Philosophia with Riva-Melissa Tez

“’We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?’ she whispered. 
‘No, we never had to.’” –Dagny to John

Today’s guest on The Mission Daily is Riva-Melissa Tez. She’s a venture capitalist, researcher, and writer. In past lives, she’s been a university lecturer, toy store founder and owner, and co-founder of a children’s app.

Riva is currently co-directing a research project looking at economic policy and how people form their political beliefs. She’s lectured at universities such as Stanford and Oxford, and for groups such as Microsoft, The Economist, Vanity Fair, and Nike. She was a recipient for Forbes 30u30 in Finance.

The one unifying factor that unites all her work is a love of philosophy, which she’s studied since grade school.

“I think at the heart of everything I’m interested in philosophy first and everything else is sort of an extension of that. So, in one hat, I am a venture capitalist investing in AI startups. And in another hat, I am researching economic policy. I’m also writing articles and attempting to write a draft for a book that has been happening for a very very long time and also trying to work out how to influence and push the needle in terms of different cultural things. They all come together in a nice way, but I don’t feel that I have one title that could pinpoint exactly what it is”

Riva got into business at an early age. Her first foray into the real estate market was when she was still in high school:

“I actually got expelled [from school]…It was a 500 year old school and I put it up for sale in the local newspaper as a classified ad as a development opportunity for a building. I didn’t think the newspaper would print it because it was so obvious the school wouldn’t be for sale.”

It wasn’t obvious to the newspaper, as the ad ended up running just as Riva had planned. Riva’s teachers were not amused.

“I was sitting in a Latin class and the teacher came in and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and she put me in her room. She opened the newspaper and I burst out laughing. She knew it was me and she said, ‘I’ve had parents calling all day asking what’s happening and what I’m going to do!’”

Silicon Valley has a “problem” problem

In an article she wrote for The Mission, Riva addresses the idea that Silicon Valley has an issue with trying to solve problems that aren’t really problems. She argues that companies in Silicon Valley are insulating themselves from the rest of the world and that sequestering leads to a warped perception of the importance of issues.

“At some point in Silicon Valley’s development over the last decade, we’ve got so lost in the now well-known overarching narrative of ‘changing the world.’ She writes in the piece, “As part of the startup ecosystem — both companies and investors — we’ve overemphasized the need for CEOs to sell us a vision to the point of dishonesty.”

One example is of an unnamed start-up that sought to “change the way the world eats” by streamlining food delivery.

“Hey, you have a culture where people are stepping over potentially dead people on the street and you’re saying, ‘Don’t worry! Your startup is changing the world because you figured out what startups want for lunch before they even thought about what they want for lunch!’ And I just thought, like, where is this going to go?”

She adds that this kind of insular thought process can have far-reaching implications, as more and more people look towards Silicon Valley as an indicator for what’s new and important. Riva emphasizes the social responsibility that comes with that new role.

“We’re diluting ourselves away from like the rest of the world and we’re going to look like terrible people. Even in a marketing stance we shouldn’t be doing this, right? Because so many people outside of Silicon Valley and the rest of the world look to Silicon Valley for choices and ideas about what to do.”

Love and AI

In her work, Riva has written that the evolution of human language was the first major singularity. She posits that the evolution of human language and modern developments in AI and machine learning mirror each other closely and that humanity is now on the verge of a second singularity.

She also adds that this second singularity has the potential to surpass the scope and importance of the first one.

“People are very scared of AI but it’s also kind of extremely beautiful that we don’t know what will happen in terms of our human understanding (even of ourselves). In a simulation or real world where the journey seems to be the point of it, it seems like it would be a waste if we knew what the end was going to be.”