Queen Bee: Whitney Wolfe Herd is revolutionizing dating, fostering gender equality and embracing change

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of SMU Look.

By: Samantha Klaassen

On March 20, people across the country opened the New York Times to see a full-page ad taken out by Bumble, a location-based dating app that facilitates communication between interested users by having women send the first message. In response to the Match Group, Tinder’s parent company, suing Bumble for patent infringement, the ad read, “We — a woman-founded, women-led company — aren’t scared of aggressive corporate culture. That’s what we call bullying, and we swipe left on bullies.” This emphatic response prompts a look back at the history of Bumble and the company’s efforts to promote gender equality in the workplace.

Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd graduated from SMU in 2008 with a degree in international studies, and she returned to her alma mater in September 2012 to introduce a new app she helped create: Tinder. She was visiting sororities and fraternities at colleges across the country and asking students to download the dating app. In just one trip, she tripled Tinder’s users. Today, this initiative is credited with the initial rise of Tinder, a company that is now valued at $3 billion.

But in the summer of 2014, Herd filed a lawsuit against Tinder, alleging sexual harassment and wrongful termination. Court documents reveal that Justin Mateen, the then-chief marketing officer of Tinder, berated Herd with inappropriate comments, emails and text messages. When she repeatedly went to Tinder CEO Sean Rad about the sexist treatment, he dismissed her complaints as “annoying” and “dramatic” and told her that it would be her fault, not Mateen’s, if she was unable to “disengage.” Mateen and Rad then told Herd that they were taking away her co-founder title because having a “girl” co-founder devalued the company. Herd eventually offered to resign with severance, but Rad rejected the offer and fired her instead.

After leaving Tinder, Herd experienced the online abuse that is not uncommon for women who have made public sexual harassment allegations.

“I started to believe what people had been saying about me online and it really had a detrimental effect on my self-worth,” she says. “It’s difficult to brush things off when people are saying such nasty things about you. I wish I had the resilience I have now then.”

The circumstances, however appalling and unacceptable, presented Herd with a unique opportunity. “That situation ultimately fueled my innate desire to create something that would stop this from happening to other people,” she says.

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Herd never envisioned this desire as another dating app. The idea for Bumble came about in 2014 when she reconnected with her current business partner, Andrey Andreev.

“I was working on developing a social network for young women where only positivity and compliments were allowed,” Herd says. Andreev loved the concept of her female-centric networking service, but encouraged her to apply it to dating.

“I was hesitant at first because I wasn’t keen on entering the world of dating apps,” Herd says. “But Andrey and I kept talking, and it wasn’t long before he convinced me to make the jump.”

Leveraging Andreev’s technology and industry expertise, she created the brand and product vision that we all know today as Bumble.

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Since the app’s release in December 2014, it has amassed over 22 million users and has 70 percent year-over-year growth. The company’s projected sales for 2018 are $150 million. Forbes reported this past December that Bumble is valued at $1 billion. But its most important accolade? It’s the choice dating app for women who are tired of misogynistic comments and unsolicited sexual advances.

Most online dating startups fail, but Herd accomplished what all entrepreneurs strive for: finding an underserved group of people and creating a product that fits their wants and needs. For Bumble, this audience is women. The app’s claim to fame is female users making the first move in order to promote gender equality and healthy relationships.

The girl power mission at Bumble is reflected in its employees: The company boasts an impressive 85 percent female employee base.In December 2017, Herd was featured alongside Kendrick Lamar, Zedd and Karlie Kloss on one of Forbes 2018 30 Under 30 covers. The magazine hailed Herd as “the $1 Billion Queen Bee of Dating Apps.” Being a female CEO of a tech company is rare in the male-dominated industry, and Bumble knows that it is something worth celebrating.

The company recently partnered with the Los Angeles Clippers: Each player will sport a Bumble patch on his jersey for the next few years. Referred to as an “empowerment badge,” it’s a symbol of the team’s pledge to promote gender equality. If the tech and sports industries have one thing in common, it’s that they are run primarily by men.

“I think it’s so important to have female representation on both the CEO and executive level because we still live in a male-dominated world,” Herd says. It’s clear that her passion for equality in the workplace stems from her own experiences with harassment. “Women are still subjected to unsolicited advances in the workplace, inappropriate comments, and we are still, in many ways, expected to brush it off.”

Bumble isn’t afraid to take a stance. On March 5, three weeks after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the company announced that the app would ban users from posting images of firearms and other weapons, the only exception being uniformed military and law enforcement officers. Bumble recognizes that it has users on every side of the gun violence conversation, but the decision ultimately came down to Bumble’s core value of safety. The company wants its users to feel protected and believes weapons don’t convey that message. Despite the potential alienation of some users with the decision, Bumble made a clear statement that their values are more important.

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“I hope I’ve been an example to any woman who has an idea or has found a problem in society that she’d like to change,” Herd says.

To any young female entrepreneurs out there, she urges them to immerse themselves in the world they love: “If you’re looking to start your own tech venture, find a gap. Never be intimidated by what you don’t know. If something excites you, go lose yourself in it and take confidence in knowing that it’s OK to make mistakes.”

Herd’s business vision and personal values have a mutual component: respect. It’s the one thing that defines what she and the entire Bumble brand are working toward.

“The reason I started Bumble was because I wanted to create a solution to an experience I went through and to create something that could change the narrative around relationships,” she says.

The result is a brand that is built on a foundation of not only respect, but also empowerment.

“Success means many things to me — it means finding a problem and creating a solution,” Herd says. “It means making the first move.”

Samantha Klaassen

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