Renard, “was the manufacturing floor.”

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