UCL Alumni


Alumni Stories: Breaking the mould with Riva Tez

3 July 2019

“I secretly love it when people underestimate me. It’s very liberating when you stop caring what people think.” – Riva-Melissa Tez, venture capitalist, writer and technology strategist

Riva Tez

Riva Tez (UCL Philosophy 2011) has been described as many different things. A tech disruptor, a rebel, ‘the definition of a modern female’… and a prankster. “I was really, really naughty. I pranked my school all the time, including trying to sell the building in the local newspaper. I wasn’t good at respecting authority. It was less about being ambitious and more about realising that the barriers were fake,” says Riva. 

The 30-year-old has risen to feature in the Forbes 30 under 30 list and is making waves across the tech and science sectors with her views on science and artificial intelligence (AI). But her journey has been far from straightforward. 

At 10 years old, Riva moved into a homeless shelter with her mother for a period before being relocated to social housing aged 14. She says: “My childhood was somewhat weird and erratic... I wanted things to be better, for my mother, my friends and for the world at large. I didn’t ever think that it wasn’t possible to change everything. Entrepreneurialism is one avenue to change things, but there are plenty of others.” 

After receiving a scholarship to attend a prestigious all-girls school, Riva challenged herself to learn about consumer psychology, she cites Edward Bernays as a great inspiration, and managed to get a job selling outdoor sinks at a furniture trade show aged 15. After selling more than the entire management team and earning £15,000 in commission, Riva moved her mother into a flat in West London. She has paid her mum’s rent ever since. 

A passion for philosophy

Riva can trace her love for philosophy right back to her childhood and after originally applying to do Theology and Philosophy at Oxford, she found herself at the door of UCL. “I wanted to study historic texts from a critical theory perspective. I came to look around UCL and was impressed by the philosophical history of the place. Jeremy Bentham was cool – UCL was the first university to accept students from all religious backgrounds. It was also one of the first to accept women. Plus Bentham’s body is on the site too. I thought that was awesome.” 

During her time at UCL, Riva switched from joint honors to straight Philosophy, with a focus on epistemology and logic. And she also had an idea for the empty shop she lived above in Notting Hill. While studying, Riva co-founded a toy shop and kids’ club as a way to capitalise on the family demographic of the neighbourhood. 

She says: “My philosophy degree and my business were both full-time jobs. My company did well and my professors were supportive. I appreciated that I was able to finish my degree. “There’s this trope about needing to drop out of school to start companies, which I always thought was a bit ‘chicken’. 

“I hate this idea of a ‘career path’, because it restricts people in how they think about their lives... and time itself.” 

Discovering the power of technology 

Although Riva’s toy shop achieved more than she had planned – transitioning from a pop-up shop to a permanent residency – she felt a restless need to explore working in the digital sector. In 2011, she moved to Berlin to study coding and fell into the local start-up scene, eventually co-founding a children’s app and co-founding Berlin Singularity. Riva stayed in Germany for two years, absorbing the growing tech sector around her, particularly the field of emerging technology. 

She says: “During that time, I got obsessed with technology and started running emerging technology discussions and events. Technology is pragmatic philosophy. I like thinking of the big questions with philosophy but then figuring out how we actually solve them. Philosophy without technology is often just history. I’m not only interested in learning about what previous thinkers thought, I want to know the game plan for finding the solution.”

A near-death car accident on the autobahn was the catalyst for Riva making another big move, this time to the home of emerging technology: San Francisco. It’s here that she really hit her stride within the tech industry and rediscovered her UCL roots, connecting with the diverse alumni community. She says: “There are quite a few UCL grads in San Francisco and we get to hang out and catch up at different alumni events in the city. Recently, I made friends with some super cool current students who are doing a project with Cisco and invited them to come hang out with me at Intel. It’s awesome to listen to stories of their generation and their plans. Younger people often inspire me.” 

Redefining the role of technology 

Taking her car accident and recovery as inspiration, when Riva arrived in San Francisco she threw herself into the emerging biotech scene and eventually found her way to AI via venture capital. She split her time between helping startups raise money for their projects and advising investors who wanted to put their money into hard sciences, quickly making a name for herself in Silicon Valley as someone who was changing the ecosystem for the better.

Because of her disruptive work in the technology sector, Riva often gets asked about her thoughts as a woman in tech and how her journey has been an inspiration to many. She says: “I don’t think of myself as a role model and to be honest, I pay little attention to the gender debates. There’s a lot of good people in this world. I’d like society to spend more time highlighting them and give less attention to the ones that are not.”

Riva’s journey continues. She recently joined Intel to lead their Strategic Technology Initiatives and is looking to put her care for technology to good use at scale. When speaking about how her interest in philosophy and her time studying it have impacted on her journey, Riva’s clear: “I can’t think of a better foundational base than a philosophy degree at UCL. Though if I could go back, I might have chosen to do it alongside a science. Philosophy and physics are both opposites and the same, often I wish I had studied them in parallel.” 

She continues: “Learning formal logic, even though I occasionally hated it, gives you a great foundation for thinking through problems and arguments in the future. Epistemology gave me the beginner tools to introspect. Metaphysics challenged my perception of reality. It made sense that I would find AI interesting because it is inherently a philosophical topic that relies on technology to solve it.” 

“You can do anything and everything.”

Stepping out into the world of work can be a terrifying prospect for many, but Riva believes that recent graduates shouldn’t be restricted by ‘typical’ career expectations. She says: “You can do anything if you put your mind to it, it’s rarely ever a binary either/or. At some point in my life I want to be a bus driver... and a painter! I’d like to write books, run a research lab and open a petting zoo. Imagine having all this opportunity and only choosing one flavour of life. 

“You can have 100 lives in one. It all depends on your outlook.”

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