WhiteHat Jr. Lawsuit, Pradeep Poonia Interview, and Unethical Tactics

BYJU’S, which is one of India’s most famous online learning platforms, has its own coding platform known as WhiteHat Jr. The coding platform prepares kids aged 6-14 by teaching them coding through online classes taught individually. WhiteHat Jr was a mere 18-month-old startup that was acquired by BYJU’S in an all-cash deal worth $300 Mn. The company was founded in 2018 by the ex-CEO of Discovery Networks Karan Bajaj. The company claims to have a revenue run rate of $150 Mn and has raised $11 Mn from investors like Nexus Venture Partners, Omidyar Network India, and Owl Ventures, who is also an investor in BYJU’S.

WhiteHat Jr, which is based in India, also branched out its ventures in the United States early this year and claimed to be growing at more than 100% MoM in the US. It also recently announced plans to grow globally in countries like Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand after its great success in the US one-to-one coding classes. The acquisition of BYJU’S helped WhiteHat Jr with its investments in technology platforms, product innovation, and expanding the teacher base to match the demands.

The EdTech business is growing fast, and the success of WhiteHat Jr could be all to their decision of making the right choices, which root their revenue run rate from $12 Million to what it is now. This success story of WhiteHat Jr also has twists and turns of the Indian startup culture, which could sometimes be devoid of ethical practices in the business world. Surprisingly WhiteHat Jr has been accused with quite a few of them.

The two sides of the same coin

WhiteHat Jr maybe just upfront on how a startup company in India can make it big through its investments and recognition, but it has a darker side to what it brings to the table. Along with a number of inexperienced teachers (as seen on the video by DrunkenEngineer) and savvy marketing tactics that amplify to extremes what the company has to offer, WhiteHat Jr also has a share in misleading ads, alleged mistreatment of former employees, and many more which are just the ones that have surfaced.

WhiteHat Jr and its struggle with criticism.

Many startups in India use harsh methods to maintain their reputation in the business world and to deceive the public by running misleading ads. WhiteHat Jr is one which weaponised the internet platforms to bring down anyone who has an adverse opinion on the company or their product right away, which clearly violates the freedom of speech a person has the rights to, one of which is Pradeep Poonia, whose interview, we will be sharing later on in the post. While questioned WhiteHat Jr any interference in but that could also be one of the lies that the company lives with.

On the company’s Slack channel, a member from the ORM team asked their colleagues to allegedly report a Facebook post that criticized them. The post by Miah Drew, which read “13 texts, 7 emails, 2 WhatsApps and a phone call in less than 12 hours” by the WhiteHat Jr “The ‘tutor’ was a young girl, about 18 sat in a bedroom based in India with children running in the background. She was rude and abrupt, not very good with children” she added. Drew then stopped the class and blocked WhiteHat Jr on all media platforms, and called them an absolute scam.

Just like the many reported comments and posts, WhiteHat Jr removed this one too. WhiteHat Jr has been accused of numerous cases of deleting negative comments, unprofessional behavior, inexperienced teachers, and stalking, pestering potential customers by spam calls and messages.

Has advertising gone too far?

One other scam and the most famous one by WhiteHat Jr is their marketing scam, which took over the internet as not just an unethical way of marketing and advertising but the ethical morals of human beings and deceiving others. One of their popular advertisements features Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet Inc, which questions that if the products are endorsed by him or if they are a part of Google. Spoiler alert, they are not. The marketing team went rogue from using videos and images of other famous personalities such as Bill Gates (With the tagline Coder at age 7, CEO at 21), Steve Jobs, and even Elon Musk in a few of their promotions.

An advertisement by WhiteHat Jr. claiming to be Microsoft CEO at the age of 21.

This reached the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI), which is a self-regulatory body, to pull down five of its advertisements, which were in violation of the advertising code for making dubious and unsubstantiated.

The ads feature a 7-year-old as a TEDx speaker and an app developer.

The ad featuring 7-year-old TEDx speaker Hiranya Rajani.

The ASCI received 15 complaints against seven advertisements by the company, in which five of them were in potential violation of the ASCI Code. WhiteHat Jr agreed to immediately withdraw these advertisements when ASCI intervened”.

It was during the IPL season in which WhiteHat Jr went on an advertising spree that flooded the internet and received a lot of trolling and critiques from netizens.

The impersonation scam

WhiteHat Jr. had also been accused of impersonating a school kid to attend their competitors’ trial class, which is an unethical way to understand and copy the model of their teaching. The coding for kids platform named Tekie had allegedly accused WhiteHat Jr of impersonating a sixth-grade student to attend a trial class by Tekie.

The co-founder of the company, when talking to Inc42, shared that the class took place on October 19, 2020, where the student allegedly said that the camera was not working and continued the session without the video. The demo video was shared by Tekie on LinkedIn, which shows the alleged act of impersonation. The suspicion arose when the student turned their camera off, and the voice sounded like a 30-year-old adult. The alleged student was said to be screen-recording the session, an email window with WhiteHat Jr work email signed in, and responding to two different names.

Tekie claimed to have called the student from a general number asking if they were speaking to Saurabh from WhiteHat Jr., to which the person replied yes. According to the company, it was the same voice from the trial session.

The lawsuit against Pradeep Poonia

In a recent update, Karan Bajaj of the WhiteHat Jr. has filed a defamation case worth 20 crores against Pradeep Poonia, which can be seen on the Twitter of Mr. Poonia.

Many have come forward in support of Pradeep, from which we are sharing some below, along with an exclusive interview.

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Interview with Pradeep Poonia

In an exclusive interview with Mr. Pradeep Poonia, who is a whistle-blower of the numerous scams that WhiteHat Jr. he explained the effect of companies like WhiteHat Jr. have on our society and the ethical morals that we lack in startups. The text in the interview is unedited and directly taken from the interview of Pradeep Poonia. (Q: question; P: Mr. Pradeep)

Q: What’s your opinion on their marketing strategy, which pushes consumers to purchase their product, and what led to their major success?

P: They are creating a FOMO amongst parents, making them feel if their kids won’t enroll right now, the kids won’t get a job in the future. Basically, they are misusing the tough situation we Indians are in right now. Job opportunities are getting less each year, and that’s what WhiteHatJr and BYJU’S are encashing upon. Also, they are trying very aggressively to enroll as many students as possible before the schools open. 

Q: Do you think their scam was a failure of their marketing team or one of their tricks?

P: Not just marketing this scam was always doomed to fail. Their product in itself doesn’t add any value to anyone’s education. What they are selling is out there for free already. They are basically selling canned air. Their teachers are underqualified; their curriculum is unresearched; in fact, they still haven’t made a curriculum for their entire classes. So not even a single student has done their entire course by now, hence no Proof of Concept. How do we know if these 1:1 coding cram lessons would do any benefit to kids even if they are done right? Logic and argumentative attitude can’t be crammed; it’s something kids learn on their own by trial and experiments, by playing outside. Also, their course assumes all kids would learn at exact same speed, and the exact same examples would make the concepts clear for every kid across the world. And we all know that everyone’s learning speed is different. And we all new different examples to understand concepts. Examples that would make sense for you might not work on me, based on maybe our different geographical locations or financial conditions, or cultural differences. 

WhiteHat Jr has some scripts; for each lecture, teachers are given step by step instructions on how and what to say to the kid. This is not teaching; this is, to be honest, BS.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this expose?

P: After graduation, I worked in tech in Cisco as a software engineer. Then I moved to edTech, thinking I would do some good in the education sector in 2017. There I was, the CEO openly saying things like “we are here to make money, not education,” which made me really disappointed with edTech, and I thought I couldn’t make any difference here. 

So I left that job also and started preparing for UPSC Civils. I was still doing that until I saw WhiteHat Jr. ads, and from the tech experience I had, and from a little experience I had in edTech, I instantly knew this was a big MLM scam.

Q: Are other institutions doing and carrying out an operation in the same method?

P: To some extent, yes, this has been going on for a long time, in my opinion. But WhiteHatJr just crossed ALL the limits, setting very dangerous precedence to others edTechs as well. If this scam isn’t shut down, sooner or later, others will also follow suit, and this whole edTech circus would become ‘normal,’ ‘ese hi chalta hai is desh me.’ We might reach a point of no return. Hence what I am doing had to be done from stopping them from ruining our entire next generations just so that some few VCs could make some quick billions. 

Q: Is extensive funding the reason behind the misleading ads and false teaching staff?

P: Yes, the money which BYJU’S is funding into this WhiteHat Jr scam is obviously helping them to push their ads and get the VCs big returns as early as possible. But I have seen their internal chats; this WhiteHat Jr was playing with false advertisements from the initial months itself. These Wolf Gupta kind of ads are not new ads; this is what they were playing last year as well. What makes me wonder is that Why BYJU’S bought this company for $300 million, knowing the kind of pathetic product they had and all the false marketing they were using to push that product. 

Q: Do you think WhiteHat Jr’s Misleading Ads should have been published on national news to make parents aware?

P: Yes, media now should show the reality behind these ads. But they all are ignoring this issue. BYJU’S is paying them money to not print or make videos about this issue. In fact, even after I got threats from the WhiteHat Jr team, journalists kept ignoring the issue. They just stopped replying to my messages.

Q: How do you feel about their growth in other countries, such as the Philippines?

P: India would be called a land of scammers, and we would have to accept it. What answers would we have when foreigners would call Indians scammers? Our government is not putting a stop to this WhtieHat Jr, media is helping them out to spread more, and people are sleeping. We all would get the blame. 

Q: Is forcing kids’ into coding a new normal after engineering and doctor?

P: Yes. I remember around 10 years ago when I was in Kota, Rajasthan studying in Bansal Classes, the tread was for engineering. EVERYONE was running after PMC (physics, chemistry, and Maths). What did India get out of that frenzy? Lakhs and lakhs of below average and many unemployable engineers. And, in turn, a burden on the entire nation. The same would happen to these kids who are learning ‘block coding’ from scams like WhiteHat Jr. 

Q: What do you think would be the negative effect of startups like WhiteHat Jr, BYJU’S, and Jaro on the Indian education system?

P: I feel this would result in the entire generation facing depression as teenagers. WhiteHat Jr is selling pipe dreams of jobs with salaries as high as 150 crores, and that too at the age of 13! six-year-old kids are so innocent if you tell them there is a ghost under their bed, they would believe it for real. How would they understand WhiteHat Jr’s gimmicks? Let kids be kids and let them enjoy their childhood at least.

We all must have gone through rabbit holes of pipe dreams at some point in our lives. We must try to imagine how these pipe dreams of 150 crore salaries would burst on 13-year-old kids? Won’t that take them into depression? Teenage age is a difficult age for some kids, and over top of it, if such pipe dreams get shattered over a kid. I can’t imagine how they would handle this. We all have seen many kids each year ending their lives because of silly tags like IIT and NEET exams. 

What WhiteHat Jr has done is crossed ALL the ethical lines in all directions to make money; they have no intentions to spread any kind of education. The ones who do care about education are providing their products and lectures for free. Everything is available for free over the internet. The first thing which must be taught to kids in terms of tech or computers is to HOW TO GOOGLE SEARCH, how to find free and good sources of education material, also how to differentiate between fake and real news as once deep fake videos becomes more normal the amount of fake news would grow exponentially even from the point where we are now. So google search is something which sounds very trivial, but most people still don’t understand the magic and beauty of the internet. Some 20,000 years ago, the most essential skill set must have been how to make fire, and then it must have been hunting, then farming. Now it’s how to search on the internet what you need and not live on gamified algorithms developed by some company that just wants to make money and doesn’t care about your mental health.