A Tech Leader’s Story of Personal Triumph Is Inspirational

Ramona Pierson is not a household name — but should be. Pierson, CEO and co-founder of the online social learning platform Declara, could easily be the subject of a made-for-TV movie.


At age 22 Pierson, was hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street with her dog. The massive blow crushed her legs and left her with critical injuries that would keep her in drug-induced coma for 18 months. Her dog died on impact.

When Pierson awoke from the coma, she couldn’t walk, see or speak. Compounding her troubles, she had no family to turn to for care. As a Marine veteran, she would come to rely heavily on VA hospitals, where she was transferred repeatedly. Finally she got sent to an old folk’s home in Kremmling, Colo. The seniors at that residency spent their days and nights teaching her how to walk and talk again.

Needless to say, it wasn’t easy. Pierson slowly rebuilt her mind and body like a puzzle she had to put together piece-by-piece. It would take her 11 years of painstaking therapy and over 100 surgeries to complete that journey. The final piece came together when she accepted an opportunity for an experimental surgery that would help her regain her sight. “I had to stay alive long enough for the next innovation,” she said. Aesthetically, and the most part functionally, her body was now complete, reassembled together with cadaverous parts, metal, and skin grafts from other regions of her body.

Relearning use of her body after each recovery was the key to sparking interest in neuroscience. This intense curiosity about brain and body would eventually lead her to earn Ph.D.’s in neuroscience from Stanford University and Palo Alto University.

Pierson is a lifelong student. After she conquered her professional education goals, she set her sights on helping others to learn. She built SynapticMash, an educational start-up that sold for $10 million after three years. Her second venture, Declara, is a big data platform that helps personalize the learning process.

Pierson’s experience offers a number of life lessons. I spoke to her to the Collision Conference in Las Vegas and here is what she said...

  1. Your Life Is What You Make It.

After the accident, Ramona could have easily been resigned to her fate. Crippled and alone she could have let the accident define her. Instead the accident seemed to be a simple inconvenience that she had to overcome. “People often give credence to obstacles and let the obstacles define them,” she said.

  1. Don’t Take No For An Answer

Every success story has this ingredient — the listener does not fully digest the meaning of “no”. In Pierson's case, she didn't allow the word “no” in her personal or in professional pursuits. “I would fight with the assistants of the VC’s, and get on their calendar,” she explained. Pierson pursued her business the same way she had done with her body, with fierce determination. It didn’t matter what others thought, she had a plan and was intent on executing it.

  1. Having Critical Friends

The term “critical friends” is often used in the context of professional learning — yet can be applied more broadly in business situations. A critical friend is not only encouraging and supportive but also can be candid and honest. “I would ask mentors to tell me two things I had done well and then they could slam me after,” Pierson said. “And let me know where I needed to improve.” “Critical friends” played a valuable role in shaping the direction of her companies and improving her skills.

  1. Support One Another

At a time when women are told there are so many possibilities it still seems like we live in a world of fictional equivalents. Support does not come from the fact that one merely says they support you. Talk is cheap. Pierson presented a convincing argument — that patronizing female-founded businesses was the easiest way to bring balance to economic inequalities. If society supported the 9.1 million businesses that are currently owned by women in the U.S., we would shift the economic scale.

  1. Sometimes Bad Things Happen That Aren’t Really Bad.

The positive reinterpretation of negative incident Pierson created resilience and positive outcome. Essentially, it was mind over matter. What we think can either cripple us or raise us to incredible heights. Because what we think will determine how we behave. How we behave shapes the destiny of our lives.