Ramona Pierson turns nearly fatal accident into success as startup founder and tech leader

Ramona Pierson with her wife, Debra, on a helicopter flight in Rwanda near the border with Uganda after trekking in gorilla country. (Photo courtesy of Ramona Pierson)

In 1984, at age 22, Ramona Pierson went out for a run with her dog and was hit by a drunk driver, though “hit” doesn’t adequately capture what took place.

Pierson was mangled and nearly died. She was in a coma for 18 months and left blind, unable to talk or eat or walk. A fit, former member of the U.S. Marine Corps, her weight dropped to 64 pounds. Doctors had to rebuild her nose, teeth and jaw.

Over the years and decades, Pierson gradually recovered her health, mobility and even her vision after 11 years without sight.

And during that time, she extracted lessons that have helped shape her successful career in technology, launching two companies: Declara, an AI-powered social learning platform, and SynapticMash, an ed-tech company that she sold to Promethean World. She went on to work for more than two years at Amazon in employee training and prevention of fraud and abuse.

Pierson is currently head of data innovation and products at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) in Seattle. Her role includes using AI, automation and other technologies to improve workplace learning at scale.

Life didn’t just give Pierson lemons to fashion into something palatable; it dished up a waking nightmare that she transformed into a journey punctuated with joy and triumph.

“We can have these terrible incidents that happen in our lives,” she said, “but you have the power to create your own path forward.”

Much of Pierson’s recovery occurred while living in a senior citizen home where the residents stepped up to guide her, seeding crucial insights along the way.

Relearning to talk was particularly humbling and frustrating. Then some of the men at the home taught her to play “Swear Word Scrabble,” which helped her find her voice and gain an appreciation for gamification as a learning tool.

Pierson was forced to embrace risk taking as she was coached by one of the seniors in how to navigate crossing a street, overcoming PTSD and fear. (The senior’s advice was to stand at the edge of traffic, put her cane out and take a step if nothing hit it. Three destroyed canes later, Pierson opted to partner with a seeing-eye dog.)

She even extracted lessons from the emergency response right after the accident. Before medics arrived to treat her, a savvy bystander with apparent medical training used a Bic pen to make sure air could flow unobstructed into her trachea despite massive damage to her neck. Once at the hospital, doctors employed what was then a very off-script, unapproved approach of dropping her body temperature and putting her into a drug-induced coma to save her life.

From those actions, she became an advocate for embracing convention-defying innovation. Her takeaway strategy: “Let’s turn the problem upside down.”

Ramona Pierson with a Rwanda trekking team in the mountains near the Uganda and Rwanda borders. “Me with men in uniform,” Pierson said. “I love a good adventure!” (Photo courtesy of Ramona Pierson)

Even her support dog inspired Pierson to think differently. The dog had an impressive vocabulary and ability to problem-solve, finding bus stops or grocery stores as instructed. It inspired Pierson to explore the heady world of neuromorphic computing and biologically inspired neural nets to built better, more natural machine learning.

Her ability to glean inspiration for innovation from her tragedy won Pierson praise from former President Barack Obama as well as a Tedx Talk.

She’s eager now to craft smart training experiences for a workforce that’s struggling to keep up with needed skills.

“The labor gap continues to grow,” she said, “and it’s not because companies are failing to train their employees. The current tools are changing and the best learning is happening at a logarithmic pace, but technology is transforming at an exponential pace.”

We caught up with Pierson for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Seattle

Computer types: Two completely maxed out MacBook Pros and an Apple Pro Display XDR. I have a server rack at home and Unix systems that let me experiment with various automations for the home.

Mobile devices: Two iPhone 11 pros (1 personal, 1 work) and an iPad pro; yet I still wear an old school watch: a Rolex Yacht-Master.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: I’m comfortable across all clouds and leverage the right one to match the customers’ needs.

Ramona Pierson at her Seattle office. She describes her work style as “rigorous and disciplined,” to which she credits her the time with the U.S. Marine Corps. (PwC Photo)

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I leverage the XDR because it provides the clarity I need given I only have one eye and that has a transplanted cornea. Thus, I need a strong display so I can actually run my data science tools and technologies, documents and spreadsheets without switching monitors. I also collect a lot of art that’s all around the room. Amercan artist Eyvind Earle is one of my favorites as he reflects the beauty and rich colors of the Monterey Peninsula where my family and I have a home.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? The first piece is I have learned over the years that leaders need to have cognitive agility to shift cognitive sets from leadership and technology discussions, diving deep into models and roadmaps, and listening and learning from others throughout the day.

Second piece of advice is to be an empathetic leader and person who you really listens and hears the nuances in the needs and requests of your employees, your customers, your friends and family and understands their perspectives. Otherwise, you lose sight of your reason for being.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I have reduced my online social presence so I can follow professional information, conversations and articles about topics of interest such as neuromorphic computing, biologically inspired neural nets, etc.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 2,547

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? About 130.

How do you run meetings? I used to require an agenda along with outcomes needed to keep things on track. Haven’t quite gotten there yet at PwC but I’m moving in that direction.

Everyday work uniform? I am always in tennis shoes, some kind of colored jeans and a t-shirt. And since I’m in Seattle, a sweater or suit jacket over that t-shirt.

Ramona Pierson horseback riding in Kenya in the savannah. Behind her were a herd of zebras behind and they were keeping jackals away from the smaller antelopes. (Photo courtesy of Ramona Pierson)

How do you make time for family? My wife and I are both workaholics so our work style is similar, but we have an agreed upon schedule so we get quality time together. I shut down every Friday night for dinner with my family and we spend all Saturday and Sunday morning breakfast together.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Rock climbing. Anything that is physically risky is actually stress relieving to me because you have to focus on it and can’t think about anything else.

What are you listening to? I like to listen to fun books. Currently it’s “Singularity is Near ” by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I follow topics, not sites. I like to read anything about nanoclusters to build autonomous decision making machines.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I’m reading two books: one by Raymond Kurzweil and “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari.

Night owl or early riser? Super early riser. A requirement of the West Coast.

Where do you get your best ideas? Listening to customer problems.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? My work style came from being in the U.S. Marine Corps. I am rigorous and disciplined.