To Be Human, a mural on Duolingo’s headquarters in East Liberty created by the artist Ann Lewis through a community-led process in 2020.
Duolingo, the home-grown Pittsburgh tech-star and language-learning app developer, is deepening its commitment to social impact—in East Liberty and around the world. In 2020, the company unveiled a $150,000 pledge to support local arts, starting with a community-led mural on the side of their building at Penn and Euclid Avenues. Now, they have hired Dr. Kendra Ross a cultural worker, strategist, and Pittsburgh native as their new head of social impact. Kendra is working to integrate impact into the day-to-day processes of the organization, starting with matching local organizations to Duolingo employees who want to give and volunteer as well as identifying opportunities where they can, as she puts it, “be a good neighbor” and create positive change in the community.
We spoke to Dr. Ross to learn more about this role and what social impact means to the company.
Why did Duolingo decide to launch a community outreach program?
Well, first I’ll say that I wouldn’t call what we’re doing community outreach. Community outreach can come off as a one-sided transaction, almost like charity. Duolingo is a mission-driven organization. Our mission is to make quality education universally accessible. So, we were already operating in that way, but before I started in September of last year, they felt that it was important to have a program specifically focused on how we engage with the world. Essentially, we’re thinking about how we can make the most impact, not only through our product but also through the way we interact with the communities that we work in and serve. In the short term, we’re focusing on first being a good neighbor in East Liberty, which is our headquarters, and then we will broaden that out to Pittsburgh and other communities globally. Before I got here, Duolingo was already doing social impact things like supporting local organizations such as the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and Catapult Greater Pittsburgh, but now we’re doing that in a more intentional way, and I’m developing processes around that.
The mural you commissioned for your building last year is another example.
Yes, and we have another mural that we’re going to be unveiling on April 6th that we commissioned from the artists Allison Zapata and Natiq Jalil. It’ll go on The Community Builders building across the street at the corner of Penn Avenue and Beatty Street. They were gracious enough to allow us to put it on their building. Chris Ivey has also created a film around it, which we will screen after the ceremony.
What are the first steps and things that you’re focusing on in your role?
My focus since September has been to just get out into the community and meet with as many people and organizations as I can, talking to people about how Duolingo can support their work, whether it be through sponsorships or providing volunteers. I’ve had lots of coffee dates at Redstart Roasters and Margaux—I’m missing my Zeke’s, but what can you do? I’ve also been meeting with lots of folks internally to find out what they want to see in the community. A lot of our duos, which is what we call our employees, want to mentor or volunteer, but they don’t have an outlet for it. Our employees who are new to the city especially don’t know where to start. They don’t know about the organizations or the context of the community. To provide some of that context, we started a lunch and learn series, inviting organizations to come in and talk about their work. Last week, Allies for Health + Wellbeing came in to talk about the origins of their organization and how they serve the community. Before that, we had The Pittsburgh Foundation come to share context about the entire community and also to talk to our employees about what it means to be in philanthropy and to give. We have some others coming up as well.
My other focus has been around employee involvement. Right now, that means developing a volunteer program and talking to duos about how they can give and where they should give, based on whatever the needs may be. I’m currently putting a database in place that matches duos interested in volunteering and giving with local organizations and their needs. I’m basically just formalizing and operationalizing a program, because social impact can’t just be me.
Will you have impact themes each year or each quarter, or is it more about seeing what the needs and opportunities are?
We will have focus areas or pillars that I’m developing. Like most companies, we look and see what the need is and what we’re uniquely positioned to support. For us, because we are an education technology company, education will definitely be a part of our social impact work.
Why is community and social impact so important to Duolingo?
We’re not a nonprofit, but we are driven by our mission. So, our social impact work is furthering our mission, and our vision. Our vision is to eradicate economic inequality through education. So, what are the other ways that we can help support that through our social impact efforts? We do it through our product offering—our core product is still free and most of the users of our app use the free version— but also how do we show up in the world?
We’re in East Liberty, East Liberty is changing, and we’re a part of that change. How do we then be a good neighbor, understanding how we’re implicated in that and where we fit into that narrative.
What kind of feedback have you received so far?
I think it is helpful that I’m from Pittsburgh. I know this community. I love this community. I’m not from East Liberty, but I spent my childhood here, shopping here. I told a lot of people that East Liberty is one of those places that’s a center of Black life in Pittsburgh, especially when I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I think a lot of people might have been skeptical when they first saw what we’re doing, but I can say that having someone like me is not about checking a box, because for me, it’s personal. And people in the community have responded well too, saying, “Hey, this actually feels like they’re going to do some great work here.”
Also, just because giving monetarily is a part of what we’re doing, it’s not the only thing we’re doing. When we say “be a good neighbor”, it’s almost like the corporate version of lending a cup of sugar. When we have something that other folks can use, we share. We invite people in to spend time with us here. We’re really trying to make our social impact a two-way engagement and not just about handing out checks.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I feel like Duolingo is giving me the space to do something really powerful. So, even though I might not be able to work with everyone that comes to me right now, I’m taking my time and doing things slowly. This is not about marketing. It’s really about how we can be impactful in our community.
For questions or to get involved with Duolingo’s social impact efforts, email Kendra at email@example.com.