What India’s most controversial ed-tech entrepreneur would do differently next time

Push and pull.
Push and pull.
Image: WhiteHat Jr
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Two-year-old coding-for-kids startup WhiteHat Jr became all the rage in India last year when it launched a multimillion-dollar advertising blitzkrieg, flooding television screens and digital media. It was hard to miss the commercials, some of which claimed the company’s students—some as young as six—were being chased by global investors and bagging jobs at Google because of the skills they’d acquired through WhiteHat Jr classes.

The campaign was a big success: WhiteHat Jr said its revenue run rate—extrapolating an annual revenue figure based on one month’s actual revenue—ballooned from just $75 million (Rs546 crore) in June to $220 million in August. That same month, the company solidified its status as a startup success story when it was acquired by India’s largest ed-tech unicorn, Byju’s, for $300 million in cash.

However, the very content that brought WhiteHat Jr to dizzying heights ultimately returned to haunt it. In October 2020, the Advertising Standard Council of India deemed some WhiteHat Jr’s commercials “misleading” and asked for them to be taken down. Then, the company that prided itself on creating jobs for hoards for educated women who weren’t represented in India’s workforce revealed toxic holes in its workplace culture.

Despite the setbacks, WhiteHat Jr has kept its eye on the prize. The company is preparing to introduce multiple subjects and has international expansion on its mind. Yet, it’s hard to ignore what happened with the company in 2020. So, Quartz took some accusations straight to CEO Karan Bajaj.

Below are the edited excerpts from the conversation:

The marketing mishap

Your initial marketing placed an absurd amount of emphasis on employability for very young kids. What’s your take on that now?

I’ve been very open in saying we should not have done it. But we also have to look at the relative proportionality of the data. We are talking about five or eight pieces of creatives an intern did among 900 pieces that are all about building things. When everything else in the marketplace was about prep and jobs, we went the other route—about the kid’s creative potential. The more kids become aware of tech right from the early days, they start to think of tech as a tool to build versus to consume.

Overpriced, poorly structured courses

Some believe the courses are overpriced, especially since much of the material is available for free on sites like code.org and Unacademy. What’s your response?

That’s like saying, there are books available so why do we need a school at all? Why do we have a teacher? It’s comparing completely opposite delivery systems. We construct the entire curriculum on top of code.org, and we use Google DialogFlow and so many other software. The real value that’s being added is both in the creation of the curriculum, as well as the teachers who are teaching it. All of it is completely our own innovative IP.

Under-qualified teachers

The company’s ads even emphasise that teachers don’t need any coding knowledge, and many do not have a background in coding. Are all your teachers qualified to teach coding to kids?

We have very clearly said that for grades 1-3, we need a very strong mathematical, logical backgrounds. We don’t need coding syntax experience. They use block-based coding. (Picking from drop-down menus or drag-and-drop.) For grades 4-12, we go for coding backgrounds. Since 30% of our kids are in grades 1-3 and 70% in grades 4-12, 30% of our teachers have math and science backgrounds, and 70% have coding expertise.

Scripted classes

Two people who interviewed for teacher positions alleged the company gives under-qualified staff readymade scripts and if the student asks anything slightly out of the syllabus, teachers sometimes struggle to answer. Is it true that teachers are mugging up scripts to teach classes and aren’t able to problem-solve in real-time?

There’s a learning management system (LMS) for every teacher for each and every class. It’s not like a marketplace where you can just come and take a class. We get about 10,000-12,000 applications a day. There is a phone recruitment process. And there is a first demo, a second demo, a third demo, and a fourth demo. After that, they have to go through a certification. And they have to go through all classes—go through quizzes and variations of the code and clear the full certification. And for every class that a teacher takes on the platform, she has to go through the same exercises again. The LMS has like 13,000 hours of content overall.

Misleading sales pitch

WhiteHat sales designation
A made up role.
Image: Source

A former sales manager told Quartz that WhiteHat Jr encouraged her and her peers to use random designations (job titles), which should be authoritative, like director or co-founder. She used “head of student operations” (as shown in the e-mail screenshot). Does the company encourage employees to sell with false promises?

The idea is obviously to create a very ethical sales culture. And we put up all of the systems we can to do that. For sales, for example, a tool records every call, and misselling words have been put into the software. When you say things like “discount” when we don’t give discounts, or somebody says “we have a tie-up with MIT”—we know these are common false promises—that’s fed into the system so that the moment a misleading word is used, there is an audit flag. We have a 17 member audit team. For any call that is flagged as a misselling call, there is an immediate audit is done and action taken. Misselling is a fireable offense.

Poor work-life balance

Several people Quartz spoke to said they had to log in for 14-17 hours each day, and were not given leaves for months on end. Are your employees overworked and deprived of leaves?

We have Darwin Box, which is an HR tool, where you log in and you log out the time. And that’s an employee-led tool, not manager-led. We follow the shifts policy as laid by the government to the tee. Secondly, there is an anonymous HR help desk where you can email us.

Something that’s not talked about, which we did very early in our journey, is employee counselling. We are a women-oriented company with 11,000 teachers and 40% of 5,000 non-teaching payroll employees also being female. All policies have been very well defined right from the start from POSH (prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace) to maternity. I would say, the work-life balance question is more about the ambiguity of the role rather than the number of hours. I think that experimentation plays more on people’s minds because there are constant changes that happen in a startup trying to find the right model.

Not so female-friendly?

Current and former employees say the lack of women at the top is affecting the company’s culture, security, and policies. A handful has complained of being subject to sexist remarks, derogatory comments, and racist overtones at the company. At least two people said they knew women who were denied the government-mandated six-month maternity leave. What do you have to say for critics of the work culture at WhiteHat Jr?

It’s the law of numbers. If I was running a 10-person shop, finding three disgruntled employees would be difficult. With thousands of people, you can find three to create a false narrative. And this is the problem of hacking and putting things in the public. You can look at one out of 8,000 messages without knowing the action taken in that period itself. Systems are set up and actions have been taken already.

Learning from past mistakes

What has the biggest learning over the last year been for you?

You learn how to lead in a crisis. I’ve grown a lot as a person in this whole startup experience. The fact of going from zero to a couple hundred million dollar company in 18-20 months very fast. A startup is very focussed at the beginning on product quality. My focus was very high on teacher quality, curriculum quality, student experience, and student operation. I think an equal focus should be paid on legal compliance, marketing, HR—things at that point that are not burning fires. Next time I do a company, I would put equal emphasis on those right at the beginning.