Most articles about Declara CEO Ramona Pierson focus on her astonishing life story, particularly her recovery from a 1984 car accident that left her blind and in a coma. But Pierson is just as capable of turning heads with her tradition-defying approach to building a company in Silicon Valley.
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If you haven’t yet read about Pierson’s personal rebound, take a moment to read this excellent profile by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Ashlee Vance, or this fine human-interest story by Bruce Newman of the San Jose Mercury News. You’ll be swept away by the story of a 16-year-old prodigy at the University of California, Berkeley, whose life was upended at age 22, when a car smashed into her while she was jogging. It took years for surgeons to repair her legs, her sight and her overall health. Yet she went on to become a tech-sector standout who has founded two companies, while attracting backers such as former PayPal president and Facebook director Peter Thiel.
If you already kn0w about her personal odyssey, though, you’re probably wondering what exactly her newest company does. You’ll also want to know how Pierson is going about building something significant at Declara. So when I stopped by her offices recently, in a converted garage on the shabby side of Palo Alto, Calif., near the 101 freeway, I wanted to steer our interview into these less-explored realms.
Here’s what I learned about Pierson’s work today and her tech vision for tomorrow.
Declara is tackling the hard stuff in how we find and organize information on the Internet. It bills itself as a “social learning platform” that helps people search through vast amounts of content when they aren’t exactly sure what they’re looking for — but want to expand their knowledge in ways that they can loosely describe. If you’re hearing echoes of other ambitious attempts to tackle this problem, under the banner of “semantic search” or “knowledge management,” you’re in the right quadrant.
What intrigued me about Pierson’s approach is that she and her colleagues aren’t always trying to match supposedly similar users who should gravitate toward the same content. Just the opposite. Declara provides ways to see content favored by users with highly different tastes. In short, Declara brings serendipity back into search.
A case in point: Declara’s biggest market at present is Australia, where the company’s technology is being used to help teachers master and refine curriculum. Sometimes, teachers want to see how material is being taught by people very much like themselves. Other times, they want fresh bursts of new approaches from teachers with different backgrounds. Declara’s dashboard provides ways that users can dial up or dial down the amount of information coming from “disparate perspectives,” Pierson says.
Much of Declara’s navigation is done with wheels, rather than the standard, ranked lists that a search engine might produce. Google and its imitators have shown that when people know exactly what they are looking for, lists work well. But more exploratory searches, in which users may want to redefine their hunt several times, are a different story. In such cases, users may prefer to see various types of information radiating from a hub — making it easier to consider multiple choices at once.
Right now, some of Declara’s largest customers are government-associated entities in Australia, Chile and Panama, chiefly in education. The company’s expansion plan stretches more broadly, including large corporations in knowledge-intensive fields such as pharmaceuticals. But Pierson says that in the education sector, she’s most excited about the non-U.S. opportunities.
The U.S. education sector is highly fragmented and politicized; it’s hard to win major contracts for radically new approaches without a lot of tussles. By contrast, in countries such as Chile and Australia, she says, national authorities can embrace new tools quite quickly and decisively.
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