StartOut Spotlight: Ramona Pierson – What Can Only Be Learned From Experience
VentureOut – Highlighting LGBT leaders in business.
Powered by StartOut. Written by David Duran. The following article was originally published in The Advocate.
While jogging in the spring of 1984, Ramona Pierson was struck by a drunk driver and put in an 18-month coma. The accident broke 104 of her bones, caused multiple forms of brain trauma, punctured holes in her lungs, and rendered her blind. Nearly 100 surgeries were required to treat her injuries. After relearning how to speak and how to function in society with the aid of a seeing-eye dog, now Pierson is a highly sought-after inventor, strategist, and entrepreneur.
Pierson, 49, is the founder of Pierson Labs, which promises it will soon “bring data to life” by personalizing its “predictive power.” The San Francisco-based company is quickly adding employees while in stealth mode, meaning Pierson is keeping all financial information and strategy under wraps. In the coming eight to 10 weeks, though, it will launch a new product — the details of which are still largely a secret. Then every 30 days, Pierson says her company will offer new plug-ins, apps, and functionality as it builds toward an ultimate vision.
Pierson has been with her partner, Debra Chrapaty, for 15 years since first meeting in New York City shortly after Pierson regained sight in one eye thanks to a dangerous surgery. Pierson was in New York to work on her post-doc, and the couple now live in California.
Pierson's coming out as a lesbian was “an evolving process.” She came out “a few times,” the first during high school. The experience left her disconnected from her family for almost two decades. Then she came out again when accused of being a lesbian while serving in the Marines. There, Pierson faced a formal investigation.
Taking what she learned in the military, where she wrote sophisticated algorithms and developed cutting-edge medical diagnostic tools to treat brain injuries in the battlefield, Pierson ventured into the private sector. She created The Source for Seattle Public Schools, founded and served as CEO for SynapticMash, and built personalized learning solutions as chief science officer for Promethean.
But after four generations of developing analytics platforms with varying degrees of artificial intelligence, Pierson decided that she, along with her team, needed to flip the data and bring its power to the users so they can become producers and consumers of personalized rich media information.
Pierson shared a little about her latest venture, Pierson Labs, which she says brings users mobile apps that provide easy-to-use video technology normally reserved only for media professionals. She expects interactive social media and ePublishing, when in the hands of the consumer, to democratize media and information.
“Imagine the power of bringing interactive media tools to independent journalists,” she dreams, talking about how Pierson Labs “can bring the voice of the people to have the same reach and power of mainstream media.” Pierson’s goal is to personalize each experience to the interest and modality of the viewer. “In education, imagine the power of educators bringing blended learning through rich media with AI under the platform to enable personalization of the learning and user experience.”
Pierson Labs, which is self-funding, has reduced a great number of obstacles as it works to launch apps to the public through the iOS and Android app stores. One of the biggest challenges it faces is access to talent at the pace needed to keep up with growth. But she says what she’s learned from experience will ensure success. “I have launched other successful companies before and have a world-class team who also have had a lot of experience bootstrapping and launching companies,” said Pierson, “so we are all veterans of what it takes to lift a start-up off the ground.”
Her best piece of advice to up-and-coming LGBT entrepreneurs is that “they reach out to StartOut and ask to be connected with a mentor who can be their sounding board, critical friend, and connector to the right people and information.”
Shortly after starting Pierson Labs, Pierson joined the support network for LGBT entrepreneurs and now serves as a mentor. What Pierson appreciates most about the organization is knowing there is a community of business leaders she can socialize with as well as use for critical feedback and support. “Being a start-up CEO can be isolating at times because of the intensity of the work and travel, thus, having a support network that ’gets‘ the issues without having to explain the details is extremely helpful.”
StartOut recently launched its Lesbian Entrepreneur Mentoring Program, which allows the mentee to access a mentor one on one about business and personal issues. Pierson says there’s great power in sharing the business wisdom “that one can only learn through experience.”
“I have found that since financial advisers, legal advisers charge for every minute of time, CEOs and other leaders often find themselves tentative to seek their advice,” she said. “So they often learn hard lessons along the way.”