Tech companies aren’t exactly known for being good neighbors. In city after city, they take root and grow exponentially, driving up rents and home prices to unsustainable levels and making little effort to connect with their surrounding neighborhoods.
But Pittsburgh’s Duolingo tries to be different, according to a story this week in Bloomberg.
After moving from Shadyside to the rapidly changing tech hub of East Liberty, the language-learning app Duolingo — now valued in the billions of dollars, after last year’s IPO — made some mistakes early on.
“Duolingo became a tenant in a building that had just painted over a mural called ‘Lend Me Your Ears,’ depicting Black and brown children at play,” writes Pittsburgh-based journalist Brentin Mock in Bloomberg. “It was a widely celebrated work of public art that caused a community uproar when it was covered with a solemn coat of gray paint. Residents of East Liberty, once one of Pittsburgh’s premier Black neighborhoods, were already reeling from recent demolition of low-income housing, and with new luxury apartments moving into the area, many took the paint-over as a sign that they, too, were facing erasure.”
It was not an auspicious start.
Duolingo realized this and tried to make amends, according to the story. It hired Pittsburgh native Kendra Ross for the newly-created role of Head of Social Impact, to cultivate relationships with the community. She’s a musician and was co-chair of an arts council in the Hill District.
The company met with local artists and activists and began contributing support to neighborhood organizations, such as the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and Hello Neighbor, which helps settle refugee families. In 2021, Duolingo donated 4,000 meals from its cafeteria to 412 Food Rescue. And in 2020, it announced a $150,000 community arts grant to support public artists in East Liberty. The first project from that fund is a neighborhood mural of Cecilia Price-Knight, whose popular Jamaican restaurant Impressionz closed in 2016.
Later this year, Duolingo will take additional office space in East Liberty in an office tower anchored by Whole Foods that’s being constructed on the site of the demolished Penn Plaza affordable apartment complex.
You can read the full story in Bloomberg here.
In other Pittsburgh tech news, another local company is in the national spotlight. Robot-assisted vertical farming company Fifth Season got attention as an “agri-tech” innovator in a CNBC story by Rebecca Fannin.
Fannin discusses the Braddock company’s successful raising of $75 million in venture capital, a new farm planned in Columbus, and the distribution of its produce in Giant Eagle, Kroger and ShopRite chains, with a goal of reaching more than 3,000 stores in 2023.