On a balmy Goa afternoon, a tall, thin man in glasses stood a few metres away from me as a bunch of us parents waited for our kids to emerge from the school gate.
This is a small school where children feel no pressure that conventional schools offer, where farming is taught as a subject, where digital literacy is beautifully wrapped around creativity, logic and imagination.
Minutes later, as I drove my seven-year-old daughter back home and she chatted about her day, I recoiled in shock as I slowly realised who the man in the glasses was. The man was called Karan Bajaj, who started the company WhiteHat Jr that sold the fear to millions of parents that if their children do not start coding at ages 4, 5, 6 their futures are ruined. Then he achieved great success and sold his company for $300 million to Byju’s. That man had sent his own children to a school that taught the opposite, where none of this mattered, and was giving his own children a screentime-barred childhood.
Sorry to borrow the name of Ashneer Grover’s recent book, but this is classic Doglapan.
Purely for profits, Karan Bajaj was selling the idea of one kind of education, childhood and parenting to millions of families in India and overseas and was giving his own children the exact opposite. And his business — and many clones that erupted due to his insane success — were causing irreparable damage to the minds and futures of children.
Karan Bajaj is the blue-eyed boy of the world of Indian and global investors. He gave them huge profits and unheard-of exits in a very short period.
Karan Bajaj is, to me, the face of something much larger, much more hypocritical, much more sinister, that is evolving as India takes off in the Startup era: purposewashing.
But he is, to me, the face of something much larger, much more hypocritical, much more sinister, that is evolving as India takes off in the Startup Yug – the Startup era. I began to invent this word to define him and people like him, but I Googled it and realised it had already been created – purposewashing. Rightfully so – it is so rampant now.
Karan Bajaj is the face of purposewashing – building and getting funding for a business only for personal and corporate wealth, never caring about its impact on the lives of real people, but sliding in a purpose in the pitch deck (in this case, empowering women by having them teach coding and bringing a digital revolution by teaching kids) to make it seem like it is for a cause – it is solving a problem, as they love to say while looking at the zeros on the prospective term sheet.
And that makes me ask myself questions: does purpose, and doing good, mean something for businesses and investors or is it just a slide on a pitch deck? And how much should we allow private corporations to mess with education, the minds of children – and their future – by selling fear?
“Have you realised how scary it is that in the time to come, 80% of the present jobs shall not exist?” Bollywood actor Sonu Sood said in one of the WhiteHat Jr. video advertisements by top celebrities.
“I want my children to become creators and in the times to come, I don’t think there is any platform better than coding,” he says into the camera in the advertisement. “Like my child, I want every child of the country to make digital apps on WhiteHat Jr.”
Karan Bajaj was scavenging and building a unicorn by preying on one basal fear of every parent: “What will the future of my child be? I hope my child is not left behind in the future.”
And he did it while throwing the ethics rule book in our faces.
Parents like me have exactly the opposite view on education and childhood as what Karan Bajaj and WhiteHat Jr and its parent Byju’s had sold to the country. I believe that the childhood of children should be full of rich tactile experiences, being outdoors, immersing themselves in imagination through storytelling, music, painting or writing, because this would help their brains with cognitive development that would in critical ways shape their personality and the rest of their lives.
I am not against coding at all – if kids wish to, they definitely should code. I am against forcing kids to code by selling them fear. I am against selling a fear of future doom to parents and children at an age where the neurological development of their brain decides the course of their lives. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention: “The early years of a child’s life are very important for later health and development. One of the main reasons is how fast the brain grows starting before birth and continuing into early childhood. Although the brain continues to develop and change into adulthood, the first 8 years can build a foundation for future learning, health and life success.”
Karan Bajaj sold the idea that kids need to learn coding because this will develop their cognitive skills – the important skills that are used by children’s brains to pay attention, learn, read and remember. Heck, storytelling does all that too, experts will tell you. And singing songs. And practising counting. And asking questions or being offered choices or visiting interesting places.
“The last thing you want to do is to skew the child’s overall ability to one side just because it meets a certain economic goal for someone,” Dr. Aarti Kumar, co-founder of the Community Empowerment Lab in Shivgarh, central Uttar Pradesh, who studies behavior change management among children, told me. Dr. Aarti Kumar has a research background in machine learning and bioinformatics – which brings together computer science, mathematics, physics, and biology.
“You have to allow the child to discover themselves – and every child has an innate motivation that has to be respected. That motivation also has to be discovered,” she said.
Dr. Aarti Kumar and her husband Dr. Vishwajit Kumar have done globally pathbreaking research around newborn children after returning from the United States in 2003 to work out of a village in rural Uttar Pradesh. Their partners include Harvard University and the Johns Hopkins University and their work has been published in some of the world’s most respected scientific journals.
“The way you are marketing it from a negative – like, “you lose out” kind of perspective, you are basically feeding it through a negative self-perception of the child instead of looking at what the child has,” Dr. Kumar told me, as her daughter darted behind her across the screen during the video conversation from her yellow-walled office.
“I think it needs to be scientifically debated – the long-term adverse impact this could have on children. When the video games came, they said they do not have an adverse impact. Now we know that it does impact, this has been scientifically established.”
“I think it needs to be scientifically debated – the long-term adverse impact this could have on children. When the video games came, they said they do not have an adverse impact. Now we know that it does impact, this has been scientifically established,” she said. “It’s very important that we do not allow these kind of interventions too aggressively. Because these are not naïve interventions, these are very smartly designed interventions. Most parents will not have the courage to resist them, they will simply cave in.”
Parents caving in has precisely been the business model of Karan Bajaj.
I don’t want to go into the controversial details of the Karan Bajaj-as-CEO saga in any detail – they are now well documented on the Internet. But even the smallest details reveal the mindset of a person who calls himself a yogi, writes books about mindfulness and virtue and yet whose company lied in advertising campaigns, tried to crack down on dissent with a $2.7 million lawsuit and then backed off by withdrawing the lawsuit. Karan Bajaj had invented a fake child called “Wolf Gupta” and misled parents into believing that their child could also earn crores by coding from such an early age.
The picture above is taken from the website of commentator Karthik Srinivasan, who wrote in his incisive breakdown of the Wolf Gupta fable on his blog:
“Is Wolf Gupta 9, 12, or 13? Why does his life seem like a mirror image of another 9-year-old, Ryan Venkat?
What is his salary at Google – Rs. 1.2 crores or 20 crores? Or, was it Rs. 150 crores from Google Video?
These are inconclusive as the company seems to be using the details of this child in a muddled way primarily because he doesn’t exist and is a figment of WhiteHat Jr’s imagination.
That, in itself, is not wrong. After all, advertisements feature assorted models spouting various things about the products or services being sold and we see them with that context – that is, the piece of advertising is a make-believe communication intended to show us a use-case. It is supposed to help us put ourselves in the shoes of the model and think of us as potential buyers too, at some point.
The trouble in the WhiteHat Jr. advertising is the 2nd part of the Wolf Gupta story – that he has been hired by Google.”
Read Karthik’s full piece here.
India’s advertising regulator cracked down on WhiteHat Jr and asked it to pull down its ads (watch one here). When a large number of customers complained about WhiteHat Jr on social media platforms, their posts were removed.
“This company should be top of the heap in terms of notoriety among Indian startups with a complete disregard for ethics and morality, with not even lip service paid to fair business practices. The company’s culture of going after anyone and everyone, be it employees, customers or critics, is exacerbated by a bunch of 20-somethings who think they are playing a game of cowboys and bounty hunters.
What’s worse is that WhiteHat Jr has weaponized the moderating tools of internet platforms like YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn to bring down anyone who even remotely has an opinion on the company or its product—coding classes for children.”
(Read Ashish’s full piece here.)
In November 2020, WhiteHat Jr flexed muscle and brought a Rs. 20-crore defamation case against Pradeep Poonia, a leading voice exposing WhiteHat Jr for its advertising frauds, loopholes in teaching methodology, teaching methods, etc. Despite the bluster, White Hat Jr. withdrew the case in May 2021.
This vengeful, ethics-be-damned Karan Bajaj is a far cry from his own portrayal of himself in his books and articles. He writes in this article about how personal tragedy — the loss of his mother — led to him abandoning his comfortable life in New York and spending a year as a monk in the Himalayas:
“Later that year, my mother died of cancer. Growing up in India, I had always been pulled to Eastern mystical traditions, but seeing her rapid physical decline forced me to confront in a more urgent, personal way questions about why suffering occurs. I decided to shed the comfort of external identities my apartment in New York, my career as a director of a consumer products company, my preferences of liking this food and disliking that movie, everything so I could come closer to a more permanent reality within. I asked my job for a sabbatical and set forth as a monk with a metaphorical begging bowl, going from Europe to India by road with no possessions, then learning yoga and meditation in a remote ashram in the Himalayas.”
Then how did this hermit-like executive — already a hugely successful executive — seeking the greater truths in life end up peddling lies, poor ethics and a cut-throat, money-at-all-costs way of doing business? Business and ethics have long been uncomfortable money but the rise of big money — and unthinkable money — has eroded values like never before for young entrepreneurs chasing quick money.
And for any good businessman, the selling of fear is the most glorious short cut to quick money.
My generation witnessed the selling of fear through the coaching centre boom in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and look at where it has landed us – engineering and medical and management education shops churning out hundreds of thousands of passouts who are mostly underskilled and unemployable.
Most of us have seen that from some vantage point. India’s education system has for decades pushed millions of students into a colossal rat race; way before the word FOMO (fear of missing out) came into vogue. Successive generations of parents have forced their children to study and become doctors or engineers and MBA, because of the fear that they had been sold that if their children did not join either of these professions, they were certain to be future failures. I managed to evade this rat race and was the only boy in my class who did not write the medical exam after studying for two years, and instead chose to graduate in the arts. I did fine.
Karan Bajaj himself grew up through that era – he studied engineering and then management at Indian colleges. It was the era when parents sold jewellery and properties and cobbled together savings to be able to send their children to engineering and medical colleges – or be left out. Thousands of those engineers and doctors have no jobs now. Hundreds of engineering colleges are shutting down in India and there is a huge crisis of skillability — tens of thousands of engineers churned out of education factories aren’t often skilled enough.
But four- and five-year-olds were spared — until now. Until WhiteHat Jr and Karan Bajaj. To sell his product, Mr. Bajaj sold marketing hogwash that flew in the face of mountains of scientific data.
Mr. Bajaj has already influenced education, childhood and parenting in millions of Indian homes with a controversial and deceitful advertising blitz, in the process becoming so successful that it launched a new segment called “edtech” in the Indian startup skies and spawned an array of similar companies that competed to invade the childhood and education of Indian children in a way that had never been done before.
Parents like me, and children like my daughter, have been lucky to prevent ourselves from that world. My daughter Vaidehi chose to become a storyteller like me when she was three, storming into my studio one afternoon when I was recording. It fascinated me that her story about the monkey and the black dress he wanted from his Mama – which she made up as she went along – was logical, and had a beginning, middle and end. She recorded a series of stories that I published on YouTube, setting off great interest in parents and children and leading to us launching more than 15 children storytellers.
To nurture such unique skills among children, and to protect their vulnerable and swiftly developing brains from being force-moulded in a certain way, parents must fight back. I did, at least by speaking out, repeatedly. I have been speaking out against WhiteHat Jr since 2020. And I know that thousands of parents cringe at the kind of thinking Byju’s and WhiteHat Jr., and many of their rival companies, are bringing to education. My social media inboxes are full of messages from concerned parents every time I post about WhiteHat Jr. People often send me messages, concerned that they could sue me — well, the day they start suing people like me who raise issues around childhood and education and ethics and parenting to attack Whitehat Jr. and Byju’s, I promise you this will become a public movement against such companies and such thinking. I am coming from the position of being an angry parent, to begin with. In that sense, this is personal.
In a New York Times piece I wrote criticising WhiteHat Jr and Karan Bajaj, I also described how I pulled out my daughter Vaidehi from the school that admonished her for drawing a giraffe that was multicoloured. I read through many of the 1,100 detailed and heartfelt comments to my article by American readers and realised that this is a feeling that resonates with parents overseas as well. Here are some of the comments. Mr. Bajaj should read them and reflect:
“Should kids be taught to code?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “Should private profit-making companies set educational goals for society?” And the answer is clearly no.”
“I’m sad for all the Indian children being forced into preparing for a certain job 20 years before it’s needed out of fear. Better to teach these kids how to teach themselves whatever they need in life, expose them to a wide range of experiences and cultivate their unique creativity. Shame on those preying on these parents’ fears about a future they cannot possibly understand now.”
– Whatshername PDX
“When I studied abroad in France a few years ago, I distinctly remember my hosts saying “The reason France doesn’t have as many entrepreneurs as the U.S. is that when a French child draws a blue fox, the teacher says ‘No no no. That’s wrong. Don’t do that,’ and in the U.S., the teacher says ‘That’s wonderful! Great creativity.’”
“I’ve been a software developer for 30 years. Most people do not need to be able to code. And there is no shortage of STEM workers. Teach them to think logically to solve problems. That will always be valuable.”
– Steve Kershaw
“I have taught computer science and programming for over 40 years and am also a principal of a company that sells web-based programmer education services. I find the idea of intentionally teaching coding or programming to children under the age of 13 or 14 as or more appalling than forbidding multi-colored giraffes. Even in the 13-17 range, children would be so much better off focusing on math, music, languages (grammar in particular, bring back Latin!), artistic expressions, and laboratory sciences. Besides all the other, more important benefits, taken together these are excellent preparations for learning programming and computer science.”
“It’s funny. Tech big wigs like Zuckerberg are developing all these technologies to transform education for children in low income neighborhoods. They’re loading those schools up with tablets and screens, all potentially changing the trajectory for their brain development (see “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix).
Meanwhile, silicon valley execs are sending their kids to “classical” schools where there are no screens and kids are able to be kids, all while learning skills critical for social interaction and emotional development.”
“If you are a worried parent let me put your mind at ease. I’m a retired software developer. I majored in drama at NYU. I learned to code in 6 months at a trade school when I was 30. For the love of god, let your children’s’ minds develop through creativity and natural curiosity. As if this even needs to be said.”
Becoming a father changes everything. It changes the way you look at creativity, at rules, at the world, at priorities — and it changes the way you look at the future. In an airplane, where you used to get mad at crying children and their parents, you now give them advice on giving them something to suck or sip on so that it doesn’t hurt when their ears pop. Becoming a father makes issues like climate change and conflict – and the education system – suddenly so relevant. And there is this question that often nags you.
What is the kind of future my child is growing up toward?
I am also troubled by such fears — but I have no insecurities that would make me push her to do something that is aimed at only getting a job in the future. I have no fears that she will not get 99.8% marks in board exams because they just don’t matter to me and I will not let her lay her future hostage to these tyrannical parametres. It comes from my own life — I even wrote a story about it, called “Papa Se Shart”. It is a true story about a bet between me and father about my Class XII grades. Hear the story here when you have the time, and maybe have school going kids hear it.
With that legacy driving me, my daughter has grown up with creativity and natural curiosity. She loves playing with mud at our village home in Uttar Pradesh, chatting with cows and goats, has had a childhood that has made her a child full of imagination, innovation, a free spirit and great empathy for others. She collects shells by the beach in Goa, and learns to grow plants at school.
But I realise that this is a luxury. We might not be rich, but we are rich on these experiences and my daughter is rich to have had this sort of childhood. Most kids are growing up quite differently in a digital Black Hole and ventures like WhiteHat Jr are pushing them deeper into it. As if on cue as I wrote this piece, I received a forwarded illustration on my school alumni group that shows a young couple sitting a table, and the father address the little son who sits on a couch some distance away. “Your mother and I think you should get some fresh air and exercise,” the father is saying to the son, who is looking into the mobile phone and says nonchalantly: “Send me the link.”
It’s not the kids’ fault. It is the time they live in. And the pandemic has hurled children closer to this new digital abyss, condemned them to staring at computer screens, away from their soccer fields and swimming pools and best friends they shared lunchboxes with. Digital businesses have zoomed even as everything else sunk. Billions of investor dollars have been pumped into business plans that assume – and make you believe – that this pandemic-era lifestyle is here to stay, that this is how we will live, and that the digital-only future that we saw only in the movies is actually just round the corner.
But the same pandemic has also taught us that we actually need very little to get by, even in this digital-only future. We most certainly don’t need to push our children deeper into a rat race at the age when they should be playing and listening to stories and telling stories themselves – especially when it is established that if children spend a lot of time spent by children in front of screens like TVs and computers, it can have adverse effects on their development – including on attention, language skills and memory.
I know that Karan Bajaj and I both want the same kind of childhood for our children. I know that deep down, he also believes in a world in which a giraffe can be multicoloured.
I know that Karan Bajaj and I both want the same kind of childhood for our children. I know that deep down, he also believes in a world in which a giraffe can be multicoloured.
I just hope that he and all founders like him realise that purpose along with profits needs to become the prism for all Indian businesses as the country catapults into a high growth trajectory. Purpose and profits can co-exist. As India becomes one of the fastest growing economies in the world, purpose in business is what will set us apart from all other capitalist empires. Just like evaluating the success of a film by the tens or hundreds of crores they garnered is nonsense, hyping up startups by the size of their raises or their exits is nonsense if they are failing on ethics, morality and decency.
Karan Bajaj is now set to launch his next business, in the “tech and infra sector”. So are dozens of founders who used purpose as just a slide in their pitch deck to earn millions of dollars, getting in investor dollars and not caring about the impact on real people. Purposewashing is a fullblown business. For them, decency is not a business model.
It is up to us — to sit by and soak in the glamour of money, to clap from the sides, or call such people out.
Here, I call you out, Karan Bajaj.
In our parts, we have a saying for folks like you: Sau chookhe kha ke billi Hajj ko chali. After finishing off a hundred mice, the cat went to the Hajj pilgrimage.