At 16 and 15 years old, respectively, Jelena and Jovana Stijovic relocated from abroad to New Jersey with their mother and younger sister. In a matter of years, the siblings from Serbia acclimated successfully to their new country, made their way from Bergen Community College to NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering, and graduated in May 2017 with bachelor’s degrees in industrial engineering. They both also landed their “dream jobs” almost one year before finishing their studies — Jelena as a district manager trainee at Toys”R”Us and Jovana as a sourcing excellence specialist at L’Oreal — and will earn a master’s in engineering management from NJIT this December.

Their accomplishments were hard earned and well plotted. “We’d meet every week to talk and track our progress,” said Jovana of her and Jelena’s high school and college years. “Every year, we’d come up with a list of goals, and we managed to achieve all of our goals because we kept our priorities straight.”

“We were always full-time students and we always had at least two jobs, so people…see our time management skill is on point, our GPA is on point, that we have technical real-life experience,” added Jelena. “I feel so fortunate because our hard work has paid off. My job is exactly what I wanted because the company is focused on developing me as a professional.”

The sisters are now immersed in rotational leadership and development programs at their companies that will enable them to obtain managerial positions and become leaders in their industries in two to three years. Before transitioning to a permanent employee, Jovana completed two co-ops at L’Oreal where she worked in direct procurement for the cosmetics giant’s North American region, performing benchmark and cost and budget analyses, maintaining the request-for-quotations database, and reviewing and approving refurbishment costs for manufacturing suppliers. Jelena did a six-month co-op at Johnson & Johnson prior to starting at Toys”R”Us as a team leader, serving as a lead project engineer, implementing Lean methodology and managing various groups.

“We did a lot of research and we found that industrial engineers work in every sector,” Jelena said. “We knew that with that degree we’d always be able to get a high-paying job.”

Jelena Stijovic will be a district manager of 10 stores after completing Toys"R"Us' leadership and development program.

Coming to America

Both Jelena and Jovana were strong students in Serbia, tackling 16 subjects annually. Eager for even more scholarly opportunities and unable to find them at their school, they “became obsessed with the idea of moving to America,” remembered Jelena.

That aim became an actuality when, as active members of a chess club in their native country, they came to the United States to play the game competitively — courtesy of a friend who belonged to Marshall’s Chess Club in Manhattan. “He sent us an invitation letter so we could participate in a few tournaments over here, but we used the time to learn more about the education system in the U.S. and we wound up staying here for good,” recalled Jovana.         

They settled in Garfield where a Serbian community resides, and Jovana was moved up a grade following testing by their school district. Additionally, because she and Jelena had such a facility for the English language, they were promptly placed in Honors English. They thrived at Garfield High School, flourished at Bergen Community College and excelled at NJIT, which they chose for its reputation as one of the nation’s leading polytechnic universities and its commitment to developing high-performing professionals.

 “A lot of my friends who finished NJIT [now] work in prominent companies,” said Jelena. “I’m so glad we picked this school!”

The Stijovics, who were first-generation college students, were active in NJIT’s student chapter of the American Society for Quality, even serving as vice presidents. But it was their experiences as co-op students, and the opportunities to apply their industrial engineering knowledge, that they remember most fondly.

Jovana Stijovic is a sourcing excellence specialist at L'Oreal. She did two co-ops there as an NJIT undergrad.

Succeeding in STEM

Today, Jelena lives in Clifton, N.J., and Jovana in Astoria, N.Y. While they clearly are enjoying their careers, they also give thought to their futures as industrial engineers. Jovana would like to rise to president of L’Oreal’s Customer Products Division, a position that “is crucial for understanding the customer’s needs, which I believe is the key to success.” Jelena, who will serve as district manager of 10 Toys”R”Us stores after completing the rotational program, looks to become a director of operations strategy and execution at the company, as well as a professor so she can “influence future generations and help them learn and grow.”

As women in STEM, they say they have never felt discriminated against. In fact, noted Jelena, “I really think it actually helped us because [companies] don’t see many girls with engineering degrees.”

“We faced other challenges that were much harder — basically starting all over in a country where we had no family or friends,” Jovana said. “We had to start from scratch.”

Fortunately for their younger sister, a recent high school graduate interested in being a software engineer, having role models like Jovana and Jelena should make her road to and through college smoother. As for their mother, a baby sitter for children with special needs — well, she could not be more proud of her daughters’ achievements. “She talks about us to everyone: people who care, people who don’t care,” laughs Jelena. “My mom likes to brag about us.”