Luis von Ahn, CEO of Duolingo, Receives 70th Annual Priestley Award

Elisa Villaseñor Moreno, Guest Writer

It only took Luis von Ahn 24 years to sell two companies to Google and become a multi-millionaire. Von Ahn, this year’s Dickinson College Priestley Award recipient, is the founder of the companies CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA and is the co-founder and present CEO of the language-learning app Duolingo. 

After selling his previous companies, von Ahn asked himself: “what shall I do with [the rest of] my life?” Out of his passion for education and making a positive impact on humanity came Duolingo. Originally created as a joint effort by von Ahn and Severin Hacket, his graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, users can now learn more than 40 languages for free on the platform.

Von Ahn told the crowd in the Anita Tuvin-Schlechter Auditorium what makes Duolingo so popular is its mobile-first focus, game-like mechanics, and free access. He says these three factors were integral in turning Duolingo into the most downloaded app in the education category, where it has remained for the last eight years in a row.  

One effective strategy von Ahn described to keep users engaged with the app is constant notifications. He mentioned the surprise success of the fifth notification, which his team found to be remarkably effective at bringing users back to the app after a period of disuse. It reads,  “These notifications don’t seem to be working. We are going to stop sending them for now.” According to von Ahn, this final notification turns human guilt into a mechanism to keep people committed to language learning. 

When asked about the secret to von Ahn’s success, he admitted that it took “10 years of working day and night.” Originally, his greatest challenge was to convince investors and users that his idea was worth it. Nowadays, he finds it difficult  to balance the needs of various stakeholders in his company. “The employees, users, stockholders, chiefs, they all want something different,” affirms von Ahn. 

Throughout these years, von Ahn has learned how to deal with workers’ personal problems, how to delegate, and how to resolve conflicts. “When I was growing up I didn’t have any conflicts with my mom. Therefore, I have had to learn how to solve problems by myself.” Von Ahn advises Dickinson students to be aware of the prestigious institution they are studying at. “You are getting the best education that money can buy really, and you should make use of that for something good for the world,” he says.

Duolingo is working at the moment on improving writing their Japanese course, and accessibility for users who have a learning disorder. It is a matter of constant improvement for von Ahn. “Everyday I go on the app and find something that I don’t like and I send it to the team,” he says. 

Luis von Ahn spoke at Dickinson College on March 22 as the 2022 Priestley Award recipient. The event was sponsored by the College’s Priestley fund, and co-hosted by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Events as part of its Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty series. A recording of the event is available here.