#9 Giorgiana Vlasceanu – Program Manager at StepFWD, Teaching Assistant & PhD. Student on AI research, startups, mentoring and diversity

Giorgiana Vlasceanu is Program Manager at StepFWD, Forbes 30 under 30 Alumni, Teaching Assistant at Automatic Control & Computers Faculty and Co-founder at Codette. During her High School years, she started to become interested in volunteer work and organizing events. She swiftly became a leader of her peers, representing them in the National Council of High School Students. As a university student, she was dedicated to continuously develop these skills and use them to help the people in her local community. In this respect, she has dedicated her free time to be actively involved in youth NGOs and communities, as well as doing volunteer work.

#9 Giorgiana Vlasceanu – Program Manager at StepFWD, Teaching Assistant & PhD. Student on AI research, startups, mentoring and diversity Get Your AI On!

Ciprian Borodescu: I’m here with Giorgiana Vlasceanu, Program Manager at StepFWD, Forbes 30 Under 30 alumni, teaching assistant at Automatic Control and Computers Faculty, and co-founder at Codette. I’m super excited, and it’s an honor to have you on this podcast, especially since you’re one of my favorite people. Thank you so much for being here.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Hi, Ciprian. I’m glad to be here with you.

Ciprian Borodescu: Over the years, you have become a leader in the local tech community, and those that know you describe you as a complex combination of technical abilities, organizational skills, and a passion for teaching. Do you feel that’s an accurate description?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: It’s a nice overview of my past activities. All these things were basically a team effort.

Ciprian Borodescu: Talk about your journey from those early days doing volunteer work and organizing events to now being the Program Manager StepFWD and a Ph.D. student at Automatic Control and Computers Faculty.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: I’d like to say that I’m a professional volunteer. I have over 10 years of experience in the field from youth exchanges, representing my colleagues, to organizing events such as competition and tech events, like workshops, meet-ups, and hackathons. The journey started in secondary school when I decided to step up and be the president of the student council. In high school, I continued the path and I was part of the student council in my school, and also in my district. In parallel with this, in the youth organization, I was super active on youth exchanges, and local initiatives, organized with the funds from Erasmus Plus – former Youth in Action. If I want to give a name for this period was exploration. I was journaling for the local newspaper, learning to handle puppets for a puppet theater project, all the way to maintain the social media channels for the NGOs and their blogs. The next stage was being a student. I was a little stubborn. So, in the first year, I wanted to go alone to Bucharest at the beginning of the year and handle all the stuff with the dorm, and so on. It was my moment to become more independent. I continued to be a volunteer, I signed up for the Students’ League and in the last two years of my Bachelor’s, I was the Vice President of the organization. I started to work also in this period with Brigada de Voluntari. During these years of volunteering, I realized that I really love people and love working with them. So, the next steps were easy to follow. With all these experiences, adding working in the team of IT For Girls workshop, I co-founded Codette, where I was active for four years. After that, I got involved with StepFWD and I’m here to stay and learn.

Ciprian Borodescu: And just out of curiosity, where do these three areas intersect? StepFWD, the Ph.D. study you embarked on, and your passion for teaching?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: The first teaching experience was at Digital Kids. The second one was at Small Academy, and I continued with Codette. I worked with kids, high school students, and also college students. In our faculty, older students can help with laboratories, and this was my chance to try. In the first year, I was terrible, but I knew if I tried again, it would be better. I reiterated, and after three years, I was sure that I want to have the hat of teaching assistant. My motivation to start a Ph.D. stays in the fact that I love to teach. In our system, you cannot be involved as a teaching assistant if you don’t start a Ph.D., and you will never grow if you don’t have one. So, this is the first connection between my Ph.D. and my passion for teaching. StepFWD is the next thing. It’s like a field where I see all this relevant knowledge from mentors is given to the next generation startups. It’s my time to sum up all my organizational skills and contribute to something bigger than me. This program was the key to understanding how I want a team to be, how to embrace uncertainty and risk, and how to be vulnerable. StepFWD was, for me, the experience that got me out of my comfort zone in every step of the journey.

Ciprian Borodescu: But because I want to push you, again, and get you out of your comfort zone, I want to ask you, do you remember your favorite teacher back when you were in college or maybe high school, that inspired you, perhaps?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Yes, I have one example here. I think is George Milescu. He was in my first course of Introduction to Operating Systems. He presented himself as George and that was a really good start. Personally, that was the moment when I realized that this is what I want to be when I grow up. So, now I’m a teaching assistant for this course.

Ciprian Borodescu: Awesome. Let’s take them one by one and talk a bit about some of the challenges you’ve encountered along the way. Or maybe challenges you foresee. Let’s start with your Ph.D. research, for example.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: In my case, challenges were everywhere. I started my Ph.D. in a field where I was a beginner, so it was an exploration path to understand the basics and see where I can contribute in a valuable way. The domain is document image processing. In my research, the focus is on the pre-processing level – all the steps to prepare the scanned image of the document for OCR. Currently, I explore the binarization process and ways to integrate AI models for binarization.

Ciprian Borodescu: And what are, based on your experience so far, some of the do’s and don’ts of conducting this kind of research? Is there a difference between doing research in academia versus a deep tech startup?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: The difference between research and startups? It’s a controversial discussion here. Where should innovation happen – in academia or in the industry? In my opinion, academia should focus on doing research to explore new technologies, new ways to calculate things, get raw information in the process. The innovation part is in the industry’s hands – connect technology and put it to good use for humanity. I have some experience with research in academia for one particular thing. The articles you write should be the showcase of your research and results. Sometimes, I feel like it is more important to have quantity than quality.

Ciprian Borodescu: And speaking of startups, what are the types of startups you guys are looking for at StepFWD? Tell us more about the program and what entrepreneurs should expect from it.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Let’s start with the beginning. StepFWD is an eight-week pre-accelerator program designed for early-stage tech startups with diverse teams. The program is for startups that have at least a prototype of the product or have extensively tested the customer and the problem, all the way to the early revenue stage. This year, diverse teams including gender, race, ethnicity, age, gender identity, or ability, have a priority in being selected. StepFWD gives you the basic tools you need for going from zero to one. In eight weeks, you will be pushed out of your comfort zone through several activities such as workshops, hands-on feedback sessions, office hours in mentoring and pitch practice. The most valuable thing is mentorship. Mentors make this program unique. The startups will have the chance to work with over 50 experienced entrepreneurs, industry professionals, and investors to get feedback and the right knowledge. During the program, the startups will work closely with mentors, who are people who went through the same difficulties and have the expertise to advise them. To summarize the benefits of the startups: you’ll get actionable knowledge, super cool and dedicated mentorship, connection to more than 50 investors, entrepreneurs, and industry experts for the ecosystem.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, let’s stay a little bit on this subject. I wanted to ask you about the difference, perhaps, between mentoring, coaching, and teaching. Based on your experience, what are the differences? What are the similarities? Maybe you can also tell us a little bit about your experience mentoring or being a mentee.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: I will start with the teaching side. The teacher is the person who gives you the basic knowledge and tries to prepare the students and gives a specific environment that allows the students to make mistakes and learn from them. So let’s say, here, the principal action is learning. For coaching, a coach prepares you for the action. You implement strategies and things you learn in order to perform better in some directions. This person focuses on techniques and helps you to become a better version of yourself. And the last one, the mentor – mentors are people who went through the same difficulties and have the expertise to advise you. A mentor does not focus on concept. They encourage people to do stuff and support them in their journey. For me, personally, I wasn’t actively searching for a mentor. Sometimes it happens to see someone and build a connection with that person, and suddenly you realize that you see her or him as a mentor. I appreciate more this kind of relationship built between mentors and mentees. For me, Alexandra Anghel became a mentor and I appreciate her for the courage and dedication that she shows every day.

Ciprian Borodescu: I think the best relationships mentor-mentee are bi-directional and I’m sure that you are learning from Alex just as much as she is learning from you. Regarding the startups that you guys are looking for at StepFWD, are you looking for specific startups in terms of industry?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: StepFWD is industry agnostic. We don’t look actively for any vertical.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. I want to get back to your passion for teaching and pick your brain on the ability of our educational system to produce good AI engineers. What do you think it’s missing for Romania to become the center of innovation when it comes to AI and machine learning?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: The educational system in Romania is about extremes. I will not talk about digitization, and I will focus on students with minimal access to technology. The first good thing that happened was introducing informatics in the fifth grade. In the last couple of years, more and more private academies started to offer courses such as STEM courses, programming, robotics to learn programming languages. The students are more eager to learn new things and do cool stuff. They have more resources than we had and I’m really happy for this progress. All they need is inspiration and guidance. The number of students in computer science is raising in the past few years, so more people are aware that the future is partly made by technology. All of these rising trends offer more opportunities to explore. All computer science programs have at least one course about AI and robotics. Each University has Master’s programs studying the AI domain in-depth, and I can say that they are pretty popular. For example, the AI Master program from the Faculty of Automatic Control and Computers is among the best programs out there. This is because the people involved in teaching are passionate about AI and love the domain. To give you some names: Traian Rebedea, Tudor Berariu, and so on. And their involvement doesn’t stop here. They created a Meet-up group called Bucharest Deep Learning and it is a group for anyone willing to learn and share ideas and expertise in machine learning. Their members are practicing machine learning in academia, industry, or as a hobby. Maybe Romania is not the center of innovation when it comes to AI and machine learning right now. But with the right role models like these, I think that the base of AI and ML will continue to grow.

Ciprian Borodescu: Just out of curiosity, do you have any numbers? Do you have any idea? Is it in the hundreds of AI – machine learning graduates?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Right now, in the Master’s degree, there are something like 30 students enrolled. So, maybe each year there are 20 graduates. In the Ph.D. sector, I really don’t know what number to say right now.

Ciprian Borodescu: But basically, to have a Ph.D., you have to go through Master’s first, so probably the numbers are lower.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Yes, but not necessarily in the AI Master. You can study some subjects on AI for your Ph.D., but you could have done something different.

Ciprian Borodescu: Cool. And speaking about diversity, where do you see things heading? Because, personally, I feel like there are more and more women involved in STEM, which is great. On the other hand, I also feel that if I want to have a diversity team at Morphl, I need to be intentional about it.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Yes, more and more girls are interested in computer science and technologies, so it is really amazing. I have a Ph.D. colleague that graduated 30 years ago from the same faculty and I was asking him about the vibe of these years. He said, in fact, that they were only boys in the year. So, 30 years to have 30% females in the Bachelor degree. The situation in cybernetics is way better, and I appreciate all the initiatives that drive diversity and promote a culture of diversity. Having a diverse team is a different process. You have to increase the number of girls and simultaneously promote teamwork. I think the younger generation doesn’t feel some kind of difference when it comes to diversity teams. I see that in working groups for projects in the faculty, they have a healthy landscape. The scope is to show diversity as examples to become role models and start a trend for the next generations.

Ciprian Borodescu: Cool. So, for the final special fun section of the podcast, lightning questions and answers – a series of fun, short questions that you have to answer really, really fast. Ready?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Yes.

Ciprian Borodescu: Teaching or entrepreneurship?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Entrepreneurship.

Ciprian Borodescu: Favorite woman personality.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Hard to say. I admire Brené Brown.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, that’s a good one. Have you read any of her books?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Yeah. And my favorite is Dare to Lead.

Ciprian Borodescu: Nice, nice. Favorite man personality.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: If I said a woman author in the previous question, I would choose Ryan Holiday.

Ciprian Borodescu: Yep, yep. Cats or dogs?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Dogs.

Ciprian Borodescu: You hesitated there a bit. Are you sure?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Definitely dogs.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, that’s more like it. The last book you read.

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Originals written by Adam Grant.

Ciprian Borodescu: Was it good?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: Very good. I definitely recommend it.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. Any idea? Any key takeaway from that book for you, personally?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: That is more important the execution part rather than the idea. So, a great start is a great idea, but you have to work hard to perform well.

Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. I would agree with that. And I think this is also a good lesson for all the startups that usually apply to accelerators and specifically for StepFWD. Cool. Now, the bonus question. I think we’re both aspiring stoics. And you recently started a blog where you write about work-life balance, vulnerability, and leadership. What was the a-ha moment for you when reading about stoicism and what attracted you to this life philosophy that eventually prompted you to embrace it? Where did you connect with stoicism?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: I think all my life I was focused on doing a better job and growing. My a-ha moment was reading Pyuric’s Newsletter – Cristina Chipurici – it was the moment when I realized that stoicism is the art of following class.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, now I’m curious. What do you mean?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: I was involved in a lot of different activities and I’m currently in the process of prioritizing my life choices and learning how I can shift my perspective and focus on every opportunity as a matter of choice. Focus on things I can control, things that are in my power, let’s say so. In this period, I started reading more, journaling and practicing gratitude. So, I dove into a personal project.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, excellent, excellent. Giorgiana, it was a pleasure to have you, and thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with me and with us. How can people reach out to you for ideas and comments?

Giorgiana Vlasceanu: You can reach me on any social media channel. Search me for Giorgiana Vlasceanu or my blog, gege.ro.

Ciprian Borodescu: Awesome. Thank you so much.