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Mae Mae, 10, who was bullied in nursery school, learned to code with WhiteHat Jr, and built an app to report bullying directly to school authorities.
Mae Mae, 10, who was bullied in nursery school, learned to code with WhiteHat Jr, and built an app to report bullying directly to school authorities.

Getting an army of coders ready for the world

Recently acquired by Byju’s, WhiteHat Jr’s women teachers provide a safe environment for children to learn to code

The best way to deal with a bully in school is to report them to someone in authority. But this is stressful, and often there’s no redressal even when you work up the courage to tell somebody about it.

Mae Mae, who is 10 years old now, was bullied right from nursery in Shillong. “It stopped only after the girl moved to another school after Class 2," she says.

This left a deep impression on her. So last year, when she started learning to code, the first project she took up was to build an app to expose bullies in school. Now the anti-bullying app, which can be downloaded from Google Playstore, helps report harassment instantly to the school principal, teachers, parents and friends.

It was her father, a civil servant in Meghalaya, who introduced Mae Mae to an online coding school for children, WhiteHat Jr, launched last year by a Mumbai startup. “I built the anti-bullying app last December and published it a few months ago. Now I’m making a chatbot and my sister, who is seven, is also learning to code with WhiteHat Jr," says Mae Mae.

Karan Bajaj quit his job as CEO of Discovery Channel to launch the first version of WhiteHat Jr in April 2019. He had $1.3 million in seed funding from Nexus Venture Partners and Omidyar Network. Later in the year, he raised a $10 million series A round to build and scale up the product, although it had paying customers from the outset, spending around $10 for each one-on-one session with a teacher.

Quick acquisition

Five months ago, WhiteHat Jr launched in the US where it caught on fast. “Currently the company is at $150 million annual revenue and 60% of that is from the US. We’re doubling every month," he says.

Monetization and customer acquisition costs have been a challenge for edtech startups in India. Thus, WhiteHat Jr’s revenue run rate within a year of starting operations, with hardly any advertising, is the envy of others in this space. It puts into context last week’s $300 million acquisition of WhiteHat Jr by India’s top-funded edtech player Byju’s.

Bajaj began with the thesis that “kids who are creators of technology will be harbingers of a future generation." He believes traditional schools will find it hard to impart such skills even though India’s new National Education Policy mandates inclusion of coding in the school curriculum. “Tech is constantly evolving, but for schools to have a dynamic curriculum is almost antithetical to how they operate," Bajaj says.

“Empowering children with the right future skills has always been part of our vision at Byju’s and coding fits well into this," said Byju Raveendran, founder of Byju’s, while announcing the acquisition of WhiteHat Jr. Bajaj will continue to lead WhiteHat Jr and its expansion into global markets. But it remains to be seen how the culture of the nimble startup meshes with that of decacorn Byju’s.

Just as with OTT video streaming, the secret to the fast adoption of coding classes lies in the ability to schedule and deliver them at scale with automated systems to handle connectivity and device-related issues. “We do 20,000 live one-on-one classes a day and our algorithms are fine-tuned to a 93% delivery rate when somebody books a class," says Bajaj. “For example, we can predict that when people book free trial classes in India, 60% them will show up. So we overbook the class to ensure the teacher’s time is well-utilized."

From beginner to advanced levels, the curriculum modules and payments are structured for simplicity. You book a slot for a free trial to get a feel of what it’s like, then sign up for a course of 144 classes at whatever level suits you. Each class is a one-hour slot at any time of the day that suits the student-teacher pair.

The product is designed with children in mind. Younger ones find it hard to manage multiple tabs and windows, so the coding interface and teacher’s video open simultaneously with one click.

Coding learner kits from MIT and others have been around for over a decade. The key to the WhiteHat Jr approach is its one-on-one teacher guidance instead of self-serve toolkits or books which are more suited to adult learners.

This involves creating a supply of good coding teachers and scaling that with rigorous processes for selection and training. Currently, there are over 6,000 teachers on the platform with 150 more being onboarded each day, according to Bajaj.

Room for all

Rapid growth in users and revenue has created a virtuous cycle. “Like any two-way platform, you need liquidity at both the demand and supply sides. More students make it more attractive for teachers; the best teachers make it more attractive for students," says Bajaj.

Coding teachers can potentially earn 10 times what they would in their normal jobs. There’s growing demand for them as a number of players have entered the field. This includes other startups like Gurugram-based Camp K12 as well as top-funded edtech startups like Toppr and Vedantu, which recently launched coding.

Bajaj says there’s room for all because the category is nascent. “I’m anticipating that India will become the supply hub for teaching coding to kids all over the world."

What’s more, all the teachers on WhiteHat Jr are women, many of whom dropped out of the workforce to raise children. “The thesis that we operated on is that warmth, compassion and internet safety should be at the heart of the site because we have kids as young as six years old. So we choose only women and train them to become excellent coding teachers for kids," says Bajaj.

Some of the women have a teaching background, but that’s not a prerequisite as the site has learning systems for anybody who demonstrates aptitude. Panzy Saran was an engineer with Wipro when she married an army officer who was posted to new locations every few years. She quit and looked for work-from-home options. “I was sceptical when I came across Whitehat Jr as it sounded too good to be true. But I started in April 2019 and now teach 45-50 hours a week. I’m happy to work from home and earn as much as anybody at a 9-5 IT job," says Saran.

Bajaj himself had an eclectic career after his MBA at IIM-Bangalore in 2002. He worked as a manager for Procter & Gamble before taking a sabbatical to write a novel. Then he switched between management jobs, writing novels, becoming a yoga instructor and launching TV channels, before taking the plunge with WhiteHat Jr. “I think I’m experimentative."

Writing the first novel was transformative because it was a dive into a creative process that begins with a blank page and uncertain outcome. “This startup is particularly aligned to me because my life changed after I wrote my first novel. I’m keen about this idea that kids should build stuff creatively early in their lives," says Bajaj, who is a father of two daughters still too young to start WhiteHat Jr.

Malavika Velayanikal is a consulting editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu.

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