Since beginning her career at CSE Software as a developer in 1992, Renee Gorrell has steadily worked her way up the ranks to become a co-owner of the technology firm. Now as president and CEO, she leads a team that creates and supports software to solve workplace challenges around the world. She also serves as vice president and co-owner of CSE’s sister company, Simformotion LLC, which designs, manufactures and sells heavy equipment simulators and holds the license for Cat Simulators. As co-owner of a women-owned and operated company, she is passionate about encouraging young girls to pursue technology careers and stands as a prime example showing them what is possible.
Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What were your hobbies and interests?
I grew up in Germantown Hills with my parents, two brothers, numerous dogs, cats, geese, rabbits and a horse. I was a typical child of the seventies, running around the neighborhood from dawn until dusk with my friends and taking many day trips with my family. When the eighties hit, my attention turned toward game consoles and computers. In the early eighties, my brother and I opened an Intellivision game system for Christmas and my draw to gaming began. I remember playing the game Atlantis for five hours straight and my parents, sitting behind me, were amazed I could stay alive that long. Unlike today, back then when you “died,” you had to start over at the beginning, so staying alive was paramount!
My dad, George Schlink, worked at IBM, and in 1984 he brought home an IBM PCjr along with a GW-BASIC cartridge and book. That was certainly a game-changer for me—when I started learning about writing code of my own.
Who were some of your early influences?
My mom and dad were both influential in shaping me into who I am today. My dad was always introducing new concepts that inspired me to learn something new. Whether that was recording music on the reel-to-reel, learning how to make plaster of Paris statues, going to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago or visiting the planetarium at Lakeview Museum, he always kept learning in the forefront. My mom had a way of expecting the most from me and was my biggest cheerleader. She made me feel like I could be anything and do anything I set my mind to. To her, there were no barriers ahead!
Tell us about working your way up the ranks at CSE Software.
In 1992, after graduating from Bradley University with a degree in computer information systems, I was hired as a developer at CSE Software. Like any small company, you quickly learn how to wear many different hats. It wasn’t long before I was out meeting with clients and listening to their needs. Then, back at the shop, I would help develop their solution—from the architecture to the coding to delivery and training.
In 1996 we added a 24x7 help desk to our services. I quickly learned to be that patient voice during third shift, helping international clients through their software problems while still developing software during the day. Around this time, I became a vice president and was offered ownership in the company. In the years that followed, continuing to build the business and staying up on the latest technology remained our focus.
Our next big move came in 2009, when my partners and I decided to start a new business building, marketing and selling Caterpillar-branded heavy equipment simulators. This allowed the leadership at CSE—Ken Pflederer, Lara Aaron and me—to focus on building a new business centered around training simulators. My role was to find and implement the ERP software to run the business, hire and oversee marketing, purchase a building for warehousing the inventory, and oversee the logistics of an international business. It was a thrilling time, learning and implementing all these business areas. During that decade, I spent my days where I was needed most between both CSE and Simformotion.
In 2020, Lara and I decided to make an offer to buy Ken’s shares from both companies. It was a bittersweet time because the three of us had worked so closely for 28 years. On January 29, 2020, I became CEO of CSE Software and vice president of Simformotion.
What was your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge was taking time away from CSE to launch Simformotion. It was a very emotional time for our employees, feeling like they had been abandoned. Although we could see that we were starting a complementary and diversified business alongside CSE, our foresight to communicate it clearly and anticipate the emotions around running two closely-tied businesses was sorely lacking.
What has kept you with the same company for so long?
I love what I do and who I do it with. It’s that simple. The saying is true: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Being fueled by the ever-evolving technology space is exhilarating. I thrive on going to shows, seeing what’s next and figuring out where we fit.
Tell us more about your duties as president and CEO. What aspects of the job do you find most rewarding? Most challenging?
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about so many different industries. When you create software, you get the chance to step into another industry to learn about it. Whether it’s learning about the training needs for operators on an excavator, understanding the importance of knowing all the risk factors of an infectious disease, learning about recidivism rates in prisons and how our training simulators can impact those rates, or hearing how dangerous power lines are in farmers’ fields, learning details about the industries around me keeps me motivated for the next one.
At this moment in time, trying to figure out how to remain a remote workforce while maintaining our company culture is my challenge. The way we work has shifted tremendously during the pandemic. In some ways, it has improved how we work, but we’ve lost the closeness and family atmosphere we once thrived on. The workforce has permanently changed. Finding a way to be flexible and have a family culture with all employees, both in-person and remote, is my goal.
Describe your involvement in the community. What causes are near and dear to you?
As a company, we donate and attend many local events supporting organizations and charities. Personally, I’ve been active in our HOA for the past 20 years. One cause that I’m passionate about is encouraging young girls to pursue careers in technology. As a women-owned tech company, with each owner having 30 years of tech experience, we serve as a prime example to show young women what is possible. We were hired based on our skillsets, climbed the ladder, learned all aspects of the business, and rose to the highest positions. We have lived the American dream and can inspire and mentor other young women to do the same. I’ve been in touch with many people locally and will determine the best way to accomplish this soon.
What is your leadership style or philosophy?
Becoming CEO a month before the pandemic hit has shaped me into a very adaptable, transparent and caring leader. You can’t navigate these times and expect to remain strong unless you pivot quickly, communicate your actions and bring your team along with you. I’m excited for our future, with how technology shifted, and our employees rallied along with us.
What advice would you give to a young female professional?
As a young professional, I never thought about gender being a limiting factor and would encourage other female professionals to do the same. Decide what you want in life, make a plan and go after it. There are females wanting to be in male-dominated fields and males wanting to be in female-dominated fields. Remove the stigmas and simply go after what you want for your life.
In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
Even though work-life balance has become a mantra in recent years, balancing motherhood and a career will always be our struggle. In life, you have to decide where you will spend your limited time and if you’re spending time building a business, it will cut into the time you spend with your family. There are benefits and negatives to both sides that you must weigh for yourself and have peace with what you decide.
How do you unwind after a long day of work?
The drive home with the music turned up is a good start, but my favorite place to unwind is in nature. That may be sitting with my husband by the lake, looking at the trees reflecting in the water, or taking a walk at night with my son, admiring the stars shimmering in the sky. The beauty God has surrounded us with is calming and magnificent if you stop to take it in.
What is your greatest fear in life? Greatest joy?
My greatest fear in life is getting that devastating news of only having so many months left in your life and having to fit your entire bucket list into that timeframe. Apparently mine is too long, and I need to move faster. There’s so much more I want to see and do! My greatest joy is watching my two boys grow into young men. We’re now in the pivotal years, where you get to see them make their own decisions and become their own person.
What inspires you?
Listening to people with more experience or wisdom in areas in which I am trying to succeed. The things you can learn and the opportunities that will be opened will only happen if you expand your thinking. Nothing excites me more than sitting around a table, listening and learning from people brainstorming ideas. PM