WOMAN OF INTEREST: Octavia Sulea is the Femme Future of AI and Data Science

FEATURES|Interviews|Woman of Interest
Photo Credit: Elisa Quero

Octavia Sulea, a Romanian scholar born and raised in the Northwest part of Bucharest, with a masters in both English linguistics and Artificial Intelligence, and a PhD in Computer Science, is moving the needle as a queer female working in the forefront of technological advancement. With a cutting wit, her creativity in modern technology has granted her the opportunity to apply her PhD studies to innovative start ups, and carve out her own space in a quintessentially non-LGBTQ friendly industry. The hybrid love child of Sailor Moon and Angelina Jolie’s character Kate Libby in the movie Hackers, Sulea is rising up against – and conquering – the tech industry through creativity, perseverance, and a liberal moral compass.

Sulea was raised feeling like an American child through her innate sponge-like quality, and her unique talent for linguistics. She learned English through a rigged satellite dish her scientist father installed to enhance his child’s development; he envisioned her work in science, and the possibility for opportunities to travel overseas and be able to communicate with international scientists in the de facto language of science, English. Due to the ban of American television by the communist Romanian government, her early childhood was spent secretly soaking up the language and inflections of The Flintstones and Scooby Doo. In an attempt to find sanctuary in a childhood anecdote while sleep deprived in the thick of finalizing her PhD and working full-time for a startup in Silicon Beach, she asked her father, “How did I learn to speak English?” He replied, “You were my very successful science experiment.”

Her father also hired a hacker to teach Sulea how to code at the tender age of 11. She went on to study computer science in seventh and eighth grade, and accelerated as the star of her class. “I went to a fully computer science oriented high school that is essentially the source of our brain drain. All the Romanian kids that end up on scholarships at MIT or Harvard would get headhunted from my school, Tudor Vianu,” Sulea explains. “That’s also where I studied English intensively, which enabled me later to earn my masters in English linguistics from the University of Bucharest. I was surrounded by a lot of bilingual kids in Romania, so I was sort of in a bubble. I did always feel like an outsider in my country, especially in my own home, because my parents couldn’t speak English back to me.”

A black swan of her traditional science oriented school, Sulea embraced counter culture, and stood out as one of the few stylized goth queens, also finding solace in poetry and creative writing. Her ability to express herself through fashion inspired by the underworld paved way for her unique perspective in today’s homogeneous tech industry.

Photo Credit: Elisa Quero

Although unconscious at the time, Sulea’s Romanian roots played a role in her passion and direction towards her academic involvement in AI. “I’ve always been immersed in this Romanian fascination with immortality, which kind of culminated in my PhD,” she explains. Historically, Romania has had a strong interest and relationship with immortality. Their ancient culture has a god figure, Zalmoxis, similar to Jesus, who vanished into a cave for three years and was presumed dead, but returned to signify the belief of immortality through resurrection. The term strigoi – originating in Romania – refers to the undead, and has inspired many vampire tropes in Western culture and Hollywood. “I didn’t really see the connection at the time, me being intrigued and fascinated with religion, and specifically, occult practices, folklore, and esoteric tradition, to understand my own heritage,” Sulea continues. “I ended up working in artificial intelligence, and I finally connected the two last year when I finished my thesis.” Vampires live forever, as would we, through robots.

With past experience working in the tech industry in Romania, and as a researcher for The German Research Center in Artificial Intelligence, where she pioneered a method to predict the outcome of a legal case given its description, Sulea currently resides East of San Francisco, the industry epicenter of society’s technological advancement. “America and Eastern Europe are not that different – they’re very male dominated,” Sulea says. “In Germany, in the research community, especially in natural language processing, it’s more balanced in terms of male/female ratio representation. I wasn’t even aware that sexism was a thing until I started undergrad and I was one of the eight women in my entire year preparing to become a computer scientist. There aren’t many queer, immigrant, non-binary software engineers in this world. Because I’m one of very few, I’m really not being represented in my industry.”

Sulea made the shift from working full time on salary for various tech companies in New York and San Francisco to working freelance in Oakland, in an artistic community Southeast of Lake Merritt. Having the agency to interview and fire her clients enables her to feel more protected. “One thing that’s been really empowering has been just saying no. I said a lot of yesses early on and then realized I didn’t need to do things that way,” she says. “I’ve noticed if I just say no to people’s expectations, I’ll more quickly move forward, and feel more rewarded. Setting those boundaries makes me feel empowered, like I’m doing right by me. The tech industry itself can be very one-sided, with one perspective, and it tends to systematically discriminate against anyone who attempts to challenge that perspective.” 

Freelancing, she explains, is “not so one-sided, where the male boss has all of the control and can pit minorities against each other.” As an expert who works for herself, she has the ability to enter a work space, solve a project, then leave, without any of the “team building” which can be an arena of unconscious bias. “It’s healthier for me to not get too personal with the teams I work with, that are typically all straight males,” she says. “From past experience, I’ve been there, and come out of it questioning if I should seek legal reparations.” 

Photo Credit: Elisa Quero

This boundary shifted when a meeting of minds connected Sulea to the ex-Apple engineers (a team of mostly women including three people of color) pioneering STRUCK, an innovative astrology-based dating app that finally hit the App Store after numerous rejections.

For many women and the LGBTQ+ community, astrology has become an important aspect of analyzing relationships and connecting with new friends (as well as potential romantic partners). The app has been carefully and thoughtfully designed to provide an alternative to the shallow-minded bottomless cup also known as Tinder, with a modern feminine user interface, and limited match predictions based on star chart compatibility rather than physical preferences.

When Sulea joined STRUCK, she experienced a dramatic and uplifting shift in her work life. “For the first time I was working in a non-hierarchical organization, nobody was the boss, and I wasn’t reporting up to anyone. I was directly talking to the founders, and if any bugs occurred on the backend I felt comfortable communicating and resolving without any tension,” she says. “I also really loved the fact that I was building the vision and idea of a woman of color. It was so refreshing, and different from my experience with other startups where co-founders were building with clashing visions, and constant tension. STRUCK founders, on the other hand, hired a black female designer, Kristina Alford, to create the visual branding and user experience. Another woman of color, Amy Yousofi, was managing operations, and an established female astrologer, Nadine Jane, was advising the co-founder Rachel Lo and me on the matching algorithm, while the multi-talented male co-founder, Alex Calkins, was bridging everything with a tenacious, supportive nature. It was literally the most beautiful work experience I’ve ever had.”  STRUCK is now exclusive to a platform that rejected them ten times, a motivating anecdote to keep calm and carry on.

While Sulea has yet to conquer immortality, she’s constantly developing her own personal coping mechanisms and strategies to deal with the marginalizing adversity she’s had to face. She is a silent warrior on the front line, leading a revolution of female and queer data scientists in artificial intelligence. The future landscape of technology that she’s helping to build will hopefully reverberate in today’s current echo chamber of power, authority, and resources for more diverse and brilliant disruptors to come.