As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jorgen Pedersen. Jorgen is the President and CEO, who founded RE2 Robotics in 2001 to make robots that have a positive impact on the world. Jorgen oversees the strategic direction of the company and stewards the innovation and production of human-like robotic arms, which are used across multiple markets such as defense, medical, aerospace, and energy. Jorgen is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute and one of the founders of the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) of CMU.
Thank you so much for joining us Jorgen! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was in high-school, I thought my path in life was going to be art. Then along came movies like “Top Gun” and “The Right Stuff,” which motivated me to want to first become a pilot, followed by an astronaut. With my sights set, I focused more on math and science and applied to the Air Force Academy. I didn’t get in. It was a blow, but being driven by “cool factor” at age 18, I soon came up with the idea that making a humanoid robot head to space was the next best thing. So I applied to engineering schools and was accepted to Carnegie Mellon University. Once there, I soon found the Robotics Institute. Within their walls, I saw some amazing robots at the time including “Ambler,” a really huge robot that was going to walk around on the moon (or perhaps it was Mars); I found Dante, a robot that was going to walk into a volcano; I found Navlab, one of the first robots to drive across America autonomously; and many more. I was hooked at that point. I knew what I wanted to do — build robots!
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
I was an engineer and project manager for the first several years of my career. In those roles, I contributed as a member of the team, getting consensus from other members of the team before making decisions. When I transitioned into the CEO role, I still maintained a “consensus” mindset. I honestly had a hard time commanding people, because I did not want people to think that I was better than them. However, in the early years of the business, I witnessed inefficiency that lead to delays in development, which in turn hindered the company growth. Five years into running the company, I finally realized that this hindered growth was a direct result of my “design by committee” approach and a lack of true leadership. In this time frame, I learned that my natural “we are all equal” view of the world can coexist with leadership. Treating people as equals and with respect should always be part of communicating. At the same time, the team needs to be led. Decisions need to be made, and quickly! Decisions are progress. Commanding a team, in a trusting and respectful manner, actually empowers a team to move swiftly. I have learned that not everyone will agree with every decision, but they will respect and support a decision if they trust and respect you as a leader. As a leader I will listen, acknowledge, and seriously consider all inputs from the team. At the same time, a leader must also make the final call. In summary, every team needs a commander, but one who trusts and respects that team.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The strength of a company is its people. The number one factor in RE2’s success is the talented group of people that enter the company’s doors each day. When a team all shares the same values and are driven by the same goals, success ensues. At RE2, we all operate with trust, respect, integrity, and positivity. People come first. We empower the team, we innovate through robotics, and we make a positive impact on the world. These shared values and guiding principles create a highly efficient team, which ensures that we deliver on what we say we are going to do. The second factor in our success is always putting the customer first. Ensuring that the customer’s expectations are met above generating profit has always been our approach to business. As a result, those customers typically return, leading to increased revenue and profit. The third factor of our success is perseverance. Unexpected circumstances are always thrown at you. For example, when you push the envelope of what is possible, attempting to create something that no one has created before, sometimes you fail. It is how you react to that failure that makes the difference in terms of long-term success. Our typical response is to remain positive and confident. We simply try again. This mindset, coupled with our people, has always led us to success.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Focus early. When I founded RE2, we were essentially an extension of CMU’s NREC. We worked on some really interesting and challenging projects. We generated significant core technology and general know-how. Looking back, although it was a positive experience and we were running a profitable company, I realized that I perhaps got distracted from the goal of getting robots into the field to make a positive impact. We were in the weeds solving hard problems and having fun, but too opportunistic and not strategic. Looking back, I would have kicked the Jorgen of 2001 and said “stop for a moment and think about how you can have the greatest impact.” Mobile robotic arms eventually became our focus in 2006, but imagine how much further we would be today if we had an additional 5 years of focus under our belt!
- Don’t underestimate the value of business and marketing people. In 2001, I was a robotics engineer who thought that technology should be the focus. I thought that if you build something technically amazing, then business will come. I didn’t believe in going to tradeshows or networking, or any other marketing or business activities. After my wife, Jessica, came on board [as Director of Marketing], I quickly learned that growth only comes through deliberate business development and marketing actions. Luckily, we hired very capable folks early enough in our history, which was just as important as the engineering in terms of our success!
- Delegate as soon as possible! As an entrepreneur, you quickly get into the habit of doing everything. There are typically not enough people in the early stages. However, as soon as you have enough employees, delegate! It is too easy for an entrepreneur to feel that he or she has to do everything. I held onto too many responsibilities along the way. It was not until recently that I realized that my work-life balance was not where it should be. I have learned to let go and trust those competent people I hired. As a result, although ultimate responsibility for the company, I have a strong team who are willing and able to share caring the load! Now I have the work-life balance that I want.
- Always ask for more than you think. We bootstrapped the company for 13 years before raising money from VCs in an A round. We raised $2.25M where we would harden our core technology for commercial opportunities as well as cater the technology in pursuit of large Defense opportunities. Three years later, I realized I didn’t raise enough. Luckily, the Board approved a Series A extension for an additional $1.5M. Not every company will have supportive VCs, so always add some buffer for the inevitable unexpected circumstances!
- Get legal counsel before you even start! In 2001, I took it upon myself to read books on starting a company. I downloaded forms for incorporating a business in Pennsylvania. I submitted my forms to incorporate the business in PA. I was going to call the company “Robotics Engineering Excellence.” I submitted the paperwork. Denied! It turns out that in the state of PA, if you include the word “engineering” in the company name, you must be a Professional Engineer (PE), which I was not. So, “Robotics Engineering Excellence” became “REE”, which then became “re2.” Remember, I was an engineer at the time! So that is how we got the nerdy name that is really hard to spell. Years later, in order to ensure that people knew what we do and to make it easier to spell, we now write it “RE2 Robotics” (very redundant if you know what the “R” of “RE2” is!). But we still pronounce it as “R… E…Squared”. I bet a lawyer would have advised me of a different name (and many other minor mistakes I made by serving as my own legal advisor)!
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As an entrepreneur, you cannot help living and breathing the business. In the early years, I thought that the more I worked, the more impact I would have. As a more seasoned CEO, I can now state with confidence that that statement is false. My advice to any CEO, or any worker, is to work smarter, not harder. Constantly ask yourself, “is this an appropriate task for me?”, “Is this truly important?” or “Is this the best use of my time?” Often, you will find that we spend too much time working on tasks that are better suited for others or are not really that impactful. Sometimes you need to delegate (often a hard skill for a CEO to learn) or simply say “no.” By doing this, you will have more time for you. You need time to think. You need time to close you door and crank out work. Work hard when you are at work, but ensure that you stop. Spend time with family and friends. Put your cell phone down for long periods of time when you are home. There has to be balance; otherwise, you can burn out!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am most grateful to my wife, Jessica, who I met shortly after starting RE2 Robotics. She quit her job and joined me at RE2 in 2003 as the director of marketing. I was the typical engineer who was caught up in the technology more than in the business case. She had a strong corporate background and natural talent for business in general. She, too, was an entrepreneur. She encouraged and coached me. She motivated me to grow the business so that we could have a greater impact on the world. We still work together to this day. I am lucky to have her by my side both at home and at work!
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Personally, my work needs to be tied to a purpose. Work is much more than just a salary to me. I need to know that what I am working on will make a positive impact on the world. RE2 has made initial strides in this area, such as saving the lives of bomb technicians and hazmat personnel, but there is much more to be done. I am striving to have our human-like robotic arms make a positive impact across multiple markets. Part of this goal requires my personal desire to have a diverse workforce. Diversity brings a more resilient and complete organization that will be better prepared to succeed in the marketplace. Professionally, I continue to improve myself in terms of time management. It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations. For a business to thrive, a CEO must remain that visionary. Vision requires careful thought. As a result, I am now trying to reserve time on a regular basis for strategic thought, which often requires saying “no” to certain opportunities.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Although I hope I am able to achieve the vision of RE2 Robotics becoming the world’s number-one prodiver of both autonomous and teleoperated human-like robotic arms, I would rather be known for being a leader who created one of the world’s best work cultures ever. I would like to be remembered as a CEO who cared for his people and empowered a team of can-do attitudes to solve some of the world’s hardest problems. In short, I would like to leave behind a blueprint for a high-technology organization that can outmaneuver any competing organization because of its welcoming, inclusive, diverse, and positive culture.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I am a big proponent of providing every human with the same opportunity, regardless of race, sex, religion, etc. Humans are more alike than different. To truly learn this fact, people need to travel. They need to be exposed to different cultures and viewpoints. I am convinced that if one spends enough time with someone else who is perceived as “different” at first, that the person will soon discover that there is more in common than not. All humans want to be happy. We want to laugh, have fun, make progress, feel fulfilled, etc. The world is connected digitally now, but that does not create true human-human interaction. Could robotics help connect people for good? Perhaps robotic avatars could allow someone to virtually travel a meet others of other cultures as if they were actually there. Perhaps affordable autonomous travel (cars, planes, etc.) could better connect people. Perhaps robots in the home could be programmed to mimic people who are different to educate with human emotion removed from at least one side.
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