Duolingo Co-Founder and CEO Luis von Ahn Touts More Than Just Language-Learning

Jamie Lerner - Author

Jan. 5 2024, Published 10:04 a.m. ET

Luis von Ahn walks to a morning session during the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 14, 2023
Source: Getty Images

We live in a world in which geniuses can make millions with an infinite amount of possibilities thanks to growing technology. One of those so-called “geniuses” is Luis von Ahn. While Luis may not be a household name yet), almost everyone uses Duolingo, which he co-founded alongside one of his Ph.D. students, Severin Hacker.

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Together, Luis and Severin built up one of the most popular apps of all time and arguably the most popular educational app. But Duolingo isn’t the only notch on Luis’s belt. He’s also responsible for the CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA mechanisms we’ve all had to fill out to get past spam filters. So what is Luis von Ahn’s net worth?

The Duolingo logo on a smartphone
Source: Getty Images
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Luis von Ahn has an estimated net worth of $36.5 million.

While Luis set out to create Duolingo, his goal was never to make money. His net worth comes from the amount of shares he’s traded in Duolingo, having sold all his shares, worth $36.21 million, in the two years of Duolingo’s years on the public market. Of course, Duolingo as a corporation still owns many shares of the company, valued at about $193.7 million.

But Luis came from an upper-class background in Guatemala, where he was born and raised by his physician parents, who encouraged him to learn English at an early age. This, he says, was the difference between living a normal life in Guatemala and being able to excel to where he is today.

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Luis von Ahn

Entrepreneur, Consulting Professor

Net worth: $36.5 Million

Luis von Ahn is the creator of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA technologies, a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and the co-founder and CEO of Duolingo.

Birth Name: Luis von Ahn

Birth Date: Aug. 19, 1978

Birth Place: Guatemala City, Guatemala

Education: Duke University (B.S. in Mathematics, summa cum laude, 2000), Carnegie Mellon University (Ph.D. in Computer Science, 2005)

Spouse: Ingrid Ulrika (m. June 2023)

Luis attended Carnegie Mellon, where he started developing the CAPTCHA technology. He saw a problem in the market — email and other types of spam — and developed the series of numbers and letters discernible only to humans, but not to robots. However, over 200 million people were filling out CAPTCHAs per day.

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Although this was just about 10 seconds of their lives, that amassed to about 500,000 hours. Luis figured out a way to make the CAPTCHA hours productive with the reCAPTCHA. He realized only humans could digitize archives and discern other necessary information, so he began using the CAPTCHA to digitize the New York Times’ archives. For every year digitized, the NYT paid $42,000.

Luis von Ahn talks to the media at the Sun Valley Lodge for the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 11, 2023
Source: Getty Images
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Because the reCAPTCHA was so widely used, it took about a week to digitize a year of NYT content, so he was pulling in $42,000 per week. Eventually, in 2009, Google acquired the technology for an undisclosed amount that Luis has said was “tens of millions of dollars.”

Not only that, but in 2006, Luis was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship of $500,000, known more commonly as the MacArthur Genius Grant. He told CNBC Make It that there’s no application. They just called him up and offered him the money, no strings attached, just for being a world-changing genius.

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Luis von Ahn walking and holding hands with his wife, Ingrid
Source: Getty Images

Instead of keeping it for himself, however, Luis invested almost all of it in the reCAPTCHA technology. When that made money, that’s when he and Severin developed the idea for an educational app. They decided to do a language-learning app because of their own experiences learning English as a second language, as well as how knowing a language can be the difference between working and not.

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He wanted to keep the app free so that it’s accessible to people who can’t pay $500 for a typical language course. In addition, its subscription model is similar to that of Spotify — free users need to watch a short ad after lessons while premium subscribers can skip the ads and get a few extra features. Only 6 percent of Duolingo’s users are premium subscribers, but that’s more than enough to bring in its market cap of $2.79 billion.

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Even still, Luis’s goal is to help people. “I’m interested in finding solutions for huge markets with very real needs,” he told Forbes. “I’m primarily interested not in the money but in serving huge numbers of people.” And that culture stems from the top — he revealed that there’s very little turnover at Duolingo thanks to the company culture.

Part of that culture comes from the executives. Luis pays the drivers who drive in potential high-level executives from the airport to tell him how they act in the car ride. While typically, there aren’t any issues, he refuses to hire anyone who treats the driver with any sort of rudeness or toxicity. So even though Luis is bringing in the big bucks, we have plenty of appreciation for our favorite green owl and the man behind him.

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