A non-native English speaker who grew up "not rich" amid a civil war in Guatemala has become a tech industry powerhouse. His app is now used by both the wealthy and the poor, garnering nearly 50 million active users a month.
Luis von Ahn is the 44-year-old visionary behind Duolingo, the free language learning app that has become a household name — even boasting a viral TikTok account featuring company mascot Duo the owl.
Before he built his $3 billion company, von Ahn’s story began in Guatemala, where he lived with his mother and grandmother.
“I was basically raised by two strong women,” he said in an interview with ABC News. “[My mom] gave me everything I had, and she really sacrificed for me.”
“She spent her entire wealth, really, her entire salary and everything on my education, so she basically gave me a rich person's education, even though we were not rich,” he added. “The other day, pretty recently, she asked me, 'You're okay with money, right?' And I'm like, ‘Yes, I am okay with money. Do not worry about it.’”
His mother was a medical doctor, considered middle-class in Guatemala. She insisted von Ahn learn English at a private language school and bought him his first computer when he was 8 years old.
“I thought she was coming back with a Nintendo, but she came back with a computer. It was a Commodore 64, and I was pretty upset," he said. "I guess it changed my life. I thank God she did that.”
When he was young, von Ahn excelled quickly in tech and mathematics and was recruited by Duke University when he was 18 years old.
After college, he obtained his doctorate degree at Carnegie Mellon University, where he built an online game that ended up being useful for reverse image search. He sold it to Google the next year for $2 million.
“You got paired with another random player that you didn't know who they were,” he said, describing the game. “You were told to type whatever the other random person is typing, you can't communicate with them, but they can see the same picture you can.”
Not long after, von Ahn created a program now widely known as CAPTCHA, a test aimed at protecting websites against bots where users interpret and type distorted text displayed on the screen.
But he wanted the program to serve a greater purpose, quickly recreating it as reCAPTCHA. Beyond just a security measure, the words someone typed in the new program would now also help digitize thousands of texts and books online.
In 2006, von Ahn was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the Genius Grant.
A math professor at the time searching for his next endeavor, von Ahn said he wanted to build something that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic class, could find useful. Partnering with a Ph.D. student, Severin Hacker, they debated developing an app to teach math or English.
In the end, they chose the latter.
“Eventually, we decided that we wanted to teach languages because of English,” he said. “We're both non-native English speakers in both of our cases. English changed our lives, and in most countries in the world, knowledge of English can significantly increase their income potential.”
The decision was the inception of the free language app named Duolingo, which now offers 100 total courses across more than 40 distinct languages.
“People who have a lot of money can buy themselves an education like mine, a really good education, whereas people who don't have very much money barely learn how to read and write,” he said. “And therefore, I wanted to give equal access to education.”
Duolingo’s reach quickly extended across the globe, with its user base ranging from refugees overseas to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
“It's amazing that basically the same system is being used by some of the poorest people in the world and some of the richest people in the world, so that made me very proud,” he said. “That was it. I was like, ‘Okay, we reached what we wanted to do.’”
However, von Ahn, despite his own success as one of the few Latino CEOs in tech, said he feels he has fallen short when it comes to one area: company diversity.
“Even though I am Latinx, it's only like 4 or 5% of our employees are Latinx and in the U.S. population it's more like 20%, so we're massively underrepresented,” he said. “I consider that a personal failure. We're trying to hire more employees.”
Outspoken against government corruption in his native Guatemala, von Ahn is also powering up his foundation, investing millions of dollars of his own money into three sectors: women’s equality, the environment and democracy.
In addition, von Ahn is now launching the latest version of his app — this time for math, allowing children to learn outside the classroom and adults to refresh their skills. He also hopes this new app can reduce math anxiety, allowing anyone to learn at their own pace.
“Kids have fallen behind in reading and in math and in a lot of things, so we hope that this can help a lot,” he said.
“There are more people learning languages on Duolingo in the U.S. than there are people in languages across all high schools combined in the U.S,” he added. “I am a big believer that if you have a positive impact in the world, you'll get rewarded.”