Keri DeWitt as a young member of 4-H in rural MissouriSome people are not of this world. They look down from above it and unravel scientific mysteries. Keri DeWitt wanted to be one of those people.
"I grew up on a farm in Missouri," said DeWitt, now the chief of Teresis, a content management concern in Santa Ana, Calif. "My whole thing was to play basketball, get a scholarship, become an engineer and be an astronaut."
It wasn't a dream. It was a plan.
"Going into my senior year, we moved to Colorado," she said. "I wrote an experiment for the Space Shuttle. It won. I got a $5,000 grant. I was recruited by the Air Force Academy. Then in 1988, we moved back to Missouri. I got a full ride from U.C. Irvine in basketball, for mechanical engineering."
DeWitt was two years into Irvine and on her way to space when her father was diagnosed with cancer. She moved home. After his death, DeWitt contacted the Air Force Academy to see if they were still interested. They were. Everything seemed back on track.
"Then my mom was in a car wreck," she said. "I had just turned 21 and lost both parents."
While her peers sky hooked, Keri DeWitt managed her parents' estate. Her roommate was a senior when she returned to Irvine. DeWitt was a sophomore. The full ride was gone. She told her pastor she didn't know how to pay for school. He suggested Biola University, a theological school in La Mirada, Calif.
DeWitt went straight to a pay phone and called. The school's basketball coach cajoled her onto the team and gave her a full ride. She left with a degree in psychology and theology, and went to work doing data entry for $11.25 an hour. It was not exactly outer space.
DeWitt taught herself Internet technology and scored a $150,000-a-year gig at EMI Music. She soared with the Internet boom and descended with its end. She was doing international encryption work at VeriSign when the bubble burst. Her group was laid off in 2002, the year after she competed in one of Mark Burnett's Eco- Challenges.
She was amazed at the amount of videotape that had to be managed, so when VeriSign cut her loose, she went to L.A. Film School.
"Not to be a writer or director, but to understand the workflow," she said. Instead of a thesis, DeWitt did an internship as production assistant on a reality show. "They had no technology," she said. "At any one time, there were about 1,500 tapes on the floor. I was part of a team of six that had to log that material. It took five hours to log one tape. The show fell behind. I went and got an MP3 recorder, sent the files to a friend's transcribing company in India, and we caught the show up."
It was the seed of Teresis, one of the first companies out with a browser-based media management system. Funded through angel investment and DeWitt's credit cards, Teresis is in its fifth year, with the transcribing now done in the Midwest. "We're small, but we have a vital vision," she said. "We have great technology, we're cutting edge, and there's a need for it." And so it is that Keri DeWitt now unravels scientific mysteries in a city full of stars. — Deborah D. McAdams