With a new hire, Duolingo is looking to lead in social impact and local community engagement.
A press release issued Wendesday announced that Kendra Ross will be the Pittsburgh-based language learning company’s first head of social impact — a new role focused on strengthening the company’s mission in giving back to the surrounding community. While Duolingo has already participated in social impact in Pittsburgh through a community arts fund, organization sponsorships, donations and more, Ross’ role will create a full-time position dedicated to continuing and amplifying those efforts even further as the company continues to grow.
Ross takes on the new position after earning her Ph.D. from Point Park University in community engagement and working as an assistant professor there. She was also a partner at Act3 Consulting Partners — an arts, community and technology-focused firm she founded with two others — where she frequently worked with nonprofits and other local organizations. Prior to that, Ross spent almost 20 years in a corporate role in the music industry, and even worked as a performer herself.
“Pittsburgh has been a key part of Duolingo’s success, and we want that to translate back into success for our local community,” said Luis von Ahn, cofounder and CEO of Duolingo, in a statement. “By creating this role and hiring Kendra to lead our social impact efforts, it allows us to better plan and operationalize our efforts with greater intention and scalability.”
Bringing experience in the nonprofit world and academia, Ross said she realized community engagement needs to come from all parts of society, even growing corporations like Duolingo.
“Although I admire a lot of the work that people [at nonprofits] are doing, a lot of the work of nonprofits is only as impactful as its cross-sector collaborations and partnerships,” she said, adding that means corporations, local governments and other stakeholders need to each do their part to create social impact. “Honestly, society can only be transformed by all of us coming to the table.”
Ross wants Duolingo to be seen as a good neighbor in Pittsburgh, and eventually, as a symbol of the city itself.
That kind of work aligns with Duolingo’s mission to make quality education more accessible, Ross continued. An alumna of Pittsburgh Public Schools and a Pittsburgh native herself, she sees the way that mission can extend to the community right outside the doors of Duolingo’s East Liberty office. In her new role, Ross said she will look to partner with organizations that have similar end goals of filling gaps in education and enriching students’ interests both in and out of the classroom —”tying our mission to how we engage with local organizations and communities is really, I think, the way to do that,” she said.
Though Duolingo always engaged in social impact locally, the company’s Global Head of Communications Sam Dalsimer mentioned that its recent IPO gave Duolingo more resources to expand those efforts with this position. Previously, he said, employees would share ideas of what they’d like to see the company support, but it wasn’t always a formal and organized process. In her new position, Ross will streamline these ideas into tangible partnerships and other work more efficiently.
Ross’ hiring also follows increased efforts toward brand building at the company after its hugely successful public debut in July. Most recently, the company’s big green owl mascot Duo has gone viral on TikTok, thanks to social media coordinator Zaria Parvez. And earlier this year at Duocon — the company’s annual conference — celebrities like Trevor Noah, Patton Oswald, Sohla El-Waylly and more made an appearance in support of Duolingo. This renewed focus on social impact will likely capitalize on that branding even more, by reinvesting the benefits of that success into the local community.
Beyond working to meet more of the social impact goals implied by Duolingo’s mission, Ross added that she wants the company to be seen as a good neighbor in Pittsburgh, and eventually, as a symbol of the city itself.
“Even though it’s a global company, when [people] think about Pittsburgh, they can think about all the great things that have come out of here like Billy Porter, like Heinz, like the Pittsburgh Steelers and then like Duolingo,” said Ross, adding that the company’s long-term dedication to the city creates an opportunity for that.
“We want to be grateful to the city that helped get us where we are.”Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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