Alex Rühl – Virtual Reality Creator and Founder of CATS are not PEAS

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My Mum had been told she couldn’t do a lot of things in her life because she was a woman so she drilled into my head from a young age that I could do anything but to never stop fighting for equality and to be wary of the way men treated me.

Alex Rühl (The Drum’s 50 under 30 women in digital, Women of the Future Awards, Pioneers of Immersive Realities Award) is a virtual reality creator, international speaker and founder of immersive storytelling studio CATS are not PEAS.

In a nutshell, tell us a bit about your job, and what role technology plays in it?

I live and breathe technology.

I live and breathe technology. My work revolves around emerging technology so experimenting and learning about new hardware, software etc is essentially my job – pretty cool right? I also use technology every waking hour of my day even in my leisure time – whether that’s playing a game of Beat Saber on my virtual reality headset or streaming Netflix on my smart TV. I like to think that tech doesn’t run my life, it enhances it. Everything I need to do is made easier, more efficient and generally more enjoyable because of it. I genuinely don’t think I could function without it now & contrary to popular opinion, on the most part I’m actually ok with that! 

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

I’ve always been a storyteller. My parents tell me I pretty much came out of the womb talking. But that passion has manifested in a few different careers in my pretty short life time that have led me to where I am today.  I started performing age 3 – dancing and acting – learning how to hold an audience’s attention from a very young age taught me a lot. By age 15, I became a world class martial artist – telling stories of ancient skills and fighting through form and discipline. At 18, I decided to take those performance skills and learn how to translate them behind the camera into moving image/films. I’ve always been fascinated with television shows and loved making up my own storylines for my favourite series. 

So after graduating, I built a career in television and learned the business side of the industry. Turns out being a storyteller is only 10% of the job when you’re working on big shows for the biggest channels in the country. So at 24 I listened to my gut and decided to get back to the thing I loved most – storytelling. While I was writing scripts and making short branded content, I came across this new technology called virtual reality. I put on the headset and was instantly transported to another world. A world where I was standing face to face with one of my favourite TV characters at the time Mr Robot. WOW! I was absolutely mesmerised and had visions of where this technology might go in the future. All of a sudden it was possible to not just watch stories but be in them! So I put my head down, taught myself everything I could about how to create story-driven content for this medium and the rest is history.

I now run a virtual reality production company or as I like to call it “an immersive storytelling studio” and I’m now at the forefront of defining the language of an entirely new artistic medium. It’s very exciting!

What inspired you to start Cats Are Not Peas?

You know how people say when you fall in love you just know? It’s a feeling you can’t quite define but it’s instinctive – that’s how I’ve always felt about being my own boss. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a household of entrepreneurs (my parents owned screenprinting & design companies my whole childhood). Or maybe it’s because every time I was employed by someone I very quickly ended up becoming number 2 to the CEO & could very easily understand the strategy behind running a successful company. 

Either way when I was in my last year at University I decided one day I would own a company called CATS are not PEAS. I knew it would be in the creative realm but I had no idea it would be a technology company – I just knew I loved that name & I wanted to work for myself. So I got business cards printed in 2012 when I went freelance in the TV industry (trading under the CATS name) & I’ve never looked back. Late 2015/ early 2016 is where I pivoted hard into tech as I discovered VR. And in 2017 when I started working on massive projects where I was hiring lots of people & dealing with large turnover I limited the company which I guess made it official!

What or who were the influencers of who you are today?

I could write a whole essay just on this question to be honest – but I’ll try and keep this short.

In a nutshell I’d have to say my parents.

My mum taught me how to be fiercely independent, to have strong opinions, to take no s**t from anyone. She had been told she couldn’t do a lot of things in her life because she was a woman so she drilled into my head from a young age that I could do anything but to never stop fighting for equality and to be wary of the way men treated me. I’m so thankful for that – it’s saved me a lot of pain I’ve seen fellow women in the tech & creative sector go through.

My dad taught me how to dream big, how to be a great leader, sales person and artist. And also not to take life too seriously. Whereas my mum taught me I could do anything, my dad taught me I should do everything because as he would say “life’s not a dress rehearsal kid.” 

All of the amazing achievements I’ve been fortunate to accomplish in my short 29 years has been down to the unwavering support of both these phenomenal people.

Both my parents taught me that ultimately the only thing that’s important in life is being happy. I believe instilling that bullet proof self confidence in me my whole life has shaped my identity more than anything.

What is the hardest lesson you have learned as a founder and woman in tech?

Let me tell you ladies, if you are even half decent at anything tech related you should have the confidence to jump in!

Being an entrepreneur is lonely and building a strong support system of likeminded people around you is crucial to surviving. In terms of being a woman in tech, the hardest lesson that I still have to wrestle with is imposter syndrome. When you’re in an industry that is dominated by men sometimes you have to remind yourself that you DO belong in the room. Your ideas ARE as good and worth pursuing.  And your STRENGTH is being yourself not leaning into anyone’s idea of what a woman in tech should be.

I have a lot of wonderful men in my working life and it’s no disrespect to them but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s an awful lot of very average men in this industry and every woman I come across is a super talented genius anomaly. It’s because there’s a lot of women out there that might not be the world’s best XYZ and therefore they don’t think they should even try. Let me tell you ladies, if you are even half decent at anything tech related you should have the confidence to jump in!

What is the thing you’re currently most excited about?

In the long term I’m super excited to see where VR & AR technology goes. I love my job & I get excited every time I have a conversation with someone who doesn’t really know anything about it – the look in their eyes when they experience it for the first time is priceless!

But in the immediate, I’m excited by the disruption the internet is causing at scale for every industry. We’re living in a fascinating time where every rule of every industry is being rewritten by the global connectivity we now have. Yes in some circumstances that can be scary (in particular what that’s doing to our political landscape). But in the long run I think it’ll prove to be a great thing for society. In entertainment specifically I love that the internet removes the gatekeepers. It gives everyone a shot!

Which job in tech, other than your current one, would you like to have?

If I had the patience to learn code I would 100% be a programmer. It’s the only language you can learn that literally lets you build worlds. Especially in the context of virtual reality – you can literally build digital worlds for people to exist in! Worlds where anything is possible, what’s cooler than that?

If you could give future generations of women who are interested in tech, one piece of advice, what would it be?

Jump in & help us build the future. We need you!

Alex Rühl (The Drum’s 50 under 30 women in digital, Women of the Future Awards, Pioneers of Immersive Realities Award) is a virtual reality creator, international speaker and founder of immersive storytelling studio CATS are not PEAS.

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