9 life lessons from Ramona Pierson

On faith, self-forgiveness and new worlds...

Declara Ramona Pierson headshot (1) BW

Having soared through life, enrolling at the University of California, Berkeley at just 16, Ramona was 18 when she signed on for the marines. The move, prompted after on-campus military recruiters showed up in her dorm room, was steeped in promise. Yet at 22, she was hit by a drunk driver and only emerged from her coma after a heart attack woke her up. Newly blind, she faced huge obstacles to get her life – let alone her career – back on track.

A miraculous recovery eventually led Ramona to Silicon Valley. It was there that her social learning platform, Declara (which creates a ‘learning path’ for individuals based on how they interact with information and social data), raised more than US$30 million, including funds from investor Peter Thiel. It has also been praised by President Obama as an example of innovation and inclusion.
Here, Ramona shares her biggest learnings.


Invent a new world
I grew up during the ’60s and ’70s, a time when the US entered a new era of science, space, and technical innovation as well as a lot of social changes. My siblings and I were encouraged to believe that we could invent a new world reflecting the scientific and technical advancements that were beginning to transform society. I was surrounded by mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and dreamers. My father was an engineer and my uncle, a propulsions scientist in the space industry. I thought it was normal to interact with adults who would teach you how to build and launch rockets.


I needed bucket loads of faith
No one believed I would survive.At 22, while training for a marathon, I was hit by a drunk driver.The accident was catastrophic to me physically and I was placed in a drug-induced coma, which lasted for 18 months. When I finally woke up I was blind, unable to walk, talk, or feed myself. Fortunately for me, the hospital gave up on me and transferred me to a senior citizens’ home – where my real life began.


I needed to trust others to guide me
The senior citizens sized me up and determined that they needed to personalise my learning experience. To do so, they matched me to individual seniors who happened to have had experience in one or more areas where I had needs. I had 100 grandparents worrying about me, teaching me, and helping me get back on my feet. They taught me how to speak, cook, and get dressed; with results that veered between hilarious and near- disastrous.


The most difficult challenges were barriers I created for myself
Of course, it was not easy to be a blind person, but the most difficult challenge was to stop comparing my old self to my new normal self. Once I learned how to ‘see’ myself with humour, how to be directionally correct in all I did rather than ‘perfect’, and focus on getting back on a career path, I found my challenges to be intellectually stimulating and interesting.


If we can forgive our imperfections and be willing to allow others to help, we can get through anything
I had to overcome my stubborn sense of pride around being independent so I could allow others to help me. I had been a kid who could learn anything from watching others or reading. When I was blind, I could not read or watch others. I needed to re-learn how to learn as a blind person.


People came into my life at different times when I needed them
When I was in the hospital, people had put crucifixes on my bed. Although I am not religious, the crucifixes became the representations that someone cared enough about me to leave them. Annie, my guide dog, became the next guide who helped open new doors in the world of knowledge – she made it possible for me to return to college and she introduced a new social dimension that I could not have attained without her. When Annie was diagnosed with cancer, I decided to go through brain surgery, receive a cornea transplant, and reattach my retina. The most difficult part was now having to re-learn how to be a sighted person given my trace memories of seeing were fading.


Collective intelligence improves idea flow and decision-making
Declara is a social learning platform with a difference; it indexes and analyses content of any type, from anywhere, in one unified platform. Users can curate, annotate, provide context, share with their colleagues and teams, and collaborate inside of documents and videos. Declara was developed specifically with the knowledge worker in mind. We have the ability to bring data to the great questions of our time. We can leverage extreme radical collaboration to find answers that will change the world.


Some of the darkest moments I have had are as a CEO, and not as a blind person
When you are a leader, you often are alone in your decisions and it can be really hard, but you must innovate your way into the light.


Do not look back
People always ask me if I want retribution, or get depressed or feel angry about my accident. I always say no. If I were to waste my time looking at the past, I would not be creating my future. So my belief is that the past can make us what we are today, but what we do with today helps us build our future. We should always focus on what we are doing now with our sights on tomorrow.


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