This piece is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The Internet of Women: Accelerating Culture Change to be published on June 30th:
Riva-Melissa Tez is the CEO and co-founder of Permutation in San Francisco. A London native, she runs an artificial intelligence platform and incubator. In her spare time, she works on The Longevity Cookbook, alongside Maria Konovalenko and Steve Aoki, which is a book that distills academic research into practical measures for slowing the aging process. This is an edited transcript of a recorded interview.
I learned important lessons about money at a very early age.
At 10, I moved into a homeless shelter after my father left my mother. My mother is severely schizophrenic — which can be both chaotically fun and devastatingly traumatic — and was not well enough to look after herself, let alone me at the time. Amongst other things, she used to make me drink the milk in the morning first to check if it had poison in it. A few years later, at 14, we moved into social housing. We lived in this horrible apartment that had no curtains or carpets. At one point I realized, “Oh, money is how the world works.” It’s a lesson you don’t learn at school.
I received a scholarship to attend a prestigious all-girls school. The girls at my school came from quite wealthy families, so I never told anyone where I lived. I would take different routes walking home so that no one knew where I was going.
Once I realized that money was the key to an escape, I started reading books on consumer psychology. Edward Bernays, who was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, was a great inspiration for me. At 15, I managed to get a job selling outdoor sinks at a furniture trade show. The job initially belonged to my older sister, but on her first day of work she humorously fell asleep on the job and was promptly fired. The company told her to find a replacement, so I begged her to let me do it.
My sister lied and said I was 16. I ended up selling these sinks at a trade show from 9am to 9pm for three weeks straight. I developed my own strategy to improve my learning: I would read books on sales and then go test theories out when I was working. Later, I would update my model of consumer psychology, which I kept track of in a notebook. In this way, I used very rapid AB testing to learn about sales.
I sold more at that trade show than the entire management team, earning £15,000 in commission, which was more money than I could even fathom at the time considering my mother and I lived on £60 a week. I had truanted school to accommodate the job and was in a lot of trouble, but my grades were good and, to be honest, I didn’t really care much about school at the time. I saved the money and was able to eventually move my mother out of our awful apartment into a beautiful one-bedroom place in West London, where she still lives today. I have paid her rent every month since then. I owe her for a lot of my thinking, so I could never abandon her. Those struggles she put me through gave me a high tolerance for risk and stress, which I am extremely grateful for.
People sometimes ask what made me ambitious at a young age. The motivation was simple: we were literally so poor that I had to find a way to make money for my mother. There’s no secret sauce; it was just pure desperation. There were times when we couldn’t even afford to eat.
I attended University College London and switched from a joint honors to straight Philosophy, with a focus on epistemology and logic. My mother’s condition got me hooked on trying to understand how humans justify their beliefs.
Whilst at University, I was living above an empty shop in Notting Hill, which is an affluent area in London. During my time there, I noticed there were many families living in the neighborhood. One day, I suggested to my boyfriend at the time that we should open a pop-up toy store in the empty store below. We followed through, and surprisingly we did very well — so much so that we launched a permanent store. Eventually our shop expanded, taking over the two stories. Our toy store still stands today. It just celebrated its sixth birthday.
At 21, I got more serious — I thought, “wait, but I don’t want to run a toy store for the rest of my life…” I wanted to learn how to do things digitally. I used to get into trouble for hacking stuff off computers- I was very much the kind of teenager who would stay up all night on a computer. This was all inspired by my father- he is a Professor of Electrical Engineering. Before he left my mother and I, he used to make me build computers and watch him code when I was very young.
After I left the toyshop, I moved to Berlin with a mission to further my software skills. After a few months into this endeavor, I had the idea of building a creative social network for kids. I worked on it with an American co-founder and ended up staying in Germany for over two years. At one point, I read Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants and got really interested in emerging technologies. I wanted to find people to discuss ideas with, so I started a nonprofit called Berlin Singularity which hosted talks and events. I also started teaching as a lecturer at two business schools, mainly on consumer psychology but also on entrepreneurship. Some friends and I entered and won the LinkedIn Hackathon, which is still one of my favorite memories from Berlin.
Michael Vassar, who at the time was running the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence in San Francisco came to give a talk for Berlin Singularity. After his talk, I complained to him that I had this sense of imposter syndrome. What I meant by this was- the idea that people were regarding me as some sort of European expert on emerging technology horrified me. I remember seeing myself in this magazine listed as one of the top influential people in technology in Germany and I kept thinking, ‘But I’m only 21 and don’t know anything!’ I remember Michael telling me that I would enjoy the intellectual climate in San Francisco.
A few months later, I was in a near-death car accident on the autobahn. I got admitted into hospital with a bad concussion and kept thinking about how much I wanted to learn about the world. A few days later, I left my house, start-up, and boyfriend behind in Berlin and flew to San Francisco.
An interest furthered by the near-death experience, my original plan was to study how I could contribute towards life extension and regenerative medicine. To begin, I started profiling all of the biotech companies I found interesting. Trying to fulfill the challenge I set myself in the hospital to learn about the world, I also picked up a hobby of reading a lot of physics papers. To this day, I find them very humbling.
Eventually I began to work with investors who wanted to put their money in emerging biotech opportunities. As I started to undertake technical due diligence on different companies, I realized that solving scientific challenges depended on the strength of tools and resources that researchers have at their disposal. It was then that I really hit on machine learning and artificial intelligence. I kept thinking, well, if you could improve AI resources, you could use it to solve complex problems — such as those in biotech and energy provision, among other industries. AI has the potential to make the scientific process cheaper and better. It has the power to reduce complexity, which is an idea I think about all the time.
Once I hit on AI, I knew what I had to work on. I believe AI is fundamental to improving humanity’s odds of survival because humans are limited in their scope of skills for problem-solving. The only other option would be intelligence-amplification en masse.