Diana Iftimie is harnessing machine learning to develop a solution focused on overcoming the steep learning curves in therapies for non-speaking autistic individuals.

Technology Management MBA Valedictorian Forges Path in Machine Learning

Class of 2024 rallies behind Diana Iftimie and her startup idea to use AI for the greater good.

It was never about grades for the 2024 valedictorian of the Technology Management MBA.

“I came into the program wanting to learn as much as I could,” said Diana Iftimie, who is among the 2024 graduates of the Technology Management MBA at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. “I wanted to do well in my classes, but I had no intention of wanting to be perfect in my grades.”

Iftimie not only became a machine learning leader in the classroom, but also through her participation in the 2024 Hollomon Health Innovation Challenge and her dedication to supporting responsible AI practices.

“Diana is a Technology Management MBA who adds so much to each class,” said Affiliate Instructor Christy Johnson, who teaches the Women in Entrepreneurship elective class. “Her passion and unwavering commitment to make the world a better place is inspiring.”

Iftimie found much of the strength and support for her success not only through friends and family. But she also found it through the connections she made in the program. “I can honestly say that I did the most that I could have,” she said, “but now I also have a group of people that I value, thanks to the connections I built with professors and folks in the program.”

Early lessons in machine learning

Long before she was named valedictorian, Iftimie had her sights set on the Technology Management MBA. “I first started thinking about the program as an undergraduate,” said Iftimie, who graduated from the University of Washington in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. “I had been thinking that a business degree would complement my engineering background and I liked that the Technology Management MBA was tech-leaning.”

Eager to gain real-world experience in the tech industry, Iftimie put her bachelor’s to work in the machine learning space at Microsoft. Then, she pursued a Master of Information and Data Science to help her grow in a research and data-science capacity.

“When I switched roles to something more strategic,” she said, “I wanted a better perspective on strategy and leadership. So, I enrolled in the Technology Management MBA at Foster.”

Harnessing machine learning in the classroom and workplace

The Technology Management MBA is a work-compatible 18-month program focused on technology management. The program started to help guide Iftimie’s work decisions and strategy from day one.

“ChatGPT had just come out, and I had just transitioned to working with large language models at work,” Iftimie said. “We were dealing with how to navigate this, and a lot of the classes were relevant to what I was working on day-to-day.”

Iftimie quickly became a leader among her peers in supporting responsible AI practices, taking the time to discuss her own experiences. She also participated in a panel about responsible AI principles with leaders at Google and Microsoft.

“Back when I first started working, we saw a lot of challenges in the early stages when there were no regulations on the development and use of AI,” Iftimie said. “It was about us trying to do our best by our customers and by the company. We made sure we were respecting customer rights to their data and built services around how to responsibly use that data to build customized AI technology for our customers.”

The Spelling to Communicate (S2C) team at the Holloman Health Challenge
The S2C Accelerator team at the 2024 Hollomon Health Challenge.

Exploring solutions with machine modeling

Classmates in her Women in Entrepreneurship class experienced another side of Iftimie’s passion for making the world a better place when asked to share a potential startup idea.

“It had been on my mind for months at that time,” Iftimie said of the idea that eventually took her to the Hollomon Health Innovation Challenge, “but it wasn’t until I finally said it out loud that it really launched.”

As a result of working in the machine learning space, Iftimie looks at patterns in a different way. “When I see patterns, I immediately think of modeling,” she said. “I think of using and capturing data so that we can do some degree of modeling.”

She began wondering how combining knowledge gained at work and in the classroom could be used to help her younger brother. He deals with speech apraxia and has difficulty communicating with speech and using fine motor skills to communicate.

“In the last few years, we came across a therapy that was helping him,” Iftimie said. “I saw how he was progressing, but I was still seeing a lot of the challenges. As I was looking at the way he engaged with this therapy, I kept noticing patterns.”

“I thought, if we could capture those patterns in a model, maybe we could help make it easier for him to use this therapy or gain insights to help tailor it better to him.”

Diana Iftimie pitches judges at the 2024 Holloman Health Innovation Challenge.
Diana Iftimie pitches S2C Accelerator to judges at the 2024 Hollomon Health Innovation Challenge.

Women in entrepreneurship

On a whim, Iftimie introduced the idea as a potential startup in the Women in Entrepreneurship class with Johnson, quickly gaining both support and interest from her colleagues.

“During the last class, Diana shared what she really wanted to do with her startup idea,” Johnson said, “and she brought the class – me included – to tears.”

Johnson and Teaching Associate Christian Primack Metcalfe, who teaches the Entrepreneurship course for the Technology Management MBA, encouraged Iftimie to enter her startup into the Hollomon Health Innovation Challenge. The extracurricular competition is hosted by the Arthur W. Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship and gives students the opportunity to develop meaningful solutions to big health-related problems.

“Diana shared a goal to embark on a startup and I knew she should go for Hollomon,” Johnson said. “She had a great idea, she had studied the space, and she was willing to take a risk and be bold.”

Diana Iftimie
Watch Iftimie’s valedictorian speech at the Foster School of Business MBA graduation ceremony on June 3, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Mike Costales)

Entrepreneurial journey continues after graduation

With the help of classmates, Iftimie competed at the Hollomon Health Innovation Challenge as S2C Accelerator, a machine learning-driven software solution focused on overcoming the steep learning curves in Spelling to Communicate (S2C) therapies for non-speaking autistic individuals.

“Diana is a true difference maker,” Metcalfe said, “and she has the determination, curiosity, and willingness to make mistakes that will serve her very well on her entrepreneurial journey.”

Even after the competition, Iftimie continued to meet with Metcalfe to keep progressing with S2C Accelerator.

“It’s been great to have something driving me to do the research, to meet with people who are interested, and to get people excited to help this underrepresented community that struggles to advocate for themselves,” Iftimie said.

“I can see this being a project I continue to pursue even after graduation. Hopefully, it can turn into something that at minimum helps out my brother and at maximum helps out others.” 

Watch Iftimie’s valedictorian speech at the Foster School of Business MBA graduation ceremony on June 3, 2024.