Business

Declara CEO Ramona Pierson made tragedy a learning experience

Economy, Business and FinanceUC Berkeley

The gig: Ramona Pierson, 51, is chief executive of Declara, a start-up based in Palo Alto that has developed a way for companies to use sophisticated techniques and advanced Internet search to create workplace tools. In two years, it has grown to 57 employees, and the company has attracted $5 million in funding from such notable investors as Peter Thiel.

The journey: As impressive as the company's start has been, it's Pierson's back story that is particularly special. In 1984, at age 22, Pierson was hit by a drunk driver. The car tore her body apart, slicing open her throat, gouging her chest, leaving her heart and lungs fully exposed.

Pierson was in a coma for 18 months. She was totally blind for 11 years, though she has regained partial sight in her left eye thanks to a corneal transplant. It was the process of having to learn just about everything from scratch (including how to breath and walk) that made her realize how important it was to be a lifelong learner. And it's that notion that inspired her to start Declara.

"Nothing is ever constant," Pierson said. "Everything is changing. Technology is always changing. Your context is always changing."

Early years: Pierson grew up in Huntington Beach and at 16 enrolled at UC Berkeley. She became a Marine at 18 and was stationed at the now-closed Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine when she was struck by a car.

Don't look back in anger: "I was going though some horrific times. It's hard to explain how bad they were. I had a doctor ask me why I wasn't depressed. I said I was too busy to be depressed. I always look forward. You can't change the past. That's a big thing this taught me. Be always forward facing. And don't get caught up in things that get you bogged down and get you lost. It's easy to get lost in the past."

DIY: Much of her technical and programming skills were self-taught in the late 1980s and early '90s when she was still blind. She had to make many of the tools to enable her to communicate with other students and professors as she was pursuing her bachelor's and master's degrees at Fort Lewis College and University of San Francisco. She eventually went on to earn a doctorate in neuro-clinical psychology.

"Every time I had surgery, because I was trapped in a hospital, I would teach myself something new," she said.

Harder than it looks: Learning to cope with being blind was certainly a challenge. But Pierson was surprised to discover that learning to be someone who had partial sight was just as challenging. Her depth perception is poor, which has led to some biking mishaps when she's misjudged distances.

Hiring differently: Given her focus on learning, Pierson applies a distinct philosophy when it comes to looking for new employees. Rather than looking for a specific set of skills, she looks for the most talented and creative people. And then the company provides extensive mentoring and training to help them develop the skills they need.

"We don't hire people for a job," she said. "We look for very smart people and look for roles that let them continue along their path."

To reinforce that message and build a culture of learning, employees take turns at company lunches teaching other employees about something either work related or a hobby.

Opportunity overseas: In 2010, Pierson sold her last company, SynapticMash, for $10 million to a British interactive learning company, Promethean World. During her time with Promethean, Pierson developed a greater appreciation for markets outside the U.S. Today, Declara's hottest markets are Australia and Latin America.

"People are focusing more on markets outside the U.S.," she said. "There's a transformation that's happening. The opportunity for companies that are flexible and are able to capture the imagination of other cultures is broad."

Fun and games: Pierson enjoys rock climbing, cooking and competitive cycling. She lives with her partner of 17 years.

Heroes: After she was out of her coma, Pierson spent a long time recovering in a senior citizens home. She says the elderly residents of that home inspired her with their generosity and wisdom, as well as the practical knowledge they supplied about how to work around various disabilities.

"I think of all the senior citizens in the world that we don't turn to, to help us deal with some of the issues we face," she said. "Imagine if we could use our senior citizens in those homes more as resources, then we wouldn't see them as burdens any more."

chris.obrien@latimes.com

Twitter: @obrien

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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