Advanced University Recruiting, Duolingo’s Renee Davis

Renee DavisDuolingo’s Director of Recruiting

Today I’m joined by Renee Davis, Duolingo’s Director of Recruiting. In this episode, we address the issues with the old method of targeting a specific subset of students, and how to stay up to date with each new generation. We dive into how to improve the graduation numbers of underrepresented student populations, and debate the merits of recruiting through TikTok! Renee’s belief that a recruitment program is about what the students can gain from it has already proven its worth, with seven out of eight interns accepting their offers to come back to work, and she takes me through how she managed this impressive feat. From virtual yoga to why three-year recruitment plans are ideal, join me in a lively discussion about changing the way we find talent. 

Episode Transcript





[0:00:06.1] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me. A podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontline’s modern recruitment.


[0:00:12.2] FEMALE: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life, we want to understand how they make decisions. Where are they willing to take risks and what it looks like when they fail.


[0:00:22.2] RS: No holds barred, completely off the cuff interviews with directors of recruitment, VPs of global talent, CHROs and everyone in between.


[0:00:31.0] FEMALE: Once I went through the classes and the trainings got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.


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[0:00:52.1] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson and you’re about to hear the best in the biz, Talk Talent to Me.




[0:00:59.1] RS: Joining me today on Talk Talent to Me is Duolingo’s director of recruiting, Renee Davis. Renee, welcome to the podcast, how are you today?


[0:01:07.1] RD: I’m great Rob, thank you so much for having me, how are you?


[0:01:10.1] RS: I’m good, I have kind of a chaotic week, I’m just podcasting my heart out trying to get these episodes recorded, trying to deliver this content, these sweet, sweet sounds of audio-based recruitment goodness that our audience so craves. I’m just doing my best to deliver it and to that end, here you are. So, thrilled you’re here. Duolingo I’m sure is a company that most people know well, my listeners know well. I’m a big fan of Duolingo.


I don’t speak French fluently but that’s no fault of Duolingo’s. I know enough to order in restaurants and be able to lean against a wall with a cigarette and look into the distance with ennui, which is half of French I’m told. 


[0:01:51.1] RD: The most important part is correct.


[0:01:53.1] RS: Yes, exactly. I’m a big fan of Duolingo, I think it is a great tool. I would just love to know, at the outset here and a little bit about you, would you mind sharing your journey, how you started in your career, how it’s gone so far and how you wound up at Duolingo?


[0:02:08.1] RD: Absolutely. I will throw it way back to start off, like most…


[0:02:13.1] RS: You were born at a young age in Bozeman, Montana. It was a rainy day.


[0:02:18.2] RD: In a land far-far away, once upon a time. Okay, no. Like most talent acquisition professionals, I did not start in talent acquisition. I actually have a journalism degree from a little tiny school in the middle of Pennsylvania called Indiana University of Pennsylvania and I started my career in public relations, so I worked at what was the HJ Heinz Company — the ketchup people and is now Craft Heinz. I started in internal communications and I realized that that world was great but it was a lot more behind the scenes and a lot less people-facing.


I was trying to kind of do some soul searching throughout my time there of like, what really makes me tick, right? What kind of — just excites me at the end of the day, helps me to connect with people, helps me to make an impact on people’s lives but still has some strategy behind it and some creativity. Kind of a blend of all the things. I ended up getting a job as a talent acquisition coordinator at a retail company called Rue21 and from there I just fell in love with recruiting.


Specifically, campus recruiting. Rue21 did have a small internship program but when I got there, I had an incredible boss and let me basically run wild with things which the type of person I am, I need that then that’s what motivates me. So, I built their university recruiting program and expanded their internship program and then from there, I went to a manufacturing company because I wanted to experience a different industry and a different type of hire in students, especially within university recruiting. The student base is so different based upon major and what they’re looking to go into. 


I went from recruiting, merchandising students and buyers and allocators and planners to manufacturing where I focused on engineering roles. I worked at a company called Arconic, which was formerly Alcoa which was a metals manufacturer, and I started there as a recruiter, grew to oversee all of their campus recruiting initiatives and their campus recruiting team. And then from there, I thought, “All right, next thing, I want to go into tech” right?


I haven’t explored that industry yet, that is pretty much at the forefront, that is the future so I went to Uber ATG, which was Uber Self-Driving Group. And I was there for almost two years, a little under two years and I worked specifically on software engineering university recruiting, diversity initiatives and programming and then from there, I came to Duolingo and the rest is pretty much history but a little bit about my Duolingo journey.


I started as the University recruiting manager and we had a team of three of us, we were to be cliché, a small and mighty team and now, there is a team of nine of us. At this point, I’m now the director of recruiting. I manage university recruiting and I also manage an industry recruiting team for business roles, so GNA positions on the experience hire side.


[0:05:38.1] RS: Got it. You’ve been able to focus on university recruiting a couple of times in your career? What is this 3.0 version of Renee doing university recruiting look like? What is sort of the breath and the thrift of the program now?


[0:05:52.2] RD: Yeah. I think for me specifically and me personally, my focus has shifted a lot from learning the fundamentals of university recruiting, doing things the traditional way. And my biggest focus now, my team’s focus is how do we reinvent university recruiting? How do we do things differently? How do we tackle problems that have been problems within university recruiting forever or how do we solve some of the university recruiting’s biggest problems that really impact all different industries, right?


Then how do we teach others about them? Because at the end of the day, you go into university recruiting to impact student’s lives. I think that that’s probably Renee 3.0 of just learning how to do the job and learning how to do the job, do it differently, innovate and really change up the game. For Duolingo, I think 3.0 looks like kind of three different things. First, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is just like most companies, a really, really big part of what we are trying to make progress on, where we’re trying to make an impact within our recruiting strategy. 


As well as developing early talent programs that ultimately contribute to our overall hiring goals. So how do we take a company that’s in a period of hyper growth and through university recruiting, help meet these hiring goals and really give the company a solid foundation of early talent to develop from new grad employees to senior employees, director level and above. That’s where we’re out at Duolingo in terms of goals.


[0:07:38.0] RS: Got it. When you say, trying to solve some of the standard challenges, companies face with university and recruiting, what does that mean?


[0:07:45.2] RD: Yeah. I think if you talk to almost any university recruiting professional, there are challenges we all face. First, I think it’s how do we connect with students when the generations are constantly changing. There are super traditional ways to build a university recruiting strategy. It’s partnership with universities, partnerships with career centers, tapping into student groups.


Then there is, “What else can we be doing and what are some of the other creative ways that we can engage with students?” Thinking through social media, thinking through unique types of events that aren’t the same things that we’ve all been doing for years and years and years. What do students actually care about when they’re engaging with you as an employer and then, what’s in it for them, not just the, what’s in it for you as the company.


I think those types of fundamental things are always going to be a challenge to university recruiting because the generations change all the time, right? Just when you think you…


[0:08:47.1] RS: Kids these days.


[0:08:49.0] RD: Yeah, just when you think you’ve figured it out and you’re like, “Oh my God, this is working so well” then the next year, it’s not working and you’re like, “What? What’s going on?”


[0:08:58.1] RS: How agile do you need to be there? Is it like — is it a matter of just trying to understand what these individuals expect in their careers and from a role or do recruiters need to download TikTok?


[0:09:10.2] RD: I actually think it’s both.


[0:09:13.0] RS: Oh no.


[0:09:15.0] RD: I think that — oh no is right. I think that from a strategy perspective, I tend to think that a three-year campus recruiting strategy is the sweet spot with a little bit of flexibility, right? Because students are in a traditional structure. They’re in their programs for between three to four years for undergraduate. I tend to feel like a three-year university recruiting strategy is sufficient and tends to work as a foundation. And then the parts that you need to be super flexible and nimble on are the social media tactics, the creative ways of engaging with students.


It’s kind of a blend of those things. I think you should really focus on building a foundation and then figure out where you should be flexible and where you really want to be able to adjust quickly based on the newest platform that comes up that the candidates are trying to engage with are using.


[0:10:08.1] RS: Got it. I’m curious how you go about interacting with universities. When you decide, “Okay, we’re going to prioritize engaging with underrepresented pools of talent” right? We want to look further back in the candidate journey to encourage these pools of talent to be more representative. When you go about, how do we get in front of these students in a creative way, how do you do that? I know, kind of a giant, open ended question but just thinking beyond, showing up at the career fair with a booth. What does an impactful and effective university recruiting strategy look like?


[0:10:46.3] RD: Yup, it’s a really good question and I think it’s the million-dollar question but what we focused on this year from – especially in a virtual world, so also thinking about how much university recruiting especially has changed going virtual. When reality is, pre-pandemic, I think a lot of companies and universities were dabbling in virtual recruiting but it wasn’t the new thing. We were all still doing the road shows every fall, we’re able to get in front of students, we were, it was a lot easier to engage with students in a really exciting way because you’re in person and you can do fun things, right?


Virtual has really – it’s opened up a lot of doors for us but at first, it was a huge challenge. What’s on top of mind for us outside of some of the traditional ways of engaging with students and by traditional, I mean, career fairs, tech talks and in booth sessions, recruiter resume workshops.

We have taken an approach of, that’s all good but a lot of people do that, a lot of companies do that. Career centers offer their services well which is great, we love our career center partners. What can we do to showcase our culture and actually build awareness of who we are as a company?


I think Duolingo also has such a great brand as a product. It’s constantly like, there are humans behind this product but then it’s like, what do these humans do and what it’s actually like to work here? We are doing a lot of different types of events in terms of engaging with our culture and the people outside of just function specific expertise. 


For example, we hosted a big event last week, two weeks ago that was called, Discover Duolingo Day and it was focused on engaging with students from computer science backgrounds. The majority of our roles are software engineering roles and we invited students from 30 plus universities instead of what we usually do, where it’s only engage with one university and have a school specific event and we had a bunch of different programming for that. 


We started the session off or the event of with a yoga session and yoga is part of our culture. We have a club yoga, we have lots of employee clubs so we’re basically like, “Hey, club yoga. Do you want to do this virtual yoga session with these students?” and the students loved it, right?


[0:13:12.1] RS: Cool, yeah.


[0:13:12.1] RD: We did things like breakout sessions, we did an employee resource group fair, we did all sorts of different meet and greets through a platform called Gather town. We’re trying to use different platforms; we’re trying to use different types of engaging programming to get people excited and not feel like they’re just learning what they could probably learn on our website, so that’s one example.


[0:13:36.1] RS: Yeah, I love that. Where does that begin though? I mean, I love the programming and the content you’ve put together and in terms of just offering something to the students that is a little more interesting than like you say, your careers page, who do you call? Where do you start at the university to be like, “Hey, we want to do a yoga session for students in this particular major” how do you even get this process going? 


[0:14:00.3] RD: Yeah, so we engage with universities in a few different types of ways. We have core universities, so these are the schools that we’ve historically seen success from, we’ve engaged with year over year. We have great relationships with their career center professionals and the way we built those relationships is really just reaching out and saying, “Here’s who we are, here is what we do and here’s what’s in it for your students.” 


I think the root of everything in recruiting is influence and the “what’s in it for me” so whoever you’re talking to it’s all about making sure there’s value for them, right? Career centers want to place their students at great companies, so if you position this as not why I want to come and I want to do this and I want to that, it’s like, “Here’s what’s in it for your students, here’s the type of internship program we have and we convert our interns into new grad hires and full-time hires and we would love to partner with you.” 


“We would love to chat and see how we can help you and you can help us”, so it is all about relationship building with the career centers and then from there, there is also grassroots components. A lot of research into once you figure out what universities you want to go to, what student groups makes sense for you to engage with. Again, when you are reaching out to them it’s the “what’s in it” for them not just, “Here’s a job posting and send this to your students if they want to apply, let them know to apply.” 


It’s like, “Hey, we actually want to get to know you. We want to invest in your club or student group. Here is what we can offer, we can work together. We would love to chat with you more on what your students are looking for or what they want to see or what would interest them” so it is all about relationship building and understanding how you cannot only benefit the students but make it mutually beneficial, so that’s where we start. 


We also have a few different platforms we use to send out email campaigns just like you would do in a marketing campaign targeting specific segments and populations of students to share these events to pretty much promote them, get students to RSVP and get them excited. I would say to sum it up, it is relationship building and then a little bit of that marketing to spread the word and have a higher touch. 


[0:16:12.0] RS: Yeah, makes sense and going back to the DENI piece. It strikes me that even in emphasizing that focus to your context at the university, say they’re amenable to it, you’re going to run into the same problem that one does in your just other sourcing efforts with regards to diversity, which is that like it’s only going to be as representative as the pipeline in the university. 


However well they have done at encouraging underrepresented individuals to become students, that’s how well they can do at forwarding you underrepresented candidates, right? How do you consult with these companies and try and get in front of individuals so as to make your pipeline more representative in the event where a university may not be any better at encouraging diversity at their school than most companies are in encouraging them among their workforce? 


[0:17:08.2] RD: Yep, it’s a good question. It’s a tough question and we have dabbled in a bunch of different things to see what could work for Duolingo and we actually just launched a new program this past summer called the Duolingo Thrive Program and the reason we launched this program is exactly what you said, is that we are only as good as the students who are in the programs and are graduating with the degrees. 


If the talent is not there, the talent is not there. But then we sought to understand, why isn’t the talent there, right? We see all these numbers from universities on, “You know, we have 50% gender balance in our incoming freshman class for computer science.” Automatically, one would think, “Oh, I’m going to go recruit there” but what we don’t see is the number of graduating students and that balance, right? Then it’s like, “Ah”…


[0:18:03.0] RS: Can I interject quickly? It’s like it’s the same as the problem of like diversity reporting in companies too, where it’s like, “We are so thrilled to announce that 54% of our company is female” and it’s like, “Cool, how many of them have a VP in front of their title? How many have a C in front of their title? What percent is that?” It’s probably a lot lower than 54% so it is the same problem, right? It is just like over reporting or misleading data that you have to double click into.


[0:18:26.1] RD: Yep, exactly right and I think the intent, I mean the intent is great, right? You are getting the students there and that’s step one but it’s getting the students through the program. 


What we were thinking about is why do these numbers change so dramatically and what we found and what we heard and after talking to and doing the research, talking to employees, talking to other university recruiting professionals, talking to schools as well and some of the larger organizations that focus on increasing representation and programs like rewriting the code, which is for women identifying students in computer science. 


The number one reason students from underrepresented groups end up not graduating with a degree in computer science — there are a few things. One is they lack a sense of belong, right? That is a hard thing when you go into college and you don’t see anybody else who looks like you in your program, so that is one of the reasons. And then they have a lack of access to opportunities. 


A lot of students whether they’re first gen students or they’re from an underrepresented group, they are also working their way through college. So, they are not able to go to these evening events because they are working a job so that they can pay for their tuition and then I think also you know, there is also a component of because of all of these factors, they also are trying to keep up with their grades and focus on their academics, which is also hard when you think about all of these things. 


Because of that, we thought how do we actually get to the root of the problem and we want to create a program that helps with these things, so we want to create access to opportunities within tech. We want to build a sense of community and belonging and then we also want to help financially, so how do we do that? We’re doing that through the Duolingo Thrive Program, which is an early identification internship program for students from computer science. 


We are also launching it this summer in design, we are expanding it and it is 10 weeks and basically the whole goal of this program is to have these students experience what it’s like in working at Duolingo and also getting experience to a sense of community. We have such an incredible employee base, we have a diverse employee base. Building that sense of belonging, helping them build their skills and then ultimately, as part of an incentive for them to continue throughout their programs there is also a scholarship component there too. 


This program has been kind of I think our deepest attempt for lack of a better term of solving the systemic issue of why these students, why there are fewer and why their graduating numbers look so different, so that’s the approach we’ve been taking this year at least. 


[0:21:18.1] RS: Yeah, the approach you were taking I think is the advanced one and the correct one because the alternative is — you hear this all the time that sourcing for underrepresented talent is hard, right? They represent a lower amount of the candidate base and there is a debate, separate debate but let’s assume that’s true for the sake of this argument. Let’s assume that that is true. 


Okay, if that is what you believe then what are you doing to change that to make the talent pool more representative and you have to go all the way back, right? You have to go to either like bootcamps or you have to go this American academic factory that is churning out workers, right? Who are they turning out? How far back can we go? I would argue you can’t go back far enough. I think you can go back to high school or go back to middle school. 


Have you ever thought of like you could be a software engineer when you grow up? Go back to like is there a children’s book that’s software engineering in you like the magical princess learns Python, you know? That can go out to everyone and show people that that’s a reliable result for you and so, as far back as we can go in this talent pipeline, pre-funnel, pre-pre-pre-pre-funnel that is how you start to see meaningful change as opposed to just what’s happening at large. 


Which is just competing for the same individuals, right? Trying to find more ways to be more competitive for the same small set of people who are currently in the talent pool.


[0:22:47.2] RD: Yeah, and you hit the nail on the head there because that is exactly what the approach three years ago before any thought of these early access programs existed. It was, “Okay, we’re going to spend all of our time targeting the same student groups and the same small populations as every other company and we’re going to compete with them for talent and hope it turns out differently and hope we win” right? 


Which it didn’t work and it wasn’t a good way to spend our time or the student’s time. It is overwhelming for the students and I think again, it goes back into the, what’s in it for me and what’s in it for the student? Even if at the end of the day they don’t end up at Duolingo full-time, which obviously that’s our goal, we want them there. We think they’re incredible and especially you know, after they’ve spent several summers with us but we are doing this to better STEM and to increase representation. 


I think it is hard if you have a small team or you don’t have the resources at your company to be able to just stand up a program like that but I think a long term, if you are talking the long view as we say at Duolingo, the long view is getting the problem at root and trying to solve it overtime versus constantly trying to build a solution at top of funnel for just in time hiring. 


[0:24:14.1] RS: Yes, so is it too soon to report on some of the outcomes of the thrive program or has there been any meaningful impact you can share with us? 


[0:24:23.1] RD: Yeah, it is not too soon and I am super excited to share the impact and the outcome, so we started small. I mean, we’re still a fairly small company in terms of some of the tech giants that you have out there, right? Our inaugural cohort, which was summer 2021, we had eight thrivers and to date, we offered all eight to come back and join us in our graduating internship program and seven out of eight have accepted their offers to come back. 


[0:24:53.1] RS: Amazing. 


[0:24:54.1] RD: Yeah, and even the impact I think on the company, outside of just the program and the projects, it really helped just amplify voices I think at Duolingo. It helps build leaders, those who helped us with the program from the functional side are software engineers and those who taught courses to these students and I really think it amplified a lot of things outside of just the actual internship program itself. 


I think it was a great thing for our culture and a great thing that we hope to invest in long term and like I said, we are growing it this year so we will have software engineering drivers as well as design drivers. 


[0:25:36.2] RS: I love it. Well, I’m glad to hear that. I know you probably have big ideas and great expectations and that you know, eight offers and seven hires is probably only the start but it is a great start and it is a proof point, right? It works, people are hungry for this kind of program and it can actually result in hires and cultivate the kind of results you want. I am really pleased to hear that it is working and that it’s happening at all. 


We are however creeping up on optimal podcast length here Renee, so at this point, I would just say thank you so much for being here and sharing all about your university recruiting approach and the thrive program. I think there is loads here that the listenership can take and immediately apply into their own university efforts, so thank you so much for being here. I really loved chatting with you today. 


[0:26:18.1] RD: Absolutely Rob, thank you so much. It was my pleasure.




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