Last year, I found myself sharing a sofa in a luxurious London hotel with Bumble’s founder, 29-year-old Whitney Wolfe Herd. “I want to end gender inequality around the world,” she told me, with all the confidence and matter-of-factness of someone giving a coffee order. She didn’t let up, her face didn’t slip into a smile, she didn’t shrug. She meant it. Which is why I perhaps wasn’t that surprised to see Bumble had taken out a full-page advert in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which says, “Believe Women,” the day after Christine Blasey Ford had testified against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Bumble also donated $25,000 to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Wolfe Herd’s dating app, Bumble (where only women can contact men, in the first instance), now has a friendship and business vertical, and 40 million users. After walking away from her first project, Tinder, having changed the face of modern dating, she also sued the company for sexual harassment (her former boss was also her ex-boyfriend). They reached a million-dollar settlement and Wolfe Herd moved on. The experience left her convinced that the world needed a female-focused social network.
This isn’t the first time Wolfe Herd has put her money where her mouth is: she banned profile pictures on Bumble that feature guns, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in January of this year, and donated $100,000 to the March For Our Lives rally. She regularly donates and supports Planned Parenthood. Sexist behaviour from male users won’t be tolerated. Speaking at an event in Boston, for Forbes, on Sunday evening, about taking out the adverts, she said, “You have to remember that this is polarising. We are taking a risk every time we do something like that and that is fine. I would not want to be in this business if we were not doing something that stood for something.”
“Standing for something” is a very millennial concern. There’s lots of research that suggests younger people want to spend money on things that matter. The financial and social firestorm Nike just created, with their Colin Kaepernick campaign, reminds us of that. But it’s encouraging to see that Wolfe Herd is not just reacting to the current trend to appeal to millennial women via the social issues of the day. As a millenial herself, she’s putting these issues at the heart of her business. And surely it’s no coincidence that, as a woman, her biggest ambition is to help more women. So, is this what the world would look like if we had more female CEOS, especially younger ones who are happy to be “polarising” – who authentically want to stand for something?
Not every woman has the ability to take a full-page ad out and share what they want to say. It is on us to use our voice in a constructive way
I can’t believe that her own experiences with Tinder haven’t helped politicise or at least incentivise her to help other women, but I also think we’re seeing what happens when other groups get into positions of power, wealth and influence. As she said on Sunday: “It is an important moment to remember that for too long, women have been perceived as less. Whether that is in believing them or respecting them or honoring them or investing them or paying them. Enough is enough. Here we are as this company with profitability. Not every woman has the ability to take a full-page ad out and share what they want to say. It is on us to use our voice in a constructive way.”
The cynical voice in my head has some doubts. After all, how do you get the women of America to download your app right now? You use the most talked-about woman in America right now – Christine Blasey Ford – and her traumatic retelling of sexual assault, to push your product. The newspaper ads were all yellow, the Bumble brand colour.
And, yet, I’m still far, far happier that those ads were there than if they weren’t. One of the world’s largest dating apps is having a conversation around sexual assault. For a company that promotes empowering women as part of its branding DNA, this is the moment to stand up and be counted. This is the moment that brands – like Bumble, under Wolfe Herd’s watchful eye – prove their worth: it can’t just be about empowering smiling, glossy women, it has to be about all women. And, right now, it has to be about survivors.