Since its founding in 2020, a whisper network murmured that many of the materials taught by the academy were plagiarized from various other online programs, such as those from Google or Salesforce. Founded by Awodele in 2020, MyTechBestFriend (MTBF) launched to public acclaim, especially within the Black tech community. For a minimum of $3,000, it offers to teach people skills, such as technical writing, and help prime them find high-paying tech jobs. A lot of the people who signed up for MTBF were new to tech. Some took out loans, quit their jobs, or used their savings to participate in the program. Many didn’t know that ServiceNow, Google, and Salesforce offered very similar — if not identical — courses for free or at a much lower cost. Those who did know were afraid to speak out. Until now, that is.
The last straw
Last Monday afternoon, Mary Awodele sat in a Zoom meeting with her camera off. The students attending her academy, MyTechBestFriend, were upset. Earlier that day, Awodele had suddenly removed a student from their Cohort 2 Discord chat who had asked a question, those familiar with the situation said. Others privy to goings on at MTBF say the Discord incident was not the first time Awodele had allegedly punished a student for speaking. “We all got really scared and nervous because we could ask a question, and depending on what kind of question it is and the way she takes it, that could be the end to your acceptance,” said Mandy, a former student, recalling to TechCrunch what the day-to-day at MTBF was like. (TechCrunch granted anonymity to former students so they could speak freely about their time at MTBF. We’re using a pseudonym here.) But after two years of what students alleged to be poor leadership and a culture of silence, they were set on making this incident the last time Awodele retaliated against a boot camp attendee. Those in the Cohort 2 Discord group recalled that after the ousting, a fellow student quickly came to the removed student’s defense. Then shortly after, another student, in frustration, shared in the Discord chat a video that Awodele had made only the day before. It was an Instagram video, seen by TechCrunch, in which Awodele said she would no longer serve as a reference for students who didn’t tell her if they’ve obtained a job offer. Awodele, who is Black, said that people receiving job offers without telling her was worse than being called the N-word — and she used a hard “R.” The students were stunned. Chaos ensued in the Cohort 2 Discord. The chat, home to about 700 students, was deleted around 10:30 that morning. The Discord contained the materials students needed to get through the minimum three-month program. TechCrunch spoke to a dozen people, including an instructor and several students, who said Awodele was hostile and led harassment campaigns against those who spoke out against her. Many said Awodele carefully monitored students’ social media accounts. When reached for comment by TechCrunch, Awodele confirmed some allegations and denied others. At least three students said that they were not allowed to create external social groups with other students. Some said they were not allowed to speak online about Awodele or the boot camp without her permission. A scholarship contract seen by TechCrunch reveals that MTBF recipients had to put the hashtag #MTBFstudent in their social media bios; one person, whose sister is in the program, suggested it was so Awodele could find her students at all times. After the Discord chat evaporated, Awodele sent a text message to her students saying she never intended to offend them with the N-word video and then followed up with a Zoom link for the group to “gain perspective,” according to Charlie, whose last name we withheld at their request. The Zoom recording, which was sent to TechCrunch, was tense. Students expressed their concerns, citing the harsh way in which Awodele and other employees often spoke to boot camp attendees. Awodele admitted her tone could come across as “stern” and said the Instagram video only meant she would like a heads up about student referrals, ensuring she would understand the type of job students sought. After an hour, the students still felt her explanations were not enough and wanted a more sincere apology for her behavior. Many then took to Twitter. On the evening of November 14, Charlie noticed the first tweets, which, without naming names, suggested that a certain someone from a certain program “refund everyone” and “take the time to heal.” Later that night, students received a text message from someone named Nicky, who said she would be taking over the academy and began communicating with the students on the remaining Discord groups. The conversations on Twitter then exploded. That Monday night, Awodele was posting what appeared to be suicidal tweets. The next day, a Discord message in another MTBF chat implied that “Nicky” was actually Awodele. (Awodele has since denied to TechCrunch that she was Nicky, saying it was an “alias used to protect the actual customer service member’s identity.”) After being denied access to a well-attended Twitter Space discussing the situation, Awodele deleted her Twitter account, and her students, in spite of non-disparagement agreements, started to speak.
Two years ago, Polly (also a pseudonym), who works in software, started posting Twitter threads with free or low-cost courses that Black people could sign up for to break into tech. One day, Polly said Awodele reached out to her, saying she had taken all the free courses Polly posted and wanted to open a program with similar courses one day. At the time, Polly said she thought nothing of it. “Later that year, she ended up starting MyTechBestFriend, and I learned immediately that she was taking all of the free resources that I had been sharing and using them in her program,” Polly told TechCrunch, adding that she found out when a few students flagged it to her. A tweet by Awodele in October 2021 insinuated that even then, a year into operation, MTBF was using Salesforce and ServiceNow materials without being official partners of the organizations. (Awodele did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for comment on MTBF’s official partners.) A screenshot of a text message, sent from a phone number associated with a WhatsApp account that belongs to Awodele, also shows her telling someone to “purchase a few scrum courses from Udemy. Jack their shit and remake it.” Awodele told TechCrunch that she made “poorly worded statements” and that it does not reflect MTBF’s current curriculum, which she says contains “original and public information.” Course material seen by TechCrunch shows that MTBF does link out to other websites for students looking for extra resources. When reached for comment prior to publication, a spokesperson for Scrum.org said it was unaware that MTBF was pointing to its website or certification tests and said Scrum has never been affiliated with Awodele or MTBF. ServiceNow said the same. ServiceNow previously had a separate promotional campaign featuring a tweet from MTBF but has since deleted the video. Salesforce declined to comment, while Udemy and Google did not respond to requests for comment. Students have reported seeing Salesforce content as part of the MTBF course. (Awodele told TechCrunch the boot camp is in the process of “investigating this claim to determine how, if at all, Salesforce materials were used in MTBF.”) Registered as a business in Texas, MTBF costs up to $6,000 to attend and lasts a minimum of three months. The boot camp has had at least six cohorts of students so far, the first with around 20 and the current with about 700. It has been written about in Business Insider and AfroTech, helping legitimize the business and propel it to notoriety in, especially, the Black community. (AfroTech deleted its article on Awodele after allegations surfaced.) With the media’s seeming validation of MTBF, several said they were confident that the boot camp was the way to go, and many students were content with the instruction offered. The MTBF academy met twice a week and had teachers and teaching assistants, though numerous students told TechCrunch that after class ended, they were not allowed to ask for additional help or schedule office hours. They could not share resources with each other or download any of the study material. According to the handbook provided to TechCrunch, students who shared resources were reprimanded based on a three-strike system, which states: Any student who is behind or fails a section will receive a strike. Any student who shared “private information” with someone not enrolled would receive a strike. Any student who asked a question that has “already been clearly communicated or is easy to find within documentation already shared with them” would receive a strike. If MTBF felt a student was “no longer fit for the course due to reasons such as disparaging statements” or “disrespectful communications” with staff, they would receive a strike. “I’m transitioning into tech, and I was like, ‘How do I edit my resume? How do I update things? What are some things I should look for?’” Shelley, whose last name was withheld at their request, told TechCrunch. Shelley didn’t mind paying for the structured course but said she “didn’t feel like there was anyone, and Mary is included in this, that was willing to assist in figuring this all out.” Mandy shared a similar story, saying she felt overwhelmed with the program and that Awodele was not receptive to questions. Within the first five weeks, students were expected to complete at least 15 homework assignments and two projects, according to someone familiar with the course structure who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by Awodele. About five weeks into the program, Mandy received word that she’d received two strikes and was close to being kicked out of the program. She said this was the first time she had received an email about being behind on homework, and later found out all of their notifications went to spam. Emails shared with TechCrunch showed MTBF stating that if Mandy didn’t submit 10 homework assignments by the next day at midnight, she would be kicked out of the program. Mandy withdrew. Disenrolling meant no refunds, but after information came out about MTBF allegedly plagiarizing material, Mandy disputed the charges with her bank and received a portion of her money back. Numerous people are seeking to get their money back. More than 300 students seeking refunds formed a Discord group called “trauma bonding.” Members are organizing ways to file charge disputes, according to Rebecca (again, a pseudonym), who’s familiar with the group.
A dozen people spoke to TechCrunch about Awodele’s alleged mistreatment of other people, and those sentiments were reaffirmed by others who spoke in the Twitter Space, which was recorded and sent to us. (Awodele told TechCrunch she is aware of the bullying allegations and was working with impacted students to resolve them.) One current student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by Awodele, said he tries never to speak to Awodele based on what happened to others who “misspeak according to her terms.” One former MTBF employee, who asked to remain anonymous for the same reason, said any student who said anything bad about Awodele or the boot camp was blacklisted by Awodele. If a student did something Awodele deemed “questionable,” they were to be monitored, and if someone who wasn’t in the boot camp did something she deemed suspicious, they weren’t allowed into future cohorts. At one point, the source said, there was even a channel called #MTBFSPECIALFORCES, where Awodele would instruct people to go after anyone who said anything negative about MTBF. (Awodele did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for comment on this matter.) Earlier this year, Polly (again, a pseudonym) posted a tweet raising a red flag about boot camps that ask for social media handles in the application, something MTBF asks applicants to provide. Awodele tweeted a response to Polly, calling her out for what she thought was a tweet against MTBF. In response, Polly said she wasn’t talking about MTBF in particular, but “a hit dog will holler, right?” Awodele eventually deleted her tweet after Polly responded that she wasn’t talking about her. Though, before that happened, people took to commenting on the tweet, criticizing Polly for speaking out against what Awodele led them to believe was a criticism of MTBF. Polly then blocked Awodele but said she experienced “harassment” from others that continued for three weeks. Screenshots sent to TechCrunch show Awodele, who is of Nigerian descent, making disparaging remarks about African Americans. She often referred to them as Akatas, a West African term deemed by many to be a slur. “I’m not black I’m African,” she once tweeted. “I’ll curse myself if I have to be an Akata.” (Awodele told TechCrunch that she was an “unaware preteen making statements” that she “vehemently” rejects in adulthood and that she was “sorry for the harm” her “ignorant” statements caused.) Her previous comments take on greater weight following the Instagram video where she uses the N-word, Rebecca said. “And people explaining how [Akata] is the equivalent to saying n—er. It’s like the signs were all there. And the fact her victims are mostly Black Americans? Yeah, I feel sick,” Rebecca continued. After taking part in the Twitter Space and encouraging others to speak out, Rebecca said she started to receive threats from accounts that appeared to be associated with MTBF. “People are just absolutely so terrified,” she added. “The kindest words I can say is that she’s a plain old bully.”
Three people TechCrunch spoke to said this situation and its fallout runs counter to what the Black in Tech movement sought to achieve — encouraging more Black people to get into tech. Many Black Americans were vulnerable during the pandemic, desperate for something new. The MTBF fallout has eroded trust, especially since the perpetrator was a Black person, they said. With hundreds of students currently enrolled at a minimum tuition cost of $3,000, MTBF could have brought in millions. Text messages sent to TechCrunch show MTBF and Awodele began to address the growing backlash on Thursday. Awodele said that there was “false and defamatory information” circulating about MTBF and promised it was a “legitimate company.” MTBF released another statement reassuring that “major changes” would be made in the upcoming weeks. In a following email, MTBF noted “negative publicity is publicity” and the academy would aim to be “more lucrative and selective from this day on.” The email said those who wish to drop out of the program could fill out a form. Awodele told TechCrunch this form was used so students could request feedback and discuss ways in which MTBF can improve. She added that “the overwhelming majority of our students have chosen to stay.” On Sunday, Awodele reactivated her Twitter account and said in a since-deleted tweet that she hoped everyone who spoke against her stands “10 toes down,” or, in other words, remain committed to what they’ve said. Some of the students said they took that to be another threat. The next day, MTBF held another meeting to address the allegations of plagiarism and bullying from the past week. In a recording of the meeting, which lasted more than two hours and was sent to TechCrunch, Awodele said rebuilding the company’s reputation on Twitter would be a “shared effort,” adding that the business was working toward being registered, as it was not yet accredited by the Texas Workforce Commission. Awodele told TechCrunch her attorney is reviewing what registrations MTBF requires to continue operating. “When you signed up for MTBF, we didn’t tell you everything was going to be originally created from scratch. We did not. You signed up to be taught,” Awodele said in the Zoom meeting. She also revealed that MTBF would continue as planned. Students who wished to disenroll had until the next day to decide and would be offered a 50% refund on a case-by-case basis. Awodele confirmed this to TechCrunch, saying she offered the refund to students for whom the “recent media attention has been disruption,” and that MTBF planned to move “forward with those who understand the value MTBF has to offer.” “I’m shocked about it all,” Charlie said of what happened in the meeting. “I’m speechless.” More than 40 students are mulling a class-action lawsuit, according to a document seen by TechCrunch. Those who spoke out reported feeling exhausted by the situation. Others, meanwhile, are scrubbing MTBF from their resumes and LinkedIn to erase any affiliation with the company. When asked how she and MTBF were going to respond to the fallout in the upcoming weeks, Awodele said that “due to ongoing legal proceedings,” she “cannot respond at this time.” Despite the fear, Mandy, who already withdrew from the cohort, said it’s important for people to speak out so others know the truth. Because of the culture of silence MTBF created, there were few negative reviews online about Awodele or the company. That’s one reason Mandy said she applied. “My end goal was to go somewhere else, to gain more knowledge, and to not stay stagnant,” she continued. “All I had to do was go to school and apply myself, and that’s what I did. But I didn’t plan for this. I don’t think anyone did.” #MyTechFrenemy by Dominic-Madori Davis originally published on TechCrunch