Renee Lewis has been called the innovator, the turn-around woman, and the risk-taker. Indeed, she balances many roles, and with grace—at once a CEO, an engineer, a mother, and a wife. In her shining career, she has chosen many paths and influenced countless others—all because she decided to consider the word “no” as the beginning of a journey, and not as the end of one. Most people perceive “no” as a dead-end, but her career showcases a series of winding roads with rich scenery where others would certainly have chosen a safer, yet less rewarding, route.
At the core of these accomplishments is a deep love of thinking. “I really wanted to think for a living,” Renee explains. “Making money isn’t what’s hard; it’s doing something you’re interested in doing while making money that’s really worthwhile. I like to think through hard problems related to business. That’s my passion, and that’s what drives me.” Now the CEO and President of the Pensare Group, named after the Italian word that literally means “to think,” Renee has the joy of doing what she loves each and every day with clients who rely on her passion for results.
The Pensare Group is a specialized consulting firm that works with motivated leaders and their teams to improve performance, attract and retain loyal customers, and drive results. They tackle the hard problems that require innovative approaches, which include training technically-minded staff in sales, changing internal attitudes of complacency, or getting teams to streamline or innovate their approaches by embracing more modern and collaborative business trends. “At its essence, the mission of the Pensare Group is to accelerate success,” Renee explains. “We aim to take the word ‘no’ and reanalyze, restructure, redistribute, and redesign until that ‘no’ becomes a productive ‘yes.’ After all, what got you here may not get you where you want to be in the future. Sometimes you just have to think differently to get there.”
Her love of problem solving, as well as her work ethic and disregard for barriers, was stimulated from a very early age. In fact, one of her first memories involves a young Renee racing to finish her elementary school assignment so she could run to the front of the classroom and be the first to slap it on the teacher’s desk. Teachers would often say that she was the only girl they had in their classrooms who exhibited such a competitive, driven nature, and they cautioned against it—words of non-wisdom to which she paid little attention. “My parents raised me without regard for gender differences,” she reports today. She came from a talented family, inheriting her father’s scientific interests and her mother’s artistic creativity, which granted her the deep affinity for the process of learning, analyzing, and seeing solutions others overlook—skills that forms the foundation of her business today.
In high school, Renee was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” for her astounding leadership and ability to accomplish jobs efficiently. Even in her first job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, she ran the show as the cashier during busy hours, wielding her master multi-tasking skills like an expert ringleader. These skills had been honed in large part by the fact that her father had left when she was in third grade, so she was tasked from an early age with helping her mother struggle to make ends meet in inner-city St. Louis. Renee gladly took on a great deal of responsibility, working her way through high school and college and sending money home to help her mother, who was also working toward her college degree.
Upon graduating from Pennsylvania State University, Renee was recruited as one of twenty young test workers by a consulting firm that had previously only hired employees with more experience. The small group of college graduates formed a pilot program designed to keep the company competitive with larger firms like Arthur Andersen, who had already started down similar roads. Renee’s group was celebrated at first, but she soon found it was a hard environment for young women, and one in which the word “no” was a common refrain. Always one to thrive on a challenge, however, she found that the hardship she faced as a woman stimulated her interest in entrepreneurship and problem solving. “I reached the level of Senior Associate before age 30, which was unheard of in those days. I was one of 23 women, as compared to 457 men, at that level,” Renee recalls. “It was a very male-dominated atmosphere. I always felt like the rules were a little different for me, but it didn’t bother me. I just had to find a different approach that worked.”
Spurred by the momentum of pushing harder and eliminating any reason why she might be passed over for promotions or great project assignments, Renee earned her master’s degree in software engineering, which she was readily able to apply to her work. She ran the first systems integration contract at the firm and built a highly diverse team. “We simply hired the talent we needed,” she remembers. “We really looked like the DC profile you’d expect, and not like the homogenous team that was so common in consulting at the time. I learned a lot from observing how my colleagues missed opportunities by not managing their own biases, which helped me to see the world differently and motivated me to demonstrate the power of diverse thinking that stimulates more creative observations and, ultimately, better solutions.”
When Renee hit her ten-year mark with the company, she had achieved remarkable success, yet she no longer felt challenged. “There came a point where I didn’t feel as though I was personally growing anymore,” she recalls. “I just remember thinking, ‘How do I know if I’m really any good? This is all I’ve known!’ So I ventured out to the unsafe unknown. I took a BD position with a growing database company to get closer to technology. At my going away party, a Principal made a speech anticipating my return as if he couldn’t see me in the outside world. I knew then I could never return.”
In the hopes of testing her own limits, and despite the commonly-articulated sentiment that she was crazy to leave behind the success she had worked so hard to achieve, Renee moved on to work at a series of other companies, including Sybase and Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), where she served as Director of software engineering. She found continued success at Bell Atlantic, which included the accomplishment of creating the first Java application for big business billing, as well as launching a unique and innovative billing engine amidst conditions that actually gauged the project to fail. “It was groundbreaking work because it involved the tight integration and synchronization of a SQL engine collaborating with an object-oriented database called Gemstone, which had never been done before quite like what we did,” Renee details. “I was later told that they had hoped that the project would fail, so I wondered why they gave it to me. I always got results!”
By the time Renee left Bell Atlantic, she had created a new name for herself—one that reflected her high success rate when it came to her ability to dramatically improve outcomes. For this reason, she was called in to save a failing project called WellsSpring Resources (now known as Citi-Street), and eventually moved on to take the position as VP of Engineering during a four-company merger targeting eLearning markets. In the midst of the confusion and power shuffling, Renee took pride in working on Knowledge Universe’s groundbreaking methods on adult learning theory. She then became CTO of KnowledgePlanet after heading up the East Coast consulting services for Saba Software, another eLearning company.
Eventually, Renee entered the drug safety market by helping one organization market with an innovative product. She then took over the venture-backed company Galt Associates, where she was tasked with packaging and selling the company. Her work at Galt inspired the current line of work that is done at the Pensare Group. She was in need of the services she provides today, but couldn’t find an organization who offered these services in the way she needed them. Through her turn-around at Galt Associates, Renee found harmony between her skills as an engineer and her fascination with entrepreneurship. “For a long time, there weren’t a lot of people who knew how to bridge the gap between business and technology,” she explains today. “I had a realization that technology projects are all about the people—getting them engaged and solving the problems. However, I knew that the only way to get them to solve a technological problem was to get them to understand the business problem at hand. When you begin looking at technology projects to solve business problems, you improve your understanding of business, which in turn garners better flexibility and greater success in terms of outcome.” Thus, after Galt Associates was sold to Kansas City-based Cerner, it dawned on Renee that no one was doing the kind of work she had just accomplished – improving the value of the organization by getting staff aligned and producing predictable and profitable results.
As a result of this discovery, the Pensare Group was launched in 2007 as a partnership between Renee and Lesley Boucher, a colleague with whom she worked well and new from their time together at Galt Associates. “Our most common scenario is a frustrated yet inspired leader who knows they can do more. All they need is the extra bandwidth to help get their staff to make the changes they need in a reasonable timeframe, and that’s where we come in,” says Renee, of Pensare’s typical client.
Confronted with this predicament, Pensare Group examines the unique needs of the client and then creates a specialized development program that focuses on three to five key goals that a particular management team or department hope to achieve in the program. Working directly with the client’s staff, the program is structured to not only develop new habits such as transparent accountability and improved communication toward the accomplishment of these goals, but also to change the attitudes of the participants so they are more motivated to achieve results. Thus, Pensare’s staff essentially acts as surrogate managers to its client to push them into new behaviors and directions while challenging their habits based on what they think they know. “We’ve created a next generation of development program that’s driven by need, taught by practitioners—that is, seasoned managers—while using classic adult learning principles so the information sticks and can be applied immediately,” Renee explains. “In essence, we get to the core of the problem to enact the solution.”
While no two of Pensare’s programs are alike, the ideal client usually involves two or three programs with 20 people coming through at a time in order to leverage the experience from one group to the next. To ensure success, Pensare’s goals are always tied to measureable outcomes that give tangible, clear lift to their clients. “Growing our company is really all about finding new and clever ways to grow other companies,” Renee points out. “We have an untraditional business model focused on growth by helping others grow. Because of that, others’ growth is always going to show up in my bottom line. It’s inherent in our mission, our philosophy, and our vision. Our success is inextricably tied to the success of those we seek to help—those who, like us, aim to challenge the word ‘no’ and the presupposed limits to their capabilities.”
As Renee continues her efforts at Pensare, she also works to spread the net of her knowledge further by co-founding The Path Forward Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship along with Julie Lenzer Kirk. She instructs the Center’s flagship program ACTiVATE—a yearlong entrepreneurship program for technical and scientific women to help them build viable businesses and win the race to revenue. Considering this venture alongside the influence of Pensare, it would be a conservative guess to estimate that, in the last five years alone, she has easily influenced a couple thousand people.
After her many years of moving on to the next big and better career challenge, Renee feels she has finally found her place at Pensare—a place that encourages her continued pursuit of learning, thinking, and personal development, rather than limiting it. With this in mind, she plans to focus on continuing the company’s growth as well as touching the lives of as many people as possible. And, while touching the lives of others is certainly among her legacies, and while she has attained remarkable success in her career life, Renee avows without a doubt that her greatest accomplishments are her two bright and independent children, as well as her 26-year marriage to her high school sweetheart.
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the work force today, Renee urges young people to always question the word ‘no.’ “When we say no, we shut down potential,” she reminds us, hearkening back to the decision she made to leave that first consulting firm all those years ago because she felt her own potential was under lock and key. “Instead, investigate what ‘no’ means, and challenge where the limits really are. What if ’no’ really means a conditional ‘maybe,’ and you have to get it to ‘yes’? Only in your mind does ‘no’ mean ‘never’.” Renee’s advice is a reflection of her bold ability to think beyond the obvious and the easily attainable to access rarer gems—those qualities and outcomes that take a journey to uncover, but are worth every step of the way.