Since Byju’s launched The Learning App in 2015, the Indian edtech company, named for its co-founder Byju Raveendran, has become an education behemoth. Even before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted classroom schooling, the company had reached over 40 million users and 2.8 million paid subscribers. Those numbers have more than doubled in the past year.

The company’s latest funding round is forecast to value it at $21 billion. In 2021 alone, it’s bought six other education startups, including Indian coaching giant Aakash Educational Services for $950 million, Singapore-based Great Learning for $600 million, and Epic, an American interactive digital reading platform for children, for another $500 million.

Byju’s success has come from its ability to commodify learning, using technology. It offers a series of e-learning programs for students in school from age 4 onward, as well as training for competitive exams. Courses are taught through a combination of games, video tutorials, individual tutoring, and study resources. 

But seven former employees of Byju’s say there’s another reason for the company’s stellar growth — a punishing internal culture based around profiling clients, hard-sell tactics, and unattainable targets, which critics say means selling products to underprivileged families who cannot afford them.

“My last sale was to a driver whose boss gave him a phone,” Ritesh, a former sales associate, whose name has been changed at his request, told Rest of World. The driver only had $9 (700 rupees) in his account when he signed up for a subscription for his only child. “[His] boss paid the down payment and deducted it from his monthly salary. … [His wife] said, ‘I’ll work 24/7 for this course.’ That was the day I resigned.”

A Bjyu’s spokesperson said in an emailed statement: “At Byju’s, we have a stringent zero-tolerance policy towards any form of unprofessional dialogue or abuse. In cases where such behavior comes to light, we immediately evaluate the situation and take corrective action. Course correction is an integral part of our growth journey as a company, and swift redressal is a priority. To further ensure professional conduct at all levels, we routinely host specific training sessions for all our employees.”

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Indian society places a strong emphasis on grades from a fairly young age. A shortage of places at high-quality colleges has created a hyper-competitive environment — and a reliance on private tuition to boost test scores. The edtech industry has leveraged this obsession with grades, promising all the benefits of private tuition in the comfort of your home, sometimes at a fraction of the price.  

Activist Pradeep Poonia worked in the edtech sector between 2017 and 2018, before becoming disillusioned. Poonia found himself schmoozing private school principals in an effort to reach sales targets. When he’d visit school campuses, however, he noted that kids “had no idea” their schools even had e-learning products to begin with — despite the fact that schools often advertised “e-learning facilities” and hiked their fees to reflect these offerings. He worried that edtech companies were making promises to parents from underprivileged backgrounds, encouraging them to spend beyond their means in the belief that education would open doors for their children.

“Edtech is trying to solve problems that don’t exist — they’re creating problems that don’t exist,” said Poonia, adding, “Six-year-olds don’t need to code. We don’t need education to remember stuff. The process [of learning] is education. [But] edtech companies [are] more concerned with selling their products and flashy tablets.”

Seven current and former employees at Byju’s told Rest of World in separate interviews that the company uses hard-sell tactics, coupled with extensive data that it collects on its users, to encourage low-income parents to sign up and keep paying, even if the products are beyond their means. “At first, Byju’s was for elites,” Ritesh said. But when the company launched the Discovery School Super League, a competitive inter-school game show, in 2019, he said he saw sign-ups increase from less-privileged families.

“Edtech is trying to solve problems that don’t exist.”

Sales associates say they were asked to find leads anywhere and everywhere. Buying a cup of chai from your local chai stall? Ask the seller if he has children and if he wants them to have a better education — and a better life — by signing up for Byju’s. Once users install the app, they’re asked to sign up for a 15-day free trial using a mobile number. Once Byju’s has the mobile number, their sales teams follow up, persuading parents to extend their child’s use of the app through a subscription beyond the 15-day free trial. 

This formula of pressuring parents into a subscription has led to thousands opting for loans. Conveniently, Byju’s partnerships with local lending companies facilitate this. An investigation by The Ken, which analyzed 110 consumer complaints, found that 54 people were unaware they were being signed up for loans when they signed up for subscriptions. The investigation also noted that the average ticket size of the loans was $952 (66,000 rupees), and down payments ranged from $15 (1,000 rupees) to as high as $864 (60,000 rupees). Annual per capita income in India is around $2,000 per year.

Byju’s terms and conditions say the app “may collect certain information automatically,” including the type of mobile device used, the device’s unique ID, its IP address, the mobile operating system and internet browsers used, and “information about the way you use the application.” Sales associates can use that data to guess a potential client’s socioeconomic bracket. Someone with an iPhone, for instance, is assumed to belong to a comparatively wealthy family.

The pitch to the client would be tailored accordingly. Two former sales associates said that they were told to ask children questions to make them look “bad” in front of their parents on field visits, where they’d meet potential clients in person (or via Zoom during the pandemic). “If their parents weren’t literate,” said Ameer, a sales associate whose name has been changed at his request, “we’d ask them questions that looked easy, like, ‘Which is bigger: one over two or one over four?’ … [A younger] child would say one over four.”

One mother of two in Nagpur, in Maharashtra, who spoke to Rest of World on condition of anonymity, said that she and her husband set up a meeting with Byju’s three years ago, after a sales representative called them. “They said, ‘If it works for you, you can try it, and if not, there’s no compulsion,” she recalled.

Initially, she thought it was a good idea. “The app has videos, worksheets, and tests that go level by level, and my daughter’s an introvert,” she said. She spent $670 (50,000 rupees) on a Byju’s subscription, which included a tablet and an SD card. “It’s not a small amount to spend,” she said.

However, she was disappointed by the service. She signed up for Byju’s mentorship program, where an academic mentor is assigned to each student but got none. She complained but got nowhere. Eventually, she cancelled the subscription.

Three years later, when her daughter completed 10th grade, she got another call from the sales associate. “They knew she’d finished [grade] 10,” she said.“I told them I didn’t want to spend another rupee on any of their plans, but they offered me a scholarship.” 

She declined but told the sales associate that she was interested in a crash course for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), a premedical entrance test, for her daughter, which Aakash — newly acquired by Byju’s — offered.

“They told me that my daughter ‘didn’t even have [grades of] 95% and above, and you’re pursuing dreams of NEET?’ She doesn’t even know basic things. … How will a girl from such a small town compete in a national-level exam?’” she said. When she mentioned that she’d been sending her daughter for tuition at a local institute, they instead pushed her to sign up for an Aakash Institute training center, saying a small institute wouldn’t cut it.

“This sales scheme [they] have going, scaring people — this is wrong,” the mother said. 

Ritesh, the former associate, said that this was a deliberate tactic, taught during his sales training. Associates were encouraged to tell parents: “Your son can be nothing in life if he doesn’t go with Byju’s — and if you, as a parent, can’t [secure] your kid’s happiness and future … you might as well have not had kids.”

The company also made it hard for people to get refunds, meaning that they’d get to the end of the 15-day free trial and be unable to opt out. A quick Google search for “Byju’s refund scam” reveals hundreds of customers detailing trouble with getting a refund through the company. 

Poonia, the activist, said that the policy disadvantaged poorer families. “Parents capable of posting on the internet and [social media] platforms are likely to get refunds,” he said, adding that people of lesser means aren’t.

WhiteHat Jr, a Byju’s subsidiary as of August 2020, previously filed a $2.7 million defamation case against Poonia over a YouTube channel where he mocked the company. The case was eventually withdrawn.

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Former sales associates told Rest of World that they were under immense pressure to make their weekly sales targets of $2,700 (200,000 rupees). As one employee put it: “As long as we met our targets, nothing else mattered.”

“Byju’s has nothing you can call ‘procedure’,” Ritesh said. “You are asked to do anything just to close the deal and keep it unrefunded for the next 15 days.”

The sales culture at Byju’s was “toxic,” associates said, and employees were pressured to work incredibly long hours to hit their targets. Supervisors would “keep [employees] working till midnight,” Ritesh said. “I never had lunch when on field [visits] and never had my dinner before 2 a.m., to avoid abuse.”

Earlier this year, Poonia posted a recording on YouTube of an alleged ex-employee being verbally assaulted by the employee’s manager. Several individuals claiming to be former employees commented on the video, saying they’d faced or witnessed similar verbal attacks from their supervisors. 

“My manager shouted a lot,” Ameer, the sales associate, told Rest of World. But he never reported the abuse to HR because he was threatened he’d lose his job. “My manager once told me that if I tried anything, he’d make sure I don’t have a career,” he said.

Beyond the accusations of impropriety directed at Byju’s, critics said that the edtech industry as a whole needs to do more to narrow the inequalities in the education sector.

“Now, especially, we need to fight against this commodification of education,” Mayukh Biswas, general secretary of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), said. “Byju’s has increased their profits like anything during the pandemic, but it’s first-generation learners, female [students], and those from underprivileged backgrounds who’ve been most impacted by [the] lack of access.”

An estimated 10 million girls in India risk dropping out of school during the pandemic. Biswas believes that this number will only increase with an increase in digital classrooms.

Byju’s spokesperson said: “As an edtech company, we believe every child must get an equal opportunity to learn from the best resources. Byju’s has launched several social initiatives under the umbrella of the Education for All initiative that seeks to make quality education accessible to students from the most underserved communities and locations. We have partnered with 55 NGOs and have so far positively impacted lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of children from underprivileged backgrounds.”

But Poonia says that the government needs to rein in the edtech giants. “The government should put restrictions and regulations on them like they do with schools,” he said. “What are these edtech [companies] adding to society?” he asked. “They’re just adding to their revenue.”

At the end of the day, Poonia believes it’s underprivileged parents who have the most to lose through edtech subscriptions. “Those parents have no idea,” he said. “They think they’re giving their [children] the best.”