Small Business Spotlight: Duolingo

Duolingo’s offices in East Liberty, Pittsburgh

After selling two companies to Google, Guatemala native and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor Luis von Ahn decided that he wanted to dedicate his work to transforming education — leading him to co-found Duolingo with the mission of bringing free language education to the world. The platform sets itself apart by offering a free, engaging, and interactive tool millions of users from all backgrounds can use. Today, Duolingo is the most popular language-learning platform worldwide, with more than 200 million users and they have recently received $25 million in additional funding to accelerate product development and hire more staff.

What does Duolingo specialize in, and who are its clients?

Our mission is to make language education free and accessible to everyone in the world. Separately from our core learning app — which is designed to feel like a game, with bite-sized lessons, points for correct answers, and progressing levels — we offer a product called the Duolingo English Test (DET), an English certification exam primarily used by international students applying to U.S. universities. It’s designed to reduce barriers to higher education by making English language certification more affordable and accessible. The DET is accepted by more than 90 universities including Yale, Bucknell, Robert Morris, Slippery Rock, Mount Aloysius, Gannon, and Lafayette. That number grows each month.

One fact we’re particularly proud of is that there are more people learning languages on Duolingo in the U.S. than there are people learning languages in the entire American public school system. This speaks to the massive impact we’ve had on a global scale, and is a big motivator for the Duolingo team to continue delivering on our mission.

How has your experience as a CMU student and professor inspired your career path?

While at CMU as a PhD student and eventually a professor of computer science, I worked on a number of projects that were used by millions of people and that also served as inspiration to what we now call “crowdsourcing.” Together with my advisor, Manuel Blum, I co-invented CAPTCHAs, or computer-generated tests that humans are routinely able to pass but that computers have not mastered (they are the squiggly computer letters that are prevalent across the web.) My other projects included inventing the ESP Game (a.k.a. The Google Image Labeler) for image recognition and reCAPTCHA to help digitize the world’s books — both of which were acquired by Google.

CMU played a significant role in the creation of Duolingo. My co-founder, Severin Hacker, was actually one of my students when I was a professor at CMU, and several of Duolingo’s employees are also CMU grads. My work with crowdsourcing was also inspiring in the creation of Duolingo: most of the 72 language courses we offer are created by bilingual volunteers from all over the world who want to spread their language and culture to millions of people. Without their help, we couldn’t have grown to become the world’s largest language-learning platform.

Why are you proud to be a Pennsylvania small business owner?

While many global tech companies have been inspired to set up shop in Pittsburgh in recent years, we’re glad to be a company that is completely native to Pittsburgh. It’s been rewarding to contribute to the local economy as we’ve continued to grow our operations.

“This [Pittsburgh’s lower cost of living] has not only helped us attract talent, but has helped us keep our operating costs lower than they would be if we were based in a large city.”

In my view, Pennsylvania — and Pittsburgh in particular — is a great place to start and grow a business. I spent two years working at Google in both Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley. I learned a lot during the experience and enjoyed working in both locations, but when it came time to go off on my own and start Duolingo, I felt that Pittsburgh was the best location for our headquarters for a few reasons. One key factor was the lower cost of living than in large cities like NYC and San Francisco. This has not only helped us attract talent, but has helped us keep our operating costs lower than they would be if we were based in a large city. And especially during Duolingo’s early days, we hired several highly talented graduates from CMU, who had been in Pittsburgh for a few years and wanted to continue living here.

Pittsburgh was just named one of the best U.S. cities to live in, and the quality of life here is absolutely a big factor in helping us attract and retain talent from all over the U.S. and the world. Most of our employees moved here from elsewhere, and the relatively low cost of living and strong quality of life have been great advantages for many of them.

The Small Business Spotlight is a monthly series posted on the second Saturday of the month which highlights businesses and their owners who are positively impacting their local community.

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