My heart was racing when I received “the call.” No, not to the convent. It was my 30th birthday, and I had just been offered my dream job at Duolingo in their Pittsburgh office. Without hesitation, I screamed, “Yes, I accept! Can I start tomorrow?”
After the shock wore off and my first day approached, I received an invitation to a company welcome party to celebrate my first week. I was touched, but my heart sank when I read “bring a +1,” meaning I could bring a guest to the party.
Now, I love a party, especially one that features a build-your-own-pizza station. Yes, I had a +1 who would have been ready to go at a moment’s notice, yet I was too afraid to invite him. What would people say? Would I immediately become the token gay? I wanted to enter the organization on the same playing field as everyone else. As a gay man who has spent the past decade in tech, I’ve received varying levels of support, from the occasional homophobic comment to “we accept everyone!”
On that day in February of 2017, I ended up going to the party solo. I regret it still. I wasn’t comfortable being myself at a party that was meant to celebrate me. Little did I know that Duolingo was on my side, and ready to accept me for me.
After my first month, I pulled our Employee Experience Manager, Elise Walton, aside. It was time for another welcome party for a new employee, and this time, I wasn’t going to go solo. “Elise, would it be okay if I brought my fiancé to the party? To be clear, he’s a man.” Elise beamed, “Of COURSE! We’d LOVE it if he came!”
I was so moved by her enthusiasm, eagerness, and comfort with this topic, and my now-husband has enjoyed many Duolingo parties thanks to the supportive environment that’s been created.
Duolingo makes it a priority to be a welcoming place for all. "Diversity & Inclusion is about us,” says Elise. “We all know what it’s like to feel excluded, and exclusion by our colleagues can feel particularly harmful. For some, the workplace is fundamentally an inclusive space. For others, we must work to be included.”
Part of that work to foster an inclusive environment is creating employees resource groups (ERGs) here at Duolingo. Says Elise, “ERGs enable employees to meet and support people like them, while advocating for a diverse and equitable workplace that includes everyone.”
Though we’re only a few weeks in, we’ve already created a few groups — including our LGBTQIA+ ERG, which I personally co-founded.
The company’s Diversity & Inclusion efforts also include a committee of employees who craft experiences, workshops, and open forums on a variety of topics that are accessible for all employees, regardless of their prior knowledge or engagement with these topics. We believe in the importance of having difficult conversations and creating actionable goals — because as we say at Duolingo, "a good idea is only an idea without a plan and a sense of urgency."
A few months ago, our creative producer, Emily Chiu, gathered a group of LGBTQIA+-identifying employees in a meeting to discuss Duolingo Stories. She wanted feedback regarding storylines that would show representation of LGBTQIA+ lives. A colleague mentioned the idea of bringing home a new boyfriend or girlfriend for the first time, which would also focus on the fact that they were in a same-sex relationship. Another colleague said something that struck me immediately: “Can’t we just have a character who is… I don’t know… grocery shopping, but just happens to be queer?”
Representation matters. Many Duolingo learners have highlighted our inclusive content throughout the various languages that we teach. We believe in showcasing diversity in as many ways as we possibly can, yet there is still work to be done.
There are still many, many challenges facing diversity and inclusion in tech. It’s become even more evident with the current news cycle showcasing the critical need for employees who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) at all levels of an organization. As we work toward this mission, we still have work to do to build an inclusive company culture. It’s our job — as Duolingo employees — to ensure there is space for all of our colleagues (current and future) to see themselves at Duolingo.
It’s nearly four years since my first week here, and I’ve realized that Duolingo is so much more than funny sentences, a green owl, lingots, gems, or hearts. It’s an extremely diverse group of people from all parts of the world who believe in a mission to provide free and accessible education while seeing and supporting each other's whole selves.