“We need to go where we’re needed the most,” Wolfe Herd said in an interview with CNN Business in September. “The most traditional, the most misogynistic mindsets globally — those markets for us are completely wide-open prairies,” she said, referring to the decision to launch in India. “Just because something is not as progressive as another place in the world doesn’t mean there’s not a desire for that.”
At just 30, Wolfe Herd sits at the helm of a dating empire that claims it has more than 500 million global users across its four apps: Bumble, Badoo, Chappy and Lumen. When she returns from maternity leave in the spring after having her first baby, she will continue forging ahead with Bumble’s international expansion. On a broader scale, she plans to use her platform to advocate for legislation outlawing digital sexual harassment both domestically and internationally. On top of this, she’ll also have to address the findings of a still-ongoing investigation into the culture at Badoo.
An ongoing investigation
Andreev and Wolfe Herd had been business partners since Bumble launched in 2014 in Austin, Texas. Wolfe Herd, who started her career at Tinder, initially wanted to create a women-focused social network; Andreev suggested creating a dating app with a similar vision. His company, Badoo, helped provide the infrastructure, and he became her primary backer.
The allegations immediately put Wolfe Herd in a difficult spot. Andreev had been a longtime mentor and friend, but the allegations against him were serious and went against everything Bumble stood for. Would she stand by him? In the initial Forbes article, she did: She was described as standing “firmly behind” Andreev, who she said was “my family and one of my best friends.”
Wolfe Herd issued a statement after the article came out, saying she was “mortified by the allegations,” and that she “learned of the majority of these allegations at the same time as the public.” She added that although she had “never seen or heard” any of the behavior in question, “I would never challenge someone’s feelings or experiences.”
Badoo hired a firm to conduct an outside investigation into the allegations in the Forbes article and committed to making those findings public and implementing the recommendations. The investigation is ongoing, but Andreev sold his majority stake in the company as part of the Blackstone deal in November.
Taking leaps of faith in India
While other US-based dating apps already existed in the region, including Tinder, Hinge and OkCupid, there was arguably more at stake for Bumble. The company’s differentiating factor lies in empowering women to initiate contact. Would Bumble be putting its female users at risk?
Bumble took new, local safety precautions, like the ability for women to only display a first initial, rather than a full name, in addition to global features such as photo verification.
Wolfe Herd said the first initial feature is only available for women on the platform. “We need to hold people accountable. The less anonymity given to the other side of the table is actually a great way to reduce friction, harassment and abuse,” she said.
The Indian version of the app is available in both Hindi and Hinglish — a hybrid between Hindi and English that’s popular — on iOS and Android.
For the better part of a year, the company prepared for its India launch. “We really listened to the women of India. We surveyed, we did focus groups,” Wolfe Herd said.
One 30-year-old Indian user named Ankita, who has used various online dating apps, said some of her friends “appreciate their names are being kept a secret” on Bumble due to stalking concerns. (India made it a criminal offense in 2013, but enforcement of the law is inconsistent.) But, Ankita said, there are still broader cultural shifts that need to be accounted for, such as, “a lot of men don’t understand that, if we meet you, we can still choose to say no to a kiss.” She said in her experience, the apps’ users are overwhelmingly male.
Bumble declined to share stats about how many users it has in India but said that it’s a high-growth market for the company and that so far, women in India are sending twice as many messages as women in the rest of the world. They’re also actively using its friend-finding and business networking services, Bumble BFF and Bumble Bizz.
Ravi Bapna, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said he expects India and other emerging markets to be huge opportunities for Bumble because of cultural shifts that will make people more receptive than ever to the Bumble mission.
When Bumble first launched in the U.S., Bapna said it was eye-opening. “Someone recognized the key friction in the market and built a whole company around it,” he said, noting that a key metric for online dating companies is how many women send messages first. Not only does that improve the quality of the experience for women, but it also improves it for men. “Guys are less likely to be rejected,” he said.
Wolfe Herd is expected to return from maternity leave around April 2020, and when she does, she’ll kick off her new chapter as group CEO in earnest. In addition to growing Bumble, she’ll have to deal with the aftermath of the investigation into Badoo’s culture.
A spokesperson for MagicLab told CNN Business that employment law firm Doyle Clayton is “close to finalising their findings and formal recommendations to the business.” Once they submit the report to the board, the spokesperson said the company would “share the key results and recommendations.”
Laura Huang, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and author of the forthcoming book Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage, told CNN Business that “circumstances like these are super messy.”
“It really takes a bold move to shock the entire system into unfreezing what was once there, so you can create a new culture around it,” Huang said. “In some ways, ousting [Andreev] and putting [Wolfe Herd] in as the group CEO is one of those bold moves that you need in order to do this.”
“What’s scary about allowing behavior like [sending unsolicited nude photos to someone] to be acceptable is that people start thinking it’s a joke. People start thinking it’s funny, but never is harassment funny. Never are the precursors to abuse and violence funny,” she told CNN Business.
Even with everything on her plate, it’s clear that Wolfe Herd is looking to do more.
“I’d rather be overly ambitious than completely complacent,” said Wolfe Herd this fall. “I think that we all have a choice with how we spend the hours of our day.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .