Dean’s Speaker Series: Education startup founder Ramona Pierson on goal-setting, lifelong learning

woman speaking with microphone with two students sitting next to her
Dean’s Speaker Series guest Ramona Pierson. Photo: Katelyn Tucker

From holding management roles at Amazon and Meta to launching three educational startups, Ramona Pierson, founder and Chief Technology & Science Officer at L3RN.AI, has always been goal-oriented.

As a child, said she had dreams of becoming a gymnast and running in the Olympics. After being recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps. for her skills in mathematics at the age of 18, she started running every day—and even qualified for the Olympics under the Marine Corps’ sponsorship. But while on a run at age 22, life took a turn. Pierson was hit by a drunk driver, an incident that left her in a coma for 18 months, and blind for 11 years. She had to relearn to walk and talk. 

Nearly 100 surgeries later, Pierson was living in a group home for seniors; and with the help of the other residents, she said she was both encouraged and inspired to remain resilient and reach toward new achievements. 

“Every day they had goals for me, and every day I started accomplishing those things. And it was that journey of goal-setting that really helped me come back,” she said at a Dean’s Speaker Series talk held on March 11. (watch the video below)

When Pierson finally had the chance to attend university, she not only thrived but ended up graduating as class valedictorian. 

“It took a community,” Pierson said. “[Students would] read my textbooks into cassette tapes so that I could listen to them at night. They’d read the notes, and professors wouldn’t change their teaching style at that time, so they just put the notes up on the chalkboard (when there were chalkboards), and all the students would read those in and then help me organize my life.”

With the goal of becoming a neuroscientist after college, Pierson began conducting research at Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Eventually, her advocacy led her to transition to the education sector, focused on research, evaluation, and assessment at Seattle Public Schools.  In that work, she discovered the need for students to have a supportive and nurturing environment in the classroom and beyond—especially when school may be the place in their lives where they feel the safest. 

“The moment that we forget that and take kids or adults away from being lifelong learners, then we start capping our potential,” she said. “Whether that lifelong learning is gaining a new skill or something else, you have to stay involved in your own learning adventure.”

Her own experiences relearning and implementing learning solutions led her to found SynapticMash, which offered software tools to primary schools in Seattle, and Declara, a social learning and collaboration tech company. But startup life was not smooth-sailing. From fears about “the cloud” to being denied funding as a woman in business, Pierson faced her fair share of setbacks navigating a new avenue of education.  

But Pierson knew there was a gap in the market when it came to helping kids catch up on core subjects as they go through the system. She added that, if you can find a way to fill a market gap that has not yet been invested in, you have a higher chance of having a successful business. 

Throughout her career, Pierson went back and forth between her own startups and the corporate world. Most recently, she left her position as director of product management for AI Integrity at Meta to work on L3AN.AI, a startup that she feels aligns with her values of encouraging lifelong learning, now with the use of evolving technology like AI. 

“Every time I start a company, we first develop core values with a startup team, and then I try to just have those leadership principles, and those core values drive everything,” Pierson said. “I’m not going to break my core values to make money. It’s easy to make money, but it’s hard to undermine the good of society.”

“Every time I start a company, we first develop core values with a startup team, and then I try to just have those leadership principles, and those core values drive everything,” Pierson said. “I’m not going to break my core values to make money. It’s easy to make money, but it’s hard to undermine the good of society.”

Read the full transcript below:

– Good afternoon. I’m Wendy Guild, assistant dean of MBA programs. I’m not Ann Harrison, but you are here at the Dean’s Speaker Series. Unfortunately, Ann Harrison can’t be here today, so I’m standing in to convene the event. Welcome. I’m thrilled to introduce our guest, Ramona Pierson. Ramona has a remarkable story of resilience. She was hit by a drunk driver when she was out running at the age of 22 while serving in the Marine Corps. After spending 18 months in a coma and enduring nearly 100 surgeries, she was finally able to rebuild her life. Because of her experiences relearning skills like speech and navigation, after the accident, Ramona decided to dedicate her career to educational solutions that help people find their paths and realize their visions. She ultimately founded three educational startups: SynapticMash, Declara, and L3RN.AI. Ramona has been an innovator in AI through developing AI solutions for social media, E-commerce, and business intelligence in leadership roles at Amazon, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Meta. I’m so grateful to learn today from someone who truly embodies all of our defining leadership principles—question the status quo, confidence without attitude, students always and beyond yourself—through all of her entrepreneurial efforts. Ramona, thank you for coming today to tell us more about your story and teach our students how to steer their own futures amid the exciting and sometimes overwhelming advances in AI. I’ll now turn it over to MBA students Haritha Nair and Anupama Tej, who will moderate today’s discussion. Let you take it away. Thank you.

– Thank you so much, Ramona, for being here. It’s truly an honor to speak with you. Your story is truly inspiring. So why don’t we start there? A terrible accident changed your life, and can you tell us about that accident and your journey to recovery? And how has that shaped you and who you are as a leader today?

– You know, as a kid, I was always very goal-oriented. I don’t know why, but as a little kid, I wanted to be a gymnast, and so I trained all the time, and I wanted to be a marathon runner in the Olympics, so I ran all the time. And I probably had ADHD, so my teachers really hated me in the classroom all the time. So, they normally would have me go out and run instead of go into the classroom. But that benefited me. When I joined the Marine Corps, I ended up being the most physically fit Marine. I got to be in a pilot program, so I was the first woman in a fighter attack squadron. And what benefited me in that was, because I was so physically fit, just after Title IX came in, so I was running all the time. And when I went out for a run one day, so I had qualified for the Olympics, and the Marine Corps was sponsoring me, so I’d run about 13 miles a day and do my regular job. And one day, I went back, grabbed my dog, and went out in the street and started to run. And as soon as I stepped off a curb, a drunk driver ran the red light, and my left foot got caught up in the wheel well of the car. The bumper went through my throat, and it felt like a grenade went off in my head. So I woke up 18 months later, and I was 64 pounds and could not walk. I could not talk. I didn’t know who I was or even what species I was. And probably, had I not had my dog with me, she kept me from going underneath the car. Unfortunately, she ended up dying, but her body blocked me from being completely run over. So when I came to, nobody knew what to do with me. So essentially, the doctors just threw a dart into the dartboard, and they picked out a nursing home to put me in. And so, imagine having 100 grandparents that had nothing to do except focus on you all day. So, I couldn’t do anything without somebody nitpicking or actually identifying or assessing me. And there was one woman there that had been an educator before, and she had Alzheimer’s, so she’d repeat the same thing to me all the time, which, when you’re relearning something, it’s quite helpful to do the same thing over and over and over again. But the whole time I was there, they really helped me recover my goal orientation because I was so confused after my accident that I tried to get my thoughts back together, but they’d every day set up goals for me. Like, “You will accomplish this, this, and this. You will learn how to eat on your own.” And you have to remember, I had to get teeth again, so all my teeth are titanium and porcelain. They had to straighten my feet out and give me a new nose. And I lost my right eye, was completely blind at that time because I had a hematoma behind my left eye, and my cornea was destroyed. So eventually, the senior citizens felt like I needed to learn how to cross streets and use a cane and learn braille and get back into my life. So, every day they had goals for me, and every day I started accomplishing those things. And it was that journey of goal-setting that really helped me come back. And sometimes, I’d go see a doctor, and they’d go, “Well, you aren’t going to live six more months” because they found out I had all these brain injuries and heart injuries. So the biggest thing was my pituitary gland. When you have a head injury, your brain rips and shears. And so, my pituitary gland was split in half, which is one of the reasons I wasn’t able to gain weight beyond 68 pounds because everything I’d eat would just flow right on out of me. That’s pretty gross. But anyway. And so, then they had more new medications for me, and that helped, new surgeries for me to help slow things up, and then I ended up with a new heart valve, and that helped me. And so, when I wanted to go back to college, first thing I had to do was get a seeing eye dog because I was terrible with a cane. When you have a cane, you have to make sure that you don’t have PTSD. And since I had been run over, every time I’d get close to a street, I’d freeze up. So eventually, the senior citizens raised the money to send me to go get a seeing eye dog. And my seeing eye dog, she wouldn’t even stall. She’d go, “You’re crossing the street,” and she’d bully me across the streets and get me everywhere. And she also helped me succeed in college because she could help me find my classes, help me find the buses, help me find food, and she was a remarkable dog. And some of the obstacles that came up against the ADA laws for the American Disabilities Act was brand new and hadn’t been tested. So every time I’d apply for college, colleges would turn me down. And they’d say, “Only 1% of the blind people ever graduate, so we’re not going to accept you in here.” And so, it was actually in Colorado, the students went on strike and wouldn’t go back to the classroom until the college accepted me into school. And then, I had to prove that I could be a great student, and I ended up being valedictorian of the school. But it took a community. It was like being in the senior housing, where in the senior housing, all the senior citizens helped me. But when I was in college, students would read, this is before ChatGPT, but they’d read my textbooks into cassette tapes so that I could listen to them at night. They’d read the notes, and professors wouldn’t change their teaching style at that time, so they just put the notes up on the chalkboard when there were chalkboards, and all the students would read those in and then help me organize my life. And then I started working with the creators of Deck Talk and Vocalize—this is before there was text to speech. And we were able to get my laptop to be able to speak to me in a very rudimentary way, so I could take tests and be able to function independently in classrooms again. But every time I’d solve one problem, there’d be another problem. But being goal-oriented, I just kept saying, “I just need another four years of school. I just need this degree.” And then, as I moved on and through my education, and then fighting to get a job as a blind person wasn’t easy. And I had to go through residency because I set my bar low. I wanted to be a neuroscientist, so I had to work at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, and I was doing research on the perimeter cells of the brain as one of the causes of schizophrenia. Anyway, it was complex, but my goal-setting, and the folks, the other residents there, accepted me in and helped me dive through the hurdle. So one of the things I always learned was: Radical collaboration can help you overcome anything, and it takes a community to really raise all of us. So hopefully I didn’t go too long.

– No, I’m at awe of your strength and resilience and finding optimism even in the toughest times. So I think my next question is there. You mentioned this a bit, the community gave you strength to keep going. Still today, where do you find that strength and optimism from? We were just chatting earlier in the green room, and all the work that you do, where does that optimism come from for you?

– Probably from everybody I work with because so many people have made it possible for me to be sitting here, and I have new cornea in my left eye. And if it wasn’t for a person who was run over by a car and died, who donated their organs, I wouldn’t be here. And the communities of people who help bring me, I have this drive inside that my life should be that of service. And so, I’m a capitalist, too. So I try to combine that. How can I do good for others and really be focused on betterment of communities and people and try to have those core values that I lean on? So, every time I hire someone, I think about our core values. Every time I start a company, we first develop core values with a startup team, and then I try to just have those leadership principles, and those core values drive everything. And one of those core values has been really lifting communities. And by having that, it’s not right or wrong to not have that in your life. But I have been very dedicated to that, and setting goals around that in all of my companies, or even whether I take a job or leave a job. I left my job at Meta because the goals that the company set out, I have been running AI integrity, and then you can make a lot of money, a lot of revenue in the company if you demote integrity and focus on revenue, and there has to be a balance. And when we decided that we weren’t going to focus on that balance, it was time for me to go because I’m not going to break my core values to make money. It’s easy to make money, but it’s hard to undermine the good of society.

– Thank you so much, Ramona. You are definitely an inspiration, but I’m sure that’s not an easy thing to be. You must have faced a lot of challenges and failures along the way, and that’s something we usually don’t really talk about always. You know, a good story, like you’ve overcome some issues, and then everything was rosy. But I’m sure that’s not how it went. So, how do you really deal with failures, and what mindset do you maintain? And any advice you can give on how we can redefine our relationship with failure?

– Yeah, the innovator’s dilemma is if you can get over your skis too far, that you’re ahead of the innovation curve. And I’ve done that a few times, and I keep trying to temper myself. When I had started SynapticMash, nobody had heard of cloud computing then. It was right before AWS had launched itself, and I was going to school districts saying, “Give me your data, I’ll put it in the cloud” because I created an education cloud, and school districts were like, “I don’t even,” they’d look up and go, “What are you talking about?” So, trying to educate them around that, and the power of being able to have data in the cloud, and then being able to truly personalize learning. And that whole concept was ahead of the curve, so I had to back up, even though I knew that that was right around the corner. And it’s hard to talk to your investors about seeing a future they have no ability to see. It’s almost like a lizard only sees two-dimensionally, so it can’t see that you’re putting your fingers around it until you’ve actually touched it. So, how do you see that fourth dimension? And innovators are seeing that next turn in the road, and it’s hard to be able to describe it. Like, even FaceBook had called themselves Read Write Technology before they had the concept of social networking because they were trying to describe something that people hadn’t experienced before. So I had, with SynapticMash, I had to, I failed in my communication with school districts. So I had to figure out, “How do I get the language to be able to talk to people about something they hadn’t experienced before?” So I went to McGraw Hill and humbled myself severely, going to a publisher, and in my mind, I wanted to say, “Digitization is going to put you guys out of business, so you better partner with me.” Instead of saying that, I said, “We would make a beautiful partnership.” And I told them that, “If you let me digitize your content for free, I’ll put it into a technical space so that kids can get it anywhere, anytime, and just drop the whole cloud thing.” Even though I was putting everything in the cloud, I just said, “Anywhere, access to technology and content.” And that saved the company because I was at risk of losing the company because of not being able to sell it. And investors won’t invest in your company if you can’t get customers. So that was one failure, and trying to think about how to recover from that. And then with Declara, I have been told “no” 1,000 times because Silicon Valley at that time didn’t want, well, I went to Peter Thiel, and he said, “I don’t invest in women, and I don’t invest in people over 30.” And so I was like, “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble here.” So then it was, OK, I’m getting all these no’s. And then, he ended up investing us in us three times. So we were able to show the quality of our technology and figure out how to communicate. So, it was my failure for why it was difficult for investors to understand. Again, because I was talking about a future, at that time, I had come up with chatbots, and that was 10 years ago, so nobody was doing that. And so, imagine a bot doing all of the research for you. It was freaking people out. And so, people were having a hard time with, especially investors understanding it at that time. And now it’s all the rave. So there’s this risk of getting over your skis and then failing because you were too far ahead of where the market could bear it, you know what I mean? Other times I failed because, sometimes, I wanted to invent new computing. And again, the company I was working for was like, “If we invest in that computing power, it’ll put our platform out of business.” So sometimes, in order to take a leap change, you have to kill your one business to grow a new business. And not all companies want to be able to do that. But being a leader, you have to speak your truth and be willing to take that leap and bring your company forward, even if it’s through baby steps.

– Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing about your failures. We don’t talk about it enough as entrepreneurs. I think we need to. So you started talking about career already. So you went to college after this accident, and then you tried to build your career. I’m sure that was not easy. How did you get into your entrepreneurship journey? Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

– Yeah, it’s interesting because I was back in education again, and I had moved from New York to Silicon Valley, and at the time, like in 1996, where the dot-com was exploding. And if you invented anything, you could make some money. And so I—don’t do this—but I took my student loan and put it into the stock market and won’t tell you what I put it in, but I made a lot of money, so then paid off my loans, and bought a house with my wife, and then started investing in my innovations. And then, I saw a gap in the market. The market for education was changing, and the publishers were blocking innovation from coming in there, but the politics were starting to change. And so, school districts were starting to feel pressure from above to make changes, and there were changes in technology coming from below, and students were adapting technologies. And so, I realized there was this perfect storm coming in, and that investing my time and money and innovations in education, and thinking about, “Where do we need to go to really create a sea change?” Not just a one-step change, but, “How do we really personalize around a student and understand their foundational needs?” So, when I looked at data across the country around where student assessments were and where the curriculum was and why curriculum was not working for some students, it was obvious that—when I worked with the Gates Foundation to look at data—that some kids started having a dip in their education and math, right when fractions and decimal points came in. So pre-algebra, around third and fourth grade, kids would take a dip, and then they’d never recover from that. And so, I thought if I could focus on that one gap and understand why that’s there and the reason it’s happening there, is in elementary school. So, think about it. What teachers teach elementary school? Teachers that are avoiding algebra, calculus. So, how do they teach pre-algebra if they don’t have the math? So, what if we could stop that dip from happening? So, I thought, that is something that’s great for kids, great for the community, great for schools, and is a new market. So that was the gap that I focused on. So when you start a company, if you can find that one gap nobody is investing in, but that you can, in a very unique way, stop that gap: You’re going to have a great company. And that company, I ended up selling it to another company, and that company brought us in, and we ended up being in two-thirds of the school districts in the country and went public, made a little money, and anyway, it turned out really great for us.

– Thanks, Ramona. I think that’s a perfect segue because you mentioned the dot-com bubble when everyone was building a lot of companies. You also mentioned education, so this conversation with you would be incomplete without talking about generative AI. And you did mention in an earlier interview that the purpose of education is not to think on behalf of students. So do you think generative AI is detrimental to learning by thinking on behalf of students?

– Yeah, it opens up a whole different world, I think, because if you let generative AI do all of your thinking, my team, they’ll ask me questions, and then I’ll give them an answer of how I’d solve a problem. Then, they go to generative AI, and they ask it, and then they compare how I answer to how the AI answers. And ironically, we almost are always the same. Periodically, it has a hallucination. Not me, fortunately, but I think that it opens up a new world of, and kind of an exciting one for educators, “How do we actually teach people to discern information, to really understand, and to bring in a lot of different perspectives to what they’re trying to accomplish?” Because if your students are just asking this bot to do all the answers, then there’s a failure all around. The student’s not learning anything. But if you can help your student understand how they would answer something, maybe then see how the gen AI would answer it, how to set up. How do you discern? It’s kind of fun. I do it with my team, too, is, “Can you tell the difference between somebody actually doing the writing and Chat GPT doing it?” There’s a lot of Socratic learning and teaching that could happen if we just use our tools as educators to bring in different types of learning mechanisms and methodologies, to be able to help students be able to succeed in a world that’s going to be flushed with AI and flushed with content that may or may not be true.

– That’s really interesting. It almost reminded me of sort of a reverse Turing test. You’re trying to find out if it was written by a human or not. But you also mentioned about Declara, and we wanted to touch upon that a little bit, executing Declara, and you can talk about a little bit for everyone to really understand what it’s about. But it really needed a disruption to an existing education system, and we all, as part of the education system, know how rigid it can be. What are your thoughts on building products and solutions that disrupt existing systems and that can bring long-term change, especially when the system is not really helping you enter that space?

– Yeah, that’s a great question. When I created Declara, it was interesting because I was creating these bots, and Fermat’s biopharma companies really liked it because they could find molecular content from their content stores, and then the bot would go find the researchers that created it, and then create a community around that content so that they could figure out, how do we create new drugs faster? But the intention of the company was to focus on adult learning because, after I sold SynapticMash, and then I became the chief science officer for the company that bought it, Promethean. And what I saw over and over again were educators using the whiteboard. And I’d capture the data, and they would have fundamental problems because the curriculum kept changing or the standards kept changing. And so, you had new math, and then back to old math, and then new math, and then quadruple new math. I mean, it was so confusing that I think the educators were having a hard time Translating from one math curriculum to the next and the new standards. And I watched the data coming from the students. Some kids auto-corrected their educator in their tablet, and other kids were just completely confused. So I thought, “What if we gave a tool this time around for the educators so that they could stay on top of, create collaborative social learning among each other, and I could connect teachers all over the place?” So the country of Australia bought the platform, country of Singapore, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, and then eventually Mark Zuckerberg, through Chan Zuckerberg, brought it to the state of California for teachers to use. I had one use case for it, but then it was being used in so many different ways. And then, when I went to Amazon, the ironic thing, there was all the senior vice presidents were like, “Can we buy Declara and bring it into Amazon? Because we need it for all of our developers.” And I was like, “No, because it’s been bought by, the EU ended up buying it for open ed.” So I was like, “I can build something new, but it’s one of those things, that you build it.” And every time I turn around, people are like, “Can you build it again? We need it now.” I was so far ahead of the curve that, how do you reinvent it? But the problem for me is, I’d reinvent it 10 years to be 10 years into the future again. I have a problem with staying in the current decade I live in. Declara was successful, but I realized if I could have it today, it would be right time, right market, and right solution. And since it was a social, collaborative platform, we’d have to put in those constraints around the AI so that it wasn’t used for ill.

– Thanks, Ramona. Since we were discussing this in the back stage, I just wanted to bring that back. Once again, you talked about education, and we have been discussing, at least in business school, about the increasing income disparity, especially between people with higher education and people with, a high school diploma, perhaps, and compared to the people with high school diploma, are now earning much less than they used to before. As somebody disrupting or has been in the space for so long, do you think upskilling people, even if it means taking them out of the education system, helps better, or investing more into traditional educational systems, can help them overcome this gap?

– Yeah, we had a great conversation in the back area. I always have to bring up a time when I worked for Seattle Public Schools, and I ran research, evaluation, and assessment, and then there was a problem with a principal in one of the schools. So they said, “Why don’t you take that on, too?” So I was like, in a school district, it’s very hard to find people to fill all the roles, so you just take on whatever you can. And what I saw there in that particular school, the kids were in the hallways. Teachers were afraid of the kids. The kids were afraid of teachers. Teachers were checked out. There was a lot of alcoholism. It was very crazy. And when I think about answering that, we have to invest in our kids, and we have to invest in helping them feel safe. At that particular school, kids would, I’d open up the school at 6:30 in the morning, and kids would come in and go to sleep in the halls, and I’d ask them why they’re doing that, and they’d say, “Well, this is the safest place in my life.” And then, they’d get breakfast there. And so, school becomes a safe zone. Now, once you get them into school, how do you raise the bar and make sure that you are bringing the highest quality educator curriculum and institution? Kids don’t need just classes, but they need concerned adults in their lives. They need athletics. They need art. There’s a lot that makes up a whole human and the caregiving that happens. So I would say, “Can we bring in skill development, education, and nurturing to all of our students and figure out how to reinvent school?” When kids were, during the pandemic, not going to school, there were a lot of kids that just disappeared because they don’t have this caring, nurturing environment for whatever reason. Maybe parents are working three, four jobs, we don’t know. But the kids need caring, loving adults that are going to nurture them, educate them, care for them, and provide them skills and capabilities and competencies. And so, what’s good for the brain is to be a lifelong learner. The moment that we forget that and take kids or adults away from being a lifelong learner, then we start capping our potential. So whether that lifelong learning is gaining a new skill or something else, you have to stay involved in your own learning adventure, constantly learn something new and take risks and hang out on the cliff and fail. And kids in school have to learn to fail and to do it with humility and get back up and do it again.

– I think we’re almost at time. My last question to you is, you’ve been a successful entrepreneur. What advice do you have for a room full of aspiring founders and entrepreneurs? What should they be doing? What should they use their time at Berkeley for?

– You know, you guys are going to find so many different paths to your future. First of all, drive forward with passion and be a lifelong learner, because there hasn’t been one job that I knew how to do when I took it. So, you kind of have the skills to pull it together. But then, when you’re in the job, you learn how to do it. When I went to Amazon, I had to learn how to write PR/FAQs. Now, I write them all the time; but in the beginning, I was like, my first one I had to redo 40 times. The senior vice president kept saying, “Oh, this is crap, this is crap, this is crap.” And I was like, “But I’m a good writer.” But I wasn’t. Not in their methodology. So, anytime you take a new job or do something, you’re going to not do it right. You have to learn how to do that and then be able to learn how to look into the future. Help your employer move forward ethically and to take the risk to speak up, speak the voice for the people who don’t have voices. I do all the time. Or I did, I try to have an inclusive design mentality as I bring teams together because I was one of those people that was neurodivergent and blind. And so, you will have, as you become leaders, different kinds of people. And you’re going to have to invent different ways to hold team meetings, to include people, to really have empathy and care for the people who are working for you. And whether you become an entrepreneur or you go to a company, you’re going to grow into these leadership roles every single day because you’re going to have to lead—either as a technical leader, as a business leader, as a human leader, as an entrepreneur, and take risks. Take risks as a leader, take business. Right now, we need business disruption because business is stale. We’ve got all these technical innovations, but the business side isn’t keeping up. We need a new way to measure impact. And so, as we start thinking about community impact, Earth impact, like you guys are inheriting an Earth, a world, communities, politics. that my generation has failed on. So how are you going to take it forward and create the new business innovations that will allow humanity to go forward passionately and healthily?

– OK, this was amazing. First, I want to give a thanks for our students and Ramona Pierson. This is the moment where you have an opportunity to ask questions. So we’re going to go ahead and use the microphone in the center of the room. And if you have any questions for our speaker, please come forward. Now’s your opportunity.

– Hello, my name is Harsev Singh. I’m an EWMBA student here. In my regular life, I’m a civil engineer. So I had a question. Education is a very tough problem in itself to solve. And I felt like, even when I was going through school, most of the stuff I learned was probably not useful. And is there a way to, say, shorten the amount of education time span so that an individual can then, say, graduate in the 20s or earlier and go into experiential learning?

– Oh, I’m so passionate about that. I actually have a TED Talk on it. But SynapticMash. I partnered with McGraw Hill and Promethean, the whiteboard company, mainly because we could capture the data off the whiteboard and from whatever technologies used in classrooms. And McGraw Hill had all of this content, and so we digitized content, and the state of Indiana was going to bring the three of us together using my algorithms and data system and assessment system to personalize learning, and McGraw Hill, so we digitized their content. And the state said that they had a big problem with “gap kids,” they called them, so kids who hadn’t advanced in math for three years and had fallen way behind their age peers. So what started to happen are teachers hated seeing those kids in the class, not because the teachers were bad. It’s like, if anybody is failing or whatever, you feel like I’m failing. So you start pushing back away. And the kids would feel it, and they’d feel their parents sort of giving up on them or getting angry with them and their peers making fun of them. So these kids would spiral, lose confidence. So we decided, we want to take that on. Can we catch these kids up with their age peers? So we took all this content, took our algorithms, and what we did is we matched kids with different teachers. We matched kids to teachers who taught in ways that kids like to be taught. So small classroom environments, project-based learning. Some people like large classrooms, but we broke that all up and changed their classroom order. So some kids seem to do better with math right before lunch because after lunch, they’re going to sleep. And these kids, in particular, usually didn’t get breakfast. So we would make sure these kids got snacks in their classroom. So right before lunch, if they took math, they tended to do better because they had snacks. They were still awake, and they were engaged with educators that seemed to be comfortable teaching in a style in which the kids were. And then, we fundamentally changed the curriculum and the order. So there was a $60 million Gates program, where they worked with everybody to deconstruct learning progressions. So we looked at all the learning progressions of precursors, post-cursors of learning. So we compiled this really complex algorithm, and within six weeks, we got kids halfway caught up to their age peers by assessing, continuously, understanding where their fundamental gaps were. And instead of trying to keep them moving on with their age peers, we gave up on that. We just focused on, find out where they missed something, like ones and zeros. They don’t know how to multiply zero to any number. Well, they’re not going to understand 10s later. So it was, let’s go back, solve those problems. Once we did, it was easier to catch them up to their age peers. So we left that program in there. Two years later, I had sold my company, and this program was running for free in the school, and everybody kind of forgot about it. And these kids ended up becoming two years ahead of their age peers because they were getting personalized learning. The school district had fundamentally changed how they brought education in. And all of a sudden, a teacher came to me when I was doing a TED Talk, and she asked me a question because she was part of the experiment. She said, “How do we teach kids that finish high school curriculum in middle school?” Because these kids were continuously learning, and the publishers are building a curriculum around a spiral way of learning. That’s why it feels so redundant. Whereas in Europe it’s different. They teach everything forward. Anyway, if we could actually personalize learning and make it deep and make sure we don’t move forward until the foundations of learning are accomplished, we could get these kids through school faster. But it isn’t the speed; it’s the depth. So then, I would challenge that the curriculum, instead of being superficial and spiral, actually goes deeper. So that if kids finish algebra in elementary school, teach them calculus. Why do we make them wait until high school when their brains are open to learning when they’re younger? So they wouldn’t get as bored if they’re continuously challenged all through their younger years? That’s my bias.

– Any other questions? Thank you.

– Hello, Ramona. My name is Beatrice. I’m a first-year MBA. I wanted to ask you more when you shared with us that Peter Thiel said he wouldn’t fund you because you’re a woman and over 30. So how did you rebound from that? How did you have to change your strategy?

– What I did was I decided that I like challenges, and so it’s sort of like, “You can’t do that,” so I, of course, am going to do it. What I realized is that we were building the foundations of our company on building blocks. And then, I finally went, “What are some complex themes I could pull forward in my roadmap sooner rather than later, so I could get the wow effect sooner instead of waiting until the logical time?” So, it meant that I had to tweak my roadmap, and then get it in front of customers and get their buy-in because customers will go on a journey with you, but they’re not going to give you a dollar till you wow them.

– So would you say it’s a revenue and customer stream that you had to bring in earlier?

– Yeah.

– Thank you.

– Yeah. Investors are different than they were in the ’90s. So in the ’90s, you have an idea, you’d get money. Now, they want to make sure you have customers before you get money.

– My name is Dave Franks. I am in Executive MBA. Real life, I work in motion picture color and imaging. I wanted to know if you could give some examples of, you mentioned that business is lagging behind the technology in certain areas. Can you give some examples of where business isn’t catching up and needs to potentially?

– Yeah, where are the incentives for more of our moving into environmental, creating more interventions and innovation in the environmental space, and especially in the education space with all of our kids, and they’re our greatest resource for the future. And yet, schools are getting less dollars every year, and people are cutting, wanting to cut taxes. I remember when I went to school, was before Proposition 13 hit, for the older folks in the room. But Proposition 13 basically stripped the schools of funding. And when I was in school, man, we had swimming pool and this and that. We had 100 people that would try out for football or soccer or whatever. We had giant teams, had a surf team. I grew up in Huntington Beach, so I was surfing, but we had music. I could take violin and do really terrible there and then go do piano and do worse. But we had lots of things. When I go to schools now, there’s barely any music or art. We’re de-investing; how can we create a new mechanism or business innovation in that space, in the theater space? How do we bring people back to the theater? When I was growing up, I always was at the theater or trying out for something and not doing so great. But there was opportunity and more tax dollars that were going into young people’s lives. And we’re talking about whole populations of people who are being de-invested in and losing their jobs, potentially to AI. Yet, we’re not taking the money that the billionaires, and lots of businesses are making and putting it back into our greatest resource, which are your children, you guys.

– Hi, Colby, she/her pronouns, second year in the full-time MBA program. Thanks for being here. You’ve mentioned, now, a few of the big hairy problems we’re dealing with. Obviously, climate crisis, education crisis, income inequality, leading to a lot of these things. I think a lot of us feel a bit overwhelmed by it. Like, what is our role, especially post-graduation? I’ve worked in the social impact space. That felt hypocritical at times, because under that model, you’re still beholden to the philanthropists funding who have the power. Or I went to Amazon, and I couldn’t fully dissociate from the fact that I was a part of Amazon. And so, I think it’s a lot easier, once you’ve had your successes, to be like, “Oh, you should go do this thing.” And so, I think a lot of us are just grappling with, “How do we do what we can, use our skills, not perpetuate these systems that are clearly not working for us, but also, we can’t just jump to a new system tomorrow, right?”

– Yeah. And I think there’s so many paths to answering that. So I’ll tackle a couple of them. One is, when I went to Amazon, it’s like being in the military again. It’s kind of fun, but it’s kind of weird. But anyway, it’s very revenue, and I have to run four WBRs a week. I ran fraud and abuse there; and so, I had a giant AI and engineering team and product team, and WBRs are weekly business reviews. So everybody, the whole company was very focused on different things. And I would get feedback. Ramona, you’re missing 10 cents. And I’m like, but we just had 2 billion transactions, 10 cents is missing from those 2 billion transactions. And we’d go scurrying around trying to find those 10 cents. But we were extremely data driven and goal driven, which I liked. But my large team, I realized that because I was building AI models for fraud and abuse, I could turn those models inward and lay off a bunch of people because I didn’t need them doing manual labor anymore. I wasn’t going to need developers anymore. So then, what I decided to do was to take on the education problem within the company, which wasn’t popular, but it got momentum, where even Jeff Bezos decided to invest $600 million in education of employees. And bunch of projects started to build up within the company to try to figure out, how do we upskill our own employees to that next level? So what I’m trying to say is, you may go to a company for one job using one skill, but you’re going to see inequities. When you’re at every company, even startups, you’ll find an inequity, and you will have a choice. Do I try to innovate something there and help the company with those inequities and help the community of employees? Or do I leave or ignore it? So, you’ll have choices, but you’ll always be able to do and participate in the good, the social good, and changing. Because if you can change the hearts and mind within a company and affect change, you’ve changed thousands of people’s lives, or tens of thousands. And then, number two is, as students and graduates and future leaders of the world constantly ask yourself, “Is there a new way for me to look at this problem?” Like Uber, they flipped the business model upside down and became successful. Can we flip some of these problems upside down and solve these business problems in different ways? It’s not just technology that can create new innovations—it’s how we look at business that could actually create broad change in how people deal with recycling, or deal with water, or deal with community, or deal with war or conflict. There’s something we can do differently. I always focus on education because I’m always like, if we can get people learning together, they won’t kill each other. Or if we can figure out how to raise the voice of, in the areas of inequity, we can change the world. But it’s definitely, a lot hasn’t changed too much since for my 60 years on Earth. But I think you guys are smarter; you’re more aware. My generation was sort of trying different things and got lost on the way and then came back. But you guys see all of our mistakes and have new innovations and have a new voice and have a better sense of the good that could be done than probably we did.

– Thank you.

– Thank you. I’m afraid we don’t have any more time for questions, but I just want to thank you all so much for coming and wonderful questions. I’d like to thank our students Anu Tej and Haritha Nair. And of course, I want to thank Ramona. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and the far-ranging, very interesting conversation. It was really fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us.

– Thank you.