Ramona Pierson was a 22-year-old Marine writing algorithms to help guide U.S. military missions in April 1984. “We were doing everything that Google Earth does now,” she says of those pre-Internet days, “except we were doing it on our own.” Along with being a math whiz, Pierson was a competitive athlete training for her 12th marathon. After a day spent at the now-closed Air Station El Toro near Irvine, Calif., she was on a 13-mile run with her dog, Chips, when a drunk driver tore through a red light and hit them.
Chips died instantly. As the car ran over Pierson, her left leg got caught in the wheel well, which spun her around, and the bumper sliced her throat. “I remember putting my hands on the ground and feeling my life’s blood emptying out of my neck and my mouth.”
A passerby plunged the tube of a ballpoint pen into Pierson’s neck to open her airway and a second pen into her chest to ventilate a collapsed lung.
Pierson spent 18 months in a drug-induced coma. When she emerged, she weighed 64 pounds and was blind; the accident had detached her retinas and destroyed her corneas. She couldn’t walk, eat or speak. Estranged from her family after a troubled childhood, she was moved from one Veterans Affairs hospital to another. Doctors, she says, viewed her as a “gomer,” hospital slang for “get out of my emergency room.”
“They basically put a map on the wall and threw a dart. It landed on a senior citizens’ home in Kremmling, Colo.” That turned out to be a lucky hit. “Nobody thought I was going to live”—except her fellow residents there. Pierson became their pet project. Over the next two years, they helped her relearn how to walk, talk and eat.
“You can’t change the past; you can only change the path you’re on.”
“Imagine having 100 grandparents focused just on you. Every hour of every day was spent trying to figure out how to bring me back.” The seniors, Pierson says, had “incredible skills and talent. They also had wisdom because they’d had long lives, and at that moment in my life, I really needed wisdom.” For instance, as an adult relearning the ability to talk, Pierson felt self-conscious, so the men made it fun for her, teaching her cuss-word Scrabble at night. Later those devoted grandparents raised money so Pierson could have a guide dog and attend the Braille Institute.
Over the next 25 years, Pierson lived as Humpty Dumpty. In roughly 100 surgeries, doctors gave her a plastic nose, pulled parts from a cadaver to keep her heart beating, restored her face with fat from her buttocks, and rebuilt her feet and legs with titanium. “At the end of my life,” she quips, “they’re going to melt me down and turn me into a titanium bike.”
After 11 years of blindness, cutting-edge surgery restored sight in Pierson’s left eye.
And about 17 years after that, in early 2012, Pierson—then 50 years old—launched Declara, her second high-tech startup (the first was the education-related company SynapticMash). Combining the power of a search engine with the collaborative reach of social networking, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based tech platform enables all sorts of people and businesses to collect, organize and share information in radically new ways.
Declara uses innovative forms of artificial intelligence and cognitive science to curate customized on-demand content that stays one step ahead of users, providing answers to questions they hadn’t yet thought to pose. It also can bring together experts across different companies, industries and even countries; for example, researchers who are all investigating the same genotype. That collaboration can potentially reduce the cost and time of developing cancer-fighting agents, Pierson says. Think of Declara as a mash-up of Google, Facebook, Twitter and a brainier Pinterest.
Related: 5 Ingredients for Startup Success
Last August at White House Demo Day, an initiative that celebrates entrepreneurs, President Obama singled out Pierson as an example of some startups’ improbable back stories. “You never know who’s going to have the next big idea or what path will lead them there,” Obama said. “Ramona looks back at the process of learning by connecting to others as the inspiration for a startup that she started three years ago called Declara.
A New Learning Curve
Before the accident, learning had been effortless for Pierson. Her test scores were so high when she was enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley that the Marines offered to cover the costs of her remaining two years in college if she’d enlist. But after the coma, she labored at learning how to function as a blind person; everyday actions such as crossing a busy street or lighting a backyard barbecue posed huge, potentially deadly challenges.
More challenges came with relearning to navigate the world as a sighted person. “As a blind person,” Pierson says, “your visual memory fades and is replaced with how you feel about things and how things sound and smell.” In the process of adapting and readapting, Pierson gained empathy for people she calls “differently abled.”
Obviously Pierson had to give up her goal of becoming a cardiologist. “Nobody would want a blind surgeon, but the Marine Corps instilled a sense of grit, and I’ve always felt mission-driven. When these horrific things happen, you have two choices: one is to be bitter and constantly replay things. But you can’t change the past; you can only change the path you’re on. So that’s the choice I made: to determine my path forward.”
She committed her life to education “because so many people, beginning with those at the senior center, had committed themselves to re-educate and rebuild me.”
As Pierson worked to complete an undergraduate degree in psychology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., some professors let her know they didn’t want a blind student in their classrooms. She persevered, teaching herself computer programming so she could invent technology that would make it easier for her and other blind students to graduate from college. After earning her bachelor’s degree in 1994, Pierson, a fervent believer in continuous learning, would go on to receive a master’s degree in education from the University of San Francisco and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University and Palo Alto University. Between 2002 and 2003, she attended the elite Danforth Educational Leadership Program at the University of Washington.
And she maintained her athletic pursuits. While still blind, Pierson became a rock climber, “Brailling”—as she puts it—indoor rock walls and later peaks. She also competed in tandem-bike races and, riding with a sighted partner, won the world championship in Russia. In 1995, the same year she regained partial sight, she raced solo and was named USA Cycling Master cyclist of the year.
Meeting Her Life Partner
In 1997 Pierson was studying political sociology at the New School in New York when she met Debra Chrapaty, then the chief technology officer for the NBA. A few months later, Chrapaty became president and chief operating officer of technology at E*Trade and then went on to high-profile positions with Microsoft, Cisco and Zynga. She joined Declara as chief operating officer in 2013.
The two were introduced at a gym where Pierson was working as a personal trainer to earn extra cash. “She embodied fitness… and was absolutely ripped,” Chrapaty recalls. “She had this huge smile and wonderfully positive attitude. She was working with women who were recovering from breast cancer and other illnesses, and everybody absolutely loved her.”
After a dinner date about two weeks into the relationship, Chrapaty noticed that Pierson was feeling around their cab for the door “like a blind person.” Pierson had talked about her accident and recovery but held back some details. “How well can you see at night?” Chrapaty asked. “Not at all,” Pierson responded, adding, in a rare moment of insecurity, that she hadn’t told Chrapaty that because “I didn’t think you’d want to be in love with a blind person.” They married in October 2014.
Chrapaty says her spouse has the vision of a great leader. “I’ve been able to witness her through two companies now, and I can objectively say that Ramona bears the characteristics of the great CEOs I’ve worked for, guys like Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, Mark Pincus at Zynga, John Chambers at Cisco…. She’s definitive about what needs to happen, and while she can be very demanding, she leads with a steady hand and gains the respect of everyone in the company. Failure is not an option for Ramona, and in that regard she’s a fabulous startup CEO. She can weather the ups and downs of the roller-coaster ride.” And Chrapaty labels Pierson’s intellect “unparalleled.”
Making a Difference
Even before Declara, Pierson had enough achievements to fill a half-dozen impressive résumés. (During the first Gulf War, for example, she developed technology that prevented desert sand from distorting magnetic resonance images that surgeons would reference when operating on soldiers who had been shot.) But the accident added further fuel to her drive. “If you’ve ever had a moment when your life has been nearly taken away from you,” Pierson says, “you realize that all of us have such a short amount of time here, we have to make the most of each and every day. So every opportunity that opens itself to me, I jump into feet first.”
Around the year 2000, one such opportunity presented itself when Pierson was awarded a fellowship from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to burrow deep into how students learn. She moved to Seattle and collected data across 120 public schools and some 50,000 students to map their learning needs and processes. She then spent four years as the director of technology for Seattle’s public schools. In this role, Pierson created collaborative-learning software, The Source, still in use today.
In 2007 she left her $60,000-a-year job with the Seattle school system to focus on SynapticMash, her educational software startup that would be acquired three years later for $10 million by Promethean World, a British interactive learning company.
Four-year-old Declara is Pierson’s most ambitious project yet. She sees it as an “extreme radical collaboration” engine that could be a world-changing tool. “The sum of all human knowledge is out there right now, and there are 3 billion people connected. Wouldn’t it be great if you could organize all that knowledge and have each person teach one thing? We would be able to solve so many problems in the world.” Others clearly share her vision: CrunchBase reports that Declara raised $30 million in venture capital, with the last round closing in June 2014. And Entrepreneur named her one of six innovative women to watch in 2015.
“Being entrepreneurial is a way to create a path out of the darkness.”
In another effort she believes might be transformative, Pierson has joined with the Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston, a Chicago community activist, in what the two call a global peace project. “Whether we’re talking about gang-bangers or young people turning to ISIS,” Livingston says, “we want to radicalize young people to peace instead of their being radicalized to violence.”
He met Pierson in 2015 when she delivered a keynote speech at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. “She blew my mind. To hear her talk about her unthinkable journey, what she endured and what she’s achieved, all I could do was sit back and go, That’s incredible. Ramona understands what it’s like to hit rock bottom, and I think she can create communities that will help change minds and change destructive ways of thinking.”
Pierson says innovative entrepreneurship is her way of paying it forward. “My eye, my nose, my face, my heart, my brain—all have been put together thanks to some innovator who took a risk on new medical technology just when I needed it. Instead of following in other people’s footsteps, they solved a problem in a new way. Being entrepreneurial is a way to create a path out of the darkness. Now I want to help other people find their paths and realize their visions.”
This article appears in the February 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.