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The Tech Wizard Who Wants The World To Learn Swahili

Know those annoying CAPTCHA tests you have to do when creating online accounts? Luis von Ahn invented them. Now, he wants to see Swahili spoken around the world.

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Luis von Ahn looks like a tech-guru who has made millions – casually-dressed, subtle and polite.

I meet the inventor and CEO of the world’s largest language app, Duolingo, the day before the launch of the app’s first African language, Swahili.

For Von Ahn, the road to introducing Swahili to the 150 million users of his educational language app has been long, and has taken him around the world since leaving his homeland Guatemala.

A son of two medical doctors, graduating from Guatemala City’s international school, Von Ahn had to look outside the Central American country to find education – a university that offered math degrees – perhaps inspiring him to create a universal educational tool later in life.

During the first year of his PhD studies at the prestigious Duke University in the United States, a particular talk would influence and shape his life.

“The chief scientist of Yahoo came to give a talk about 10 things they needed solutions for. They struggled with people creating Yahoo email accounts to send spam. That led me to do a test recognizing humans: CAPTCHA. We were online within six months,” says Von Ahn.

This stroke of genius did not make Von Ahn a dime, he says.

“I don´t regret it, because everyone started using it; all kinds of people started approaching me.”

As tech giants lined up to court the CAPTCHA inventor, then 29-year-old Von Ahn was thinking about his next step.

“Two hundred million CAPTCHAs were typed a day, it takes about 10 seconds, that’s 500,000 hours of typing every day, how could I use that?” he asks, revealing how he turned the thousands of hours into an efficient digitalization tool.

Digitalizing books were trending, but no one had cracked the code on how to efficiently publish them yet.

“Google was trying to do this,” says Von Ahn.

“A computer scans a page that needs deciphering, which computers could not do at that time.”

Pictures of words from books are put online as CAPTCHAs, humans then decipher it, and the computer then saves it.

“Today, we call this crowdsourcing,” Von Ahn says, smiling.

“It worked. We were probably doing a year of the New York Times in a week. Then Google bought it, and today CAPTCHA digitalizes 100 million words a day, which is two million books a year,” says Von Ahn, explaining how, if you have filled in a CAPTCHA since 2007, you are probably among the billion people who have helped.

The sale of the CAPTCHA business has never been disclosed, but Von Ahn admits that it did make him millions. After that adventure, 37-year-old Von Ahn wanted to focus on education.

“I wanted to work on something passion-driven, and we decided on languages because there are 1.2 billion people learning languages, and language has impact: learn English, and you can immediately make more money.”

Eyeing a massive hole in the market, Von Ahn threw himself into making Duolingo.

Alongside Swiss PhD student Severin Hacker (that is his real name), Von Ahn started creating a website.

“That’s what people did,” he says.

The app market was only just launching in 2011, but that was all about to change.

“We raised $3 million of funding and launched in 2012. A few months later we launched apps, and now there are more than 150 million using it,” Von Ahn says proudly.

The main income generator is the app’s online language tests, an alternative to the traditional TOEFL tests that measure your ability to use and understand English.

“The TOEFL tests are expensive, slow and have to be done manually at centers. This is much cheaper,” says Von Ahn, offering tests at $50, whereas a TOEFL is about $250.

“We have already got about 30 universities on board,” he says.

Targeting Africa seems like a good idea, as the number of smartphone connections has almost doubled since 2014, and the cost of buying a smartphone has dropped by more than 25% since 2012. According to reports, more than 500 million on the continent currently subscribe to mobile services, with mobile operators expecting numbers to reach 725 million in 2020.

“The lack of smartphones is the main challenge, but everyone is trying to grow here, like Facebook, so that will change,” says Von Ahn.

Founder of numerous African tech start-ups, Ndubuisi Ekekwe, has stayed clear of any app-based business.

“Most smartphones sold in Africa fail to download and install apps from apps stores,” he says, explaining how in Africa, phones are used for a longer period of time before being replaced, making the phones unable to handle many apps.

“Americans can upgrade their phones annually and that is in line with most app upgrades. But in Africa, people use their phones for more than three years,” says Ekekwe. “We do not see a roadmap for how that can be closed, and that is why I do not see a market for apps in Africa for a long time.”

Von Ahn is not too worried though.

“I recognize that in six years apps might not even exist, but right now I think we’re okay,” he says, convinced of his, and Duolingo’s, ability to adapt.

The app’s current mission is to introduce Swahili to its 150 million users. Judging by the waiting list of 45,000 users, he is probably right.

Entrepreneurs

Leaving Airplane Middle Seats Empty Could Cut Coronavirus Risk Almost In Half, A Study Says

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A new research paper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that blocking out the middle seat on airplanes could cause the likelihood of passengers being infected with coronavirus to drop by nearly half, just as some airlines are starting to book flights to capacity again.

KEY FACTS

  • According to the MIT paper (which has not been peer reviewed) the chances of catching coronavirus from a nearby passenger on a full airplane when all coach seats are filled is about 1 in 4,300.
  • However, those odds drop to 1 in 7,700 when all the middle seats on board are left empty, the paper states.
  • Taking into account a 1% mortality rate according to the statistical model, the likelihood of dying from a coronavirus case contracted on a plane is far more likely than dying in a plane crash, which has odds of about 1 in 34 million, the paper stated. 
  • In “Covid-19 Risk Among Airline Passengers: Should the Middle Seat Stay Empty?” the author of the study, Arnold Barnett, wrote that his analysis aims to be “a rough approximation” of the risks involved in flying during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • “The airlines are setting their own policies but the airlines and the public should know about the risk implications of their choices,” Barnett told ZDNet this week.
  • The paper comes just as more flight carriers, like American Airlines, begin booking flights to full capacity despite surges of the virus across the country. 

KEY BACKGROUND

The coronavirus pandemic has been disastrous for the travel industry, and has especially hurt airlines. Major American carriers including American, Delta and United have asked employees to take buyouts and early retirement, Forbes reported, in a bid to cut costs as the pandemic causes them to bleed cash. United Airlines warned this week that it could be forced to furlough 36,000 jobs, or nearly half of its American workers, starting in October if travel doesn’t pick up. In April, the airline estimated that in the first quarter it lost $2.1 billion pre-tax, Forbes reported, and was losing $100 million a day in the last half of March. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said in May he expects a major airline to go out of business in 2020 as a result of pandemic pressure.

NEWS PEG

American Airlines announced two weeks ago it would begin booking middle seats again starting in July, although the carrier will allow passengers to switch from a full flight without any extra cost, Forbes reported. United is also selling tickets for middle seats. American Airlines took flak earlier this month when Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) tweeted a picture of his crowded flight

WHAT TO WATCH

If airlines continue to extend their policy of keeping middle seats blocked off or if they’ll be forced to book to capacity to turn a profit. Southwest and Delta have both committed to keeping their middle seats blocked off until at least the end of September, while JetBlue will do the same through July, according to the Washington Post.

Carlie Porterfield, Forbes Staff, Business

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From The Arab World To Africa

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Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi; image supplied

In this exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA, successful Dubai-based Emirati businesswoman, author and artist, Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi, shares some interesting insights on fashion, the future, and feminism in a shared world.

Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi wears many hats, as an artist, architect, author, entrepreneur and philanthropist based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She currently serves as the CEO of Paris London New York Events & Publishing (PLNY), that includes a magazine and a fashion house.

She runs Velvet Magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication in the Gulf founded in 2010 that showcases the diversity of the region home to several nationalities from around the world.

In this recent FORBES AFRICA interview, Hend, as she would want us to call her, speaks about the future of publishing, investing in intelligent content, and learning to be a part of the disruption around you.

As an entrepreneur too and the designer behind House of Hend, a luxury ready-to-wear line that showcases exquisite abayas, evening gowns and contemporary wear, her designs have been showcased in fashion shows across the world.

The Middle East is known for retail, but not typically, as a fashion hub in the same league as Paris, New York or Milan. Yet, she has changed the narrative of fashion in the region. “I have approached the world of fashion with what the customer wants,” says Hend. In this interview, she also extols African fashion talent and dwells on her own sartorial plans for the African continent.

In September, in Downtown Dubai, she is scheduled to open The Flower Café. Also an artist using creative expression meaningfully, she says it’s important to be “a role model of realism”.

She is also the author of The Black Book of Arabia, described as a collection of true stories from the Arab community offering a real glimpse into the lives of men and women across the Gulf Cooperation Council region.

In this interview, she also expounds on her home, Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE and the region’s educational hub. “A number of successful entrepreneurs have started in this culturally-rich emirate that’s home to 30 museums,” she concludes. 

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Entertainment

Kim Kardashian West Is Worth $900 Million After Agreeing To Sell A Stake In Her Cosmetics Firm To Coty

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In what will be the second major Kardashian cashout in a year, Kim Kardashian West is selling a 20% stake in her cosmetics company KKW Beauty to beauty giant Coty COTY for $200 million. The deal—announced today—values KKW Beauty at $1 billion, making Kardashian West worth about $900 million, according to Forbes’estimates.

The acquisition, which is set to close in early 2021, will leave Kardashian West the majority owner of KKW Beauty, with an estimated 72% stake in the company, which is known for its color cosmetics like contouring creams and highlighters. Forbes estimates that her mother, Kris Jenner, owns 8% of the business. (Neither Kardashian West nor Kris Jenner have responded to a request for comment about their stakes.) According to Coty, she’ll remain responsible for creative efforts while Coty will focus on expanding product development outside the realm of color cosmetics.

Earlier this year, Kardashian West’s half-sister, Kylie Jenner, also inked a big deal with Coty, when she sold it 51% of her Kylie Cosmetics at a valuation of $1.2 billion. The deal left Jenner with a net worth of just under $900 million. Both Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty are among a number of brands, including Anastasia Beverly Hills, Huda Beauty and Glossier, that have received sky-high valuations thanks to their social-media-friendly marketing. 

“Kim is a true modern-day global icon,” said Coty chairman and CEO Peter Harf in a statement. “This influence, combined with Coty’s leadership and deep expertise in prestige beauty will allow us to achieve the full potential of her brands.”

The deal comes just days after Seed Beauty, which develops, manufactures and ships both KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, won a temporary injunction against KKW Beauty, hoping to prevent it from sharing trade secrets with Coty, which also owns brands like CoverGirl, Sally Hansen and Rimmel. On June 19, Seed filed a lawsuit against KKW Beauty seeking protection of its trade secrets ahead of an expected deal between Coty and KKW Beauty. The temporary order, granted on June 26, lasts until August 21 and forbids KKW Beauty from disclosing details related to the Seed-KKW relationship, including “the terms of those agreements, information about license use, marketing obligations, product launch and distribution, revenue sharing, intellectual property ownership, specifications, ingredients, formulas, plans and other information about Seed products.”

Coty has struggled in recent years, with Wall Street insisting it routinely overpays for acquisitions and has failed to keep up with contemporary beauty trends. The coronavirus pandemic has also hit the 116-year-old company hard. Since the beginning of the year, Coty’s stock price has fallen nearly 60%. The company, which had $8.6 billion in revenues in the year through June 2019, now sports a $3.3 billion market capitalization. By striking deals with companies like KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, Coty is hoping to refresh its image and appeal to younger consumers.

Kardashian West founded KKW Beauty in 2017, after successfully collaborating with Kylie Cosmetics on a set of lip kits. Like her half-sister, Kardashian West first launched online only, but later moved into Ulta stores in October 2019, helping her generate estimated revenues of $100 million last year. KKW Beauty is one of several business ventures for Kardashian West: She continues to appear on her family’s reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, sells her own line of shapewear called Skims and promotes her mobile game, Kim Kardashian Hollywood. Her husband, Kanye West, recently announced a deal to sell a line of his Yeezy apparel in Gap stores.

“This is fun for me. Now I’m coming up with Kimojis and the app and all these other ideas,” Kardashian West told Forbesof her various business ventures in 2016. “I don’t see myself stopping.”

Madeline Berg, Forbes Staff, Hollywood & Entertainment

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