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One-on-One with Ioana Engstrom

Ioana Engstrom. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Much of what makes entrepreneur Ioana Engstrom who she is today can be traced to her childhood in Romania, with a father who presided over war crime tribunals and a mother who was an actress.

Her father, Alexandru Ion Petrescu, fought in both world wars and rose to become director of the country’s Supreme Court, she said.

He also helped to rescue a family of Jews when the Nazis took over the Eastern European country, Engstrom said.

It was before she was born, but she knew the story of how he “hid a whole family in our basement, the grandparents, the parents, and he helped them get out,” said Engstrom, a 62-year-old Albuququerque resident.

Later, her father presided over trials involving Nazi war criminals, as well as those who were members of the fascist Iron Guard movement in the years before World War II.

“I will tell you, the only people who came to say thank you when my dad was purged by the communists (and) he retired were all these wonderful Jewish people who ended up in New York or Israel, and when they came through Romania, they would first come to my dad and say hello,” Engstrom said. “My sister found this old list he kept of everybody he helped because it was just outrageous what was going on. So I learned very early on about fairness and about doing the right things, even if it’s extremely tough and you could get in trouble.”

Engstrom said her desire to do the right thing was borne out when she helped bring to the U.S. a Romanian friend who was being held under house arrest.

And, later, she said, it was her sense of fairness that prompted her to walk away from ClingZ, the Rio Rancho company she founded in 1989, when it was targeted for a hostile takeover.

The investors behind the takeover made life “unbearable” for Engstrom, but she said instead of shutting the company and reaping the profits, she left. That way the 30 people working for ClingZ could hold on to their livelihoods, she said.

A year later, she said, the hostile takeover fell apart.

“The company continued after I left for six more years before they sold it to another group,” she said. “I made enough money out of it to fund my son’s college. That was it.”

Now, Engstrom and her husband, Rich, are working on their new company, Skipti, a peer-to-peer online rental service that is set to begin a trial run in June.

When did you come to this country?

I left Romania when I was 22. I met an American man who was from Albuquerque, studying on a Fulbright grant … and doing a case study on Romania. We met though my linguistics professor. So, long story, he ended up asking me to marry him. It was very complicated and took two years and it was two years in which you had no idea if you’ll ever get approval to get married and leave. I left because we ended up on a list … that got negotiated by (a congressman from New York) … and two weeks later, I had the approval to leave. I found out five years later while at UNM doing a paper on (a trade) agreement, I found a report following the congressman’s trip to Romania and read that among the things that they had agreed to was an exchange of 11 Romanians for 20 million tons of grain at preferential prices.

You were one of those 11 Romanians?

Yes.

And the country got a lot of food in return …

Sadly, not. (Romanian President Nicolae) Ceausescu’s deal with the Russians was that they would stay out of Romania, but he had to pay them a lot, and one of the things was trains filled with grain going straight through Romania right on to Russia. So the Romanians didn’t even get the grain on my behalf.

What was your life like after arriving in Albuquerque?

I came here, and then my then-husband decided to inform me that he didn’t marry me because of love, but as a humanitarian gesture to help get me out of an Iron Curtain communist country. Literally two weeks after getting here, he informed me that he was going back to Europe and told me good luck and that he was sure I would survive. I had a one-way ticket, I’m married and I had nothing. No way to go home.

What happened after that?

I went to UNM and would spend days there trying to figure out how I could get into the school. So I figured out a way, you know, loans and grants and work study and I got a job on campus. I did have to start from zero with an undergraduate degree. They didn’t recognize any of my degrees that I did in Romania. But my life just took off. I went to the dorms. I figured out how to pay for my existence.

What was it like growing up in Romania?

I had a wonderful childhood. We had grandparents living with us; my aunt and uncle were there. We were all a big family, always together, always sharing wonderful meals, even when there wasn’t any food whatsoever. I actually have an interesting story. My dad went every day to the market to try to find our family food and one time, my dad came home and said, “You know girls, I have great news, tonight we are going to have baked potatoes and we’re going to have a picnic. Instead of eating at the table, we’re going to go into the bedroom and put a blanket on the floor and roast potatoes and mom’s going to recite poetry for us and it’s going to be a really fantastic night.” We realized, years later, that he went to the market that day and all he found was potatoes. Instead of coming home and telling us there wasn’t any food to be had except potatoes, he turned it into a picnic. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I remember my mother reciting poetry, laughing and how wonderful that night was.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I read. I walk the dog. Rich and I have people over to dinner . … We have one or two groups of friends that we’re very close to, and it always seems that when we get together, we never have time to finish our conversations on whatever topics we’re talking about.

What do you talk about?

Actually, we talk about space. A lot about what’s next. We talk about the implications of AI (artificial intelligence) technology.

What do you worry about?

Because I was at the edge of existence when I arrived here, that has never left me. So, still I think about what would happen if I end up back on the streets. Survival is a really interesting obsession.

Do you have any big regrets?

Zero. I wouldn’t change anything about my life. It’s really what has made me who I am. I’ve learned an enormous amount, and I continue to learn and I think that’s absolutely important. It never stops, learning and curiosity.

Do you have a favorite place?

It’s the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. They are absolutely magical.

Is there anything else that you want people to know about you?

You know, I have been recently talking to a friend about the many things I’ve done in my career. A lot of them, if you look at what I’ve done, are not failures, but not huge successes, and after putting so much time and effort into these things – I’ve contemplated a lot on that and I choose to look at that in a very different way. What I didn’t make is millions of dollars. But what I have gained from all that I have done is nothing but success and gratitude. Because from every single thing that has happened to me, I have learned. Yes, there is no millions, but I’m in a comfortable place with an amazing husband, incredible sons and wonderful friends.

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