The first time I met Whitney Wolfe Herd, four years ago, Bumble HQ was a humble two-bedroom apartment in downtown Austin, Texas. A fresh-faced team of just 10 (with a further 20 in London, New York and Los Angeles), plus Wolfe Herd’s elderly golden Labrador, Jack, were crammed into the tiny space, whose entire second bedroom was a storage cupboard of bright yellow Bumble-branded merch. Wolfe Herd, then 27 and undeniably impressive – polished, passionate, articulate, driven – had founded the dating app that forces women to make the first move just two-and-a-half years earlier. She had recently made the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 list, alongside Australian actor Margot Robbie, bestselling American author Emma Cline and American Olympic gymnast Simone Biles.
In the four years since, she’s been busy. She got married – to Michael Herd, a 33-year-old Texan oil heir, in a lavish three-day event at a castle on the Amalfi Coast – and had a son, Bobby, now 18 months. Bumble’s employees now number more than 700 across offices in Austin, Barcelona, London and Moscow, with 42 million active users in 150 countries. And in February, four hours after Bumble was floated on the New York Stock Exchange, 31-year-old Wolfe Herd became not only the youngest female CEO to take a company public but also the youngest self-made female billionaire, with an
estimated net worth of $US1.6 billion ($2 billion). I’m not quite sure what I’ve been doing with my past four years but, certainly, I now feel like a bit of a slouch.
When Wolfe Herd logs onto Zoom today – on-brand in a pink, blue and black Bumble jumper – she has apparently not aged a day either. The only slight difference is her diffidence in disclosing her whereabouts; I’ve visited her former home, a mansion in enormous grounds beside Austin’s Colorado River, but the family no longer live there, she tells me. I imagine they’ve upgraded to somewhere even grander, given their combined worth these days. Since she’s using a yellow Bumble-branded background, however, I have no clues, save for some loud birdsong and occasional shouts from her toddler son. I don’t blame her for guarding her privacy: she’s a billionaire with a baby and a disturbing history of being targeted by trolls.
She is, in fact, one of only 100 self-made female billionaires in the world, with self-made women still accounting for just 5 per cent of the world’s 500 richest people. Part of the problem is a lack of investment in female-founded companies. “It’s hard for women to get capital, because we are held to impossibly high standards,” says Wolfe Herd. “Men are applauded for being big, wild thinkers, while women are given very strict guidelines not to be too out there, to be measured and reserved. It’s hard for us even to be convicted in ourselves for fear of being labelled as self-obsessed or arrogant. I know because I have lived this.”
Even Wolfe Herd’s success is disparaged by some, her achievements belittled because of her partnership with Badoo, the social network behemoth owned by Russian businessman Andrey Andreev, who invested heavily in Bumble in its start-up phase. “Badoo also made investments in a lot of other businesses that you’ve never heard of and which don’t exist any more,” counters Wolfe Herd. “We were given very modest resources and it was not $US100 million as some people reported. The notion that I just had everything handed to me, that’s not the truth.”
I’ve hit a nerve and understandably so. That it’s easier for some to believe that Wolfe Herd – who has been dubbed, somewhat patronisingly, “the Elle Woods of the tech world”, a reference to the 2001 Reese Witherspoon film Legally Blonde – is simply the front-of-house furnishings and not the true founder of a billion-dollar business is evidence of exactly the misogyny she built her app to fight.
For anyone who hasn’t been on the front lines of dating for a decade, Bumble works in a similar way to Tinder or Hinge – based on location and proximity, users swipe right for yes, left for no – but, crucially, women call the shots. Men cannot initiate a conversation (even if they swipe “yes”) and the female party has 24 hours to strike up a chat before the “match” expires. (In same-sex matches, both parties can initiate.) Although basic membership is free, users can upgrade to a premium plan for $44.99 a month or pay $79.99 for 30 “spotlights”, which sends their profile to the front of the queue that others will see when they swipe.
“Do I think we’re solving the world’s problems? No. Do I think we have the potential to shift behaviour in a more positive direction? Yes.”
“It’s not a biological imperative that says men have to ask us out; it’s social conditioning. And the internet has been engineered to reflect gender norms in relationships. But we can change it,” says Wolfe Herd. “I cannot count how many times I have heard women say, ‘I would have never made the first move, but now I approach in real life, too. I’ll make the first move.’?” She beams. “And they tell me, ‘It’s because Bumble has normalised that for me.’ Bumble has normalised making that first move, whether in person – seeing someone that you think is attractive or interesting – or elsewhere, like sending someone your CV.
“Do I think we’re solving the world’s problems? No. Do I think that, by making small tweaks through product and technology, we have the potential to shift behaviour in a more positive direction? Yes. And do I think that there are long-term positive implications from that? I do believe that is true, yes.”
For the first time, really, since the second wave, feminism is big business. The current moment – of post-#MeToo empowerment and the first female US vice-president – has been commodified and sold back to consumers who, more than ever, align their identity with brands. And Wolfe Herd is, without a doubt, a marketing and branding genius. Bumble’s colourful billboards and outdoor ads feature slick quips – “Be the CEO your parents always wanted you to marry” – but she also walks the walk. In 2019, Bumble lobbied the Texas legislature to pass a bill that fined anyone who sent obscene images without consent $US500; unsolicited “dick pics” are now illegal in Texas. Next she wants laws against online harassment, verbal abuse and the digital equivalent of catcalling.
“Female entrepreneurs typically build things to solve problems,” she says, while men are more likely to come up with ideas simply aimed at being successful. And, for Wolfe Herd, solving this particular problem – “online toxicity and abuse” – has always been personal.
One of the founding team at Tinder, the original “swipe right” dating app, Wolfe Herd was its first vice-president of marketing, at 23. She was also for a while dating a fellow founder, Justin Mateen, who, she has claimed, sent her abusive texts and called her a “whore” and a “gold-digger” after she ended things. Another senior member of the team, she claimed, said that having a female cofounder made the company “seem like a joke”. Wolfe Herd sued Tinder for sexual harassment – the company denied any wrongdoing itself – and won an undisclosed sum, rumoured to be $US1 million.
The media reporting of the case was extensive and, in the northern summer of 2015, Wolfe Herd was viciously trolled for it.
“Emails, texts, tweets, people showing up at my house – really weird and horrible stuff,” she says. Including rape and murder threats from strangers.
“I was 24 years old and I had been given this scarlet letter. I decided to take back control over my life and my narrative. And to try to do something that would help solve the problem I was living through.”
There’s another element to the story, though, one that Wolfe Herd rarely talks about publicly. She once dated someone in what a family friend has called “one of the most horrific relationships I’ve ever seen”. The man, who has never been identified, reportedly referred to Wolfe Herd, her sister and mother as “c…s”, threw a watch at Wolfe Herd’s mother’s head at aparty, and once threatened Wolfe Herd with a gun.
“I experienced severe emotional abuse during my really formative years, and it stripped me down to nothing,” she has said. “It showed me a very dark side of relationships, and it helped inform my understanding of what was wrong with gender dynamics.”
The daughter of Michael, a property developer, and Kelly, a housewife, who separated more than a decade ago, Wolfe Herd and her younger sister, Danielle, grew up in a small town outside Salt Lake City, Utah. Although her father is Jewish and her mother Catholic, the region is predominantly and fervently Mormon, which, says Wolfe Herd, meant an “incredibly patriarchal community and society.
“I’ll never forget being 17 years old and saying, ‘Why are the men always in control in relationships? Why is every woman that my mum knows spending her days crying about the way her divorce is going, or the way her husband is treating her?’ I recognised that it was a problem, but everyone was accepting it all as, ‘That’s just how things are.’ And my inner voice drive was saying, ‘Just because that’s how things are doesn’t mean it’s how they have to be.’?”
Along with delivery services, gaming and garden centres, dating apps have boomed in the pandemic as sex-starved singles, sequestered in their homes, turned to the only truly safe way of meeting someone. Use of dating apps including Hinge, Tinder and Happn, as well as Bumble, increased from between 17 per cent and 23 per cent last year compared with the previous
12 months. Bumble also experienced a 42 per cent increase in video calls, with 33 per cent of users saying they will consider still using the video-call function – which was part of Bumble pre-pandemic and which Wolfe Herd calls “a no-brainer, for safety and security” – when dating post-pandemic too.
I’m a very reluctant app dater myself. I find the strange Pavlovian response that the process inspires in me – disappointment when someone I wasn’t even that interested in doesn’t respond – actively disempowering, so I tend to steer clear. However, I’m single and live alone, so the isolation and tedium of the pandemic set in fast. I logged on not so much looking for romance or even sex; I was just bored of not speaking to anyone new. I missed flirting, sure, but I also just missed everyday, unexpected social interactions.
On Bumble I found some perfectly nice guys, but conversation soon lost momentum and I never met up with any of them, unlike on Hinge, which served up a string of great dates and one lovely, albeit short-lived, romance (he was far too young for me, but that’s a different piece entirely).
My friend Alison, who uses both Bumble and Tinder extensively, still prefers the latter, and has a theory that the nature of Bumble’s set-up relies on women doing all the work and rewards passivity in men, which, she finds, causes problems later, with men not taking the initiative in arranging dates, texting or calling.
And while Bumble is committed to clamping down on abuse, harassment and lewd and threatening behaviour, it’s impossible to eradicate completely. In response to my quippy gambit about his beard, one guy replied, “You’re that perfect mix of sexy and cute that makes me want to pin you against the wall and f… you. Hard.” I blocked him. Bumble has also taken numerous steps to make female users feel safer, including banning guns from photos (more of an issue in the US) as well as “unsolicited and derogatory comments?…?about someone’s appearance, body shape, size or health”.
Wolfe Herd has only used a dating app once herself. “I went on one Tinder date and it didn’t work out, obviously.” She met Herd in 2014 in Aspen. He reportedly strolled into the luxy Little Nell hotel in cowboy boots and ski gear and sat down next to his future wife by the fire. His opening line was “I hear you got a dot-com?”
“My husband is a chilled, rodeo-riding cowboy rancher,” Wolfe Herd says with a laugh. “He still has a Yahoo email address; he looks at his phone once a day. We could not be on more different spectrums. But if I was a single girl, I would be on Bumble. My mum has been on Bumble; my grandma has been on Bumble. I have friends’ parents that have met their new partners on Bumble, and my own friends that have been divorced are now remarried from Bumble.”
She does not pretend Bumble is perfect. Numerous studies over the past five years have found serious inequities in the experiences of users of different
ethnicities. A study by OkCupid found that black women consistently receive the fewest matches on dating apps, closely followed by black men, and that women of colour frequently report experiences of fetishisation, being dehumanised and hypersexualised on apps and dating sites.
In the book, The Dating Divide: Race and Desire in the Era of Online Romance, its sociologist authors, Jennifer Lundquist, Celeste Vaughan Curington and Ken Hou-Lin, argue that online dating sites exacerbate racial divisions, particularly those that allow users to filter by race-related “preferences” (Bumble is not one of those).
“One of my biggest shortcomings is that when I started Bumble, I was trying to solve a problem for myself and women I knew,” says Wolfe Herd. “And the reality is that most of those women look the same. The problems I was trying to solve for them are very different from the problems that women of colour face. One of my biggest mistakes is not prioritising that sooner.”
Bumble now has a diversity team aiming to solve the challenges faced in using the app by any minority or marginalised group, including those with disabilities and sight impairment.
One of the most endearing things about the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire is her willingness – her insistence – to air her own challenges and shortcomings. She came back to work 18 weeks after Bobby was born, “the CEO of 700 people, on lockdown, with very serious postnatal depression and anxiety”, she says. “I felt so lost, scared and confused. It was dark.”
Now she is a mother, does she still check her emails every two hours through the night, as she famously used to, often getting up at 4.30am to work?
“I had a reckoning,” says Wolfe Herd. “That was toxic behaviour, both for me and for others, because me saying that showed young girls or entrepreneurs or team members that that’s what they should do too. We probably perpetuated burnout culture. The reality is, I did work around the clock for too many years and it was very unhealthy. I have missed a lot of life. There were way too many weeks that went by without talking to loved ones or family members or checking on my grandma, and those are regrets I have.”
“We probably perpetuated burnout culture. The reality is, I did work around the clock for too many years and it was very unhealthy. I have missed a lot of life.”
Hang on, though. She’s a billionaire at 31. Surely that would never be possible without some level of burnout? “I lost my 20s,” she says. “Since I was 22 I have felt like a machine. Okay, I’m on some list, but who cares about a list? What matters is the joy that you got out of your life. This rat race is not mandatory. It’s optional. And we need to remind ourselves of that. Because at the end of the day, that’s not how you’re measured.”
She’s right, of course, but that’s a lot easier to say when you’re the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. And for all her talk of balance, I’m not completely convinced. Unlike other dating apps, Bumble is alone in having diversified – there is Bumble Bizz for networking and career connections, and Bumble BFF for making new platonic friends.
“I always wanted to do something bigger than dating,” Wolfe Herd says. “But I felt, let’s start with dating. Let’s fix dating and then we fix friendships, because when you change the way women feel in their romantic relationships, they no longer feel like they need to be competitive and cruel to each other. So, I always saw dating as step one.”
Her plans for Bumble are characteristically ambitious. She suggests it could become a space to find “resources for anything you’re going through, any struggle or any joy – divorce, menopause, a break-up, trauma, heartbreak – someone to celebrate with”. Right now, she says, “The friendship-finding space is exploding.”
The fastest-growing social media apps include “friend discovery” apps such as Itsme, Hoop and Wink. “And we hope Bumble will be at the forefront of that, too. We’re lonely. We are creatures of community and we were not built to be alone. Humans were never intended to self-isolate,” she says.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of our relationships.”
This is an edited extract of a story that first appeared in The Times Magazine/News Licensing.
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