• Business
  • Companies

How Whitney Wolfe Herd Turned a Vision of a Better Internet Into a Billion-Dollar Brand

22 minute read

About four hours after she became the youngest woman ever to take a company public, two hours after Bumble’s soaring stock price made her a billionaire, and 45 minutes after cutting into a honeycomb-shaped cake and kicking off her yellow heels, Whitney Wolfe Herd sat on her pink velvet couch in her canary-colored office and blinked back tears. Here she was, one of the top female CEOs in tech, a founder who had created one of the largest dating apps in the world out of the ashes of her own humiliation. Yet none of it felt like she thought it would.

Part of it was the stress of the initial public offering (IPO), a moment she had imagined for so long that it felt almost as surreal as her wedding day. But Wolfe Herd, 31, was also annoyed at the way her story was being told. Her success at Bumble, billed as the dating app where women “make the first move,” had cast her as the Kill Bill of the tech world: a yellow-clad woman seeking vengeance after men tried to bury her. Much of the coverage focused on her experience years ago as a co-founder at the dating app Tinder, where Wolfe Herd was allegedly harassed by an executive who was also her boyfriend, got dumped and ousted from the company, and went on to sue for sexual harassment. On the day she was supposed to be talking about her empire, Wolfe Herd found herself describing the men she had endured before building it.

“I don’t need to justify myself anymore. I’m f-cking done,” she says, leaning back against a cardboard placard of the company’s brand-new stock listing, BMBL, which had just jumped 63% to $70 a share within hours of the Feb. 11 IPO. “Why am I cleaning up somebody else’s drama? Women are always cleaning up somebody else’s mess.”

Except that mess–her history of toxic relationships, the misogyny of tech–is exactly why Bumble exists. It’s why Wolfe Herd designed the app so only women can send the first message when users match on the platform. In an online dating landscape where women–and particularly women of color–are routinely bullied and harassed, Wolfe Herd set out to build the closest thing to a safe space for digital romance. “Honestly, my ambition comes from abusive relationships,” Wolfe Herd told me the night before the IPO, in her suite at Austin’s Commodore Perry Estate. “I’ve never had this healthy male relationship until I created it. I engineered an ecosystem of healthy male relationships in my life.”

Wolfe Herd occupies the middle of a Venn diagram of the ongoing national reckoning with sexual harassment and the push to regulate human behavior on the Internet. She’s one of the last millennial women CEOs standing after the backlash to “girl boss” feminism. And at a moment when most tech executives are making excuses for why they can’t be held responsible for the behavior on their platforms, Wolfe Herd is the rare tech titan who sees her company as a tool for shaping how people behave, online and off.

By that February morning in Austin, Bumble was a dating app, a business-networking bazaar and a friend-finding tool that has engineered 8.6 billion connections among tens of millions of users in 237 countries since 2014. It employs more than 420 “brand ambassadors” across more than 100 college campuses and is planning to open Bumble-themed coffee shops after the pandemic. A month after the IPO, it’s valued at more than $14 billion, and last year it hauled in $582 million in revenue with a 26% profit margin. Wolfe Herd once told me she wanted Bumble to be “Facebook, but for people who don’t know each other yet.”

Like some other dating apps, the company makes its profit through subscriptions and in-app purchases that allow users to boost the reach of their profiles, extend the clock on their matches (most expire after 24 hours) and go back to options they might have missed. But what Bumble is really selling is a sense of control over the mysterious alchemy of human relationships.

Wolfe Herd sees Bumble less as a dating app, a social platform or a tech company than as a brand. It’s the word that she uses the most when talking about Bumble, and it’s the word that crops up most frequently in conversations with employees and executives. “Whitney is a big believer that branding is everything,” says Alex Williamson, Wolfe Herd’s sorority sister and best friend, and Bumble’s former chief brand officer.

Bumble’s brand is deeply embedded in the Empowerment Industrial Complex. More youthful than “Lean In,” less litigious than “Time’s Up,” Bumble represents a type of friendly Sadie Hawkins feminism that is more about feeling powerful than wielding power. And yet, amid a reckoning over racial justice, the movement for women’s empowerment–which has historically been focused on the empowerment of affluent white women–is itself at a crossroads. After Donald Trump, after COVID-19, much of its messaging sounds stale and exclusive in the face of so many other massive inequalities.

“I think empowerment has probably commercially been taken advantage of, the word itself, and we’re probably part of that,” Wolfe Herd says. “We started saying this before Time’s Up, before #MeToo–we were saying these things before our peers. Every single company right now is doing ‘girl power’ and ‘the future is female.'” She knows that keeping her brand relevant means expanding her vision for the company beyond the women whom she imagined when she first launched the app. And of course, she knows how to brand this too. “I’m so happy to own our shortcomings,” she says. “Because that’s the only way we’re ever going to get better.”

Wolfe Herd and her son Bobby, pictured at Bumble’s IPO on Feb. 11, in Austin
Wolfe Herd and her son Bobby, pictured at Bumble’s IPO on Feb. 11, in AustinKristen Kilpatrick

In the five years I have been interviewing her, Wolfe Herd has never quite developed that hard and shiny exterior so many successful people get, repeating practiced lines like human press releases. She has a juicy but frustrating habit of saying, “O.K., but this is super off the record” before sharing some deep personal secret. As Jack Dorsey tried to “biohack” himself and Elon Musk named himself the “techno king” of Tesla, Wolfe Herd spent the night before her IPO making calls while lying on a towel on her hotel-room floor, apologizing for interrupting her lawyers and bankers at bath time. When her chief of staff told her that college girls now take pictures near her photo in the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house at Southern Methodist University (SMU), Wolfe Herd gasped. “With my skinny eyebrows,” she says, “that I overplucked?” She is like the Elle Woods of tech entrepreneurs.

Online dating can be a miserable experience in the best of environments–it’s hard to make genuine connections inspired by an algorithmic match–and it’s not clear Bumble leads to deeper or more meaningful relationships than other apps. (The company says it hosted 112 million “good chats” in 2020, defined as a conversation with 10 or more back-and-forths, among other metrics.) “The brand is better than the product right now,” says Wolfe Herd–a startling admission for the CEO of a 6-year-old startup. “But that’s gonna change.”

Bumble has been criticized as a Tinder spin-off and a feminist marketing ploy. Some former employees say the company felt like a sorority in the early days. Bumble’s former majority owner Andrey Andreev, the billionaire founder of the European dating app Badoo, came under fire after Forbes magazine published accounts from 13 ex-employees detailing a misogynistic culture at Badoo’s London headquarters.

And yet, in a world scarred by the radical liberty of the Internet–where truth is in the eye of the beholder, hate speech flourishes, and women are routinely harassed–Bumble is one of the few tech companies that seems to care more about safety than freedom. It is the first major social platform to embrace behavioral guardrails and content moderation as part of its business model. “We would have blocked Donald Trump years ago if he used our product,” Wolfe Herd says. (Her husband, oil heir Michael Herd, maxed out donations to Trump in 2016 and 2017. A spokesman says Herd has not supported Trump in years, and “his views have evolved considerably since then.”)

I ask Wolfe Herd why one of the only billionaire tech founders who’s a woman also happens to be one of the only ones who believes that behavior on her platform is her responsibility. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” she says.

The Bumble headquarters in Austin is nicknamed the Hive. The building is bright yellow, and nearly everything inside is some shade of goldenrod or canary or banana. The phone booth and bookshelves and pantry are all shaped like honeycombs, and the walls are full of puns like Bee Kind. It looks more like a concept than an office, a workplace for people whose job includes posting pictures of their workplace.

On the morning she took her company public, Wolfe Herd approached a Nasdaq lectern wearing a pineapple-colored suit on loan from Stella McCartney and yellow Manolo Blahniks. She gave the speech she had practiced while lying on her hotel room floor the night before, promising to “try and make the Internet a kinder, more accountable place.” Suddenly her husband handed her their 18-month-old son, Bobby, who was wearing a miniature dark turtleneck and tiny jeans, like a Steve Jobs doll. Bobby started fidgeting and pulling at her hair. The team was lined up behind her, wearing yellow, clapping in unison, as Bobby picked this instant to scratch at her face, and her smile froze because she was thinking that her darling baby boy was about to poke her eye out at the exact second she took her company public. But then the bell rang, and yellow balloons and confetti dropped from the sky.

Almost immediately, Wolfe Herd changed her clothes. “My pants are too tight,” she says (and honestly, whose aren’t these days?). She had willed all this to fruition on sheer force of vision, but she was not at peace. “I have a degree of imposter syndrome,” she says. “On a day like today, when everyone’s celebrating, I’m still kind of looking over my shoulder, like, we have to do more.”

Other tech founders got their starts hunched over keyboards in darkened Ivy League dorm rooms, but Wolfe Herd has never written a line of code. Growing up in Salt Lake City, she was obsessed with Walt Disney. It wasn’t necessarily a princess fixation; it was his world-making that appealed to her. “I just think she wanted the world to be a perfect world,” says her mother, Kelly Vincent, who worked in art museums before Wolfe Herd was born.

Wolfe Herd’s father was in the sporting-goods business, and Wolfe Herd and her younger sister spent much of their childhoods skiing and camping. The Wolfe family wasn’t Mormon, but the religion’s conservative values permeated their community. “Women are looked at so differently here,” says Wolfe Herd’s childhood friend Liddy Huntsman, the daughter of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. “The male is who you obey.”

Wolfe Herd and her friends say they weren’t the popular girls, but of course, that’s what popular girls would say. According to friends and family, her high school years were notable primarily for an abusive boyfriend she dated on and off. It was “one of the most horrific relationships that I’ve ever seen,” says Huntsman. One friend recalls hearing him and his friends referring to Wolfe Herd and her mother and sister as “c-nts.” Wolfe Herd’s mother alleges he threw a watch at her head at a family birthday party; Vincent also recalls going to the boyfriend’s house after being told he had threatened Wolfe Herd with a gun. “I experienced severe emotional abuse from my high school boyfriend during my really formative years, and it stripped me down to nothing,” says Wolfe Herd. “It showed me a very dark side of relationships, and it helped inform my understanding of what was wrong with gender dynamics.” (Her ex-boyfriend told TIME the claims are “absurd,” “false” and “fictitious.” TIME is withholding the name of the ex-boyfriend at her request, and because he was not convicted of a crime.)

Friends say the experience was formative. “You see people do wonderful things and you think, What really pushed them?” says Huntsman. “For Whitney, something that happened to her so early in her life that was really traumatizing has been the reason Bumble has been what it is today.”

After friends and family pushed her to leave Utah to escape her ex, Wolfe Herd ended up at SMU, near Dallas. On one of her first days of school, she met Williamson, who was working at a boutique near campus. They hit it off, and Williamson helped Wolfe Herd join her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. The process of rushing “was a lot like dating,” Williamson says. “It was a great way to meet people and a great way to network.” On a campus like SMU, Greek life was a platform for building connections–dates, friends, future business partners. But at its core, a sorority is a brand: a constellation of events and T-shirts and rules, a set of expectations around how to look and how to behave and whom to hang out with, all designed to tell the world what kind of girl you are.

After graduating in 2011 with a degree in international studies, Wolfe Herd got a job in Los Angeles working for a tiny company called Cardify, an app that allowed users to swipe through retail loyalty cards. Some Cardify employees then applied the swipe mechanism to dating and started Tinder, and Wolfe Herd became a co-founder focused on marketing. Her duties involved touring college campuses to advertise the app with pizza parties and free thongs and flyers. Around the same time, she began dating another co-founder, Justin Mateen.

But things at Tinder went sour. Her relationship with Mateen unraveled, which meant her position at the company became precarious. One former Tinder employee recalls executives telling Wolfe Herd to “shut up,” demanding she fetch breakfast and discussing her breast size in meetings when she wasn’t there. Another friend recalls that Wolfe Herd was “slut-shamed” at the office and once had someone spit in her face at a party. (Wolfe Herd is prohibited from commenting about her experience at Tinder because of a reported settlement, for $1 million plus stock, from a sexual harassment lawsuit she filed against the company in 2014, in which she alleged that Mateen called her a “whore” at a meeting. Asked about the allegations, a Tinder spokesperson noted that every executive named in the lawsuit has left the company.)

After Wolfe Herd left Tinder, she set out to “prove everybody wrong,” says Williamson. “To prove that she was the person that did the marketing behind Tinder, she did help the company grow, and all that was being stripped from her. She did it once, and she’ll do it again, better.”

In the beginning, Bumble was only a brand. At 24, branding was the thing Wolfe Herd knew best.

At first, scarred by the online harassment she endured after the Tinder blowup, Wolfe Herd wanted to make an app where women could give each other compliments. But then Andreev approached her with an idea to start a dating app; Wolfe Herd said she would only do it if women could be in control. She hired Caroline Roche, a fellow sorority girl at SMU, and together they spent their weekends traveling to Texas campuses, bringing free yellow Hanky Panky underwear to the sororities and free beer to the fraternities, telling the fraternity brothers that all the girls were looking for their next formal dates on Bumble. She showed up at SMU’s homecoming weekend with Bumble T-shirts and Bumble balloons. She branded Bumble as a friendlier dating app for women. The app’s central feature is that only women can initiate a conversation in heterosexual matches, sparing users from the spamming that women often endure on other sites.

Wolfe Herd and Roche worked mostly out of Roche’s parents’ extra bedroom in Austin, and spent most weekends packing Roche’s dad’s car full of pizzas to drop off at various Greek houses. Soon, they moved the company into a small two-bedroom apartment, where the bathtub was filled with Bumble merchandise.

At this point, the app was still being built. “We started marketing Bumble before we had any sort of product,” says Roche. “And Whitney always said, ‘It’s a lifestyle brand, it’s a lifestyle brand. It’s a lifestyle brand.’ That’s what we leaned into.”

The company had a strong sorority vibe, four early employees say. Wolfe Herd’s first employees were her friends, since she had trouble hiring because of the “scarlet letter” after the Tinder lawsuit; that meant some early employees felt that the company was dominated by privileged, white sorority sisters. It wasn’t just that the company was homogenous; the “nicer” dating app wasn’t always a nice place to work. “There was a lot of internal politics; there was a lot of gossip,” says one former employee. “Everybody was nice to me until they weren’t.”

Wolfe Herd acknowledges that the early company could be cliquey, and says she tried hard to address the gossipy culture. She made a “72-hour rule” to force employees to resolve all interpersonal disputes within that time frame to prevent backstabbing and simmering grudges. But she also says much of it was out of her control. “I’m not Mother Teresa,” she says.

Several former employees complained that unlike at many startups, some early Bumble employees didn’t get equity in the company. (Wolfe Herd says that her deal structure with Andreev meant that giving up more equity would mean sacrificing her board seat. A Bumble representative followed up to say every current employee has equity in the company.) Other critics noted that her partnership with Andreev meant that Wolfe Herd never faced the fundraising challenges most female CEOs are forced to navigate.

But many employees recall a CEO who strove to be thoughtful, even during the difficult early days of a startup. Sarah Mick, a former chief creative officer at Bumble who also worked with Wolfe Herd at Tinder, recalls that she worried that a company pool party would be “uncomfortable” for her, because she was overweight at the time and there wasn’t a swimsuit that fit her. (Wolfe Herd was not at the party.) She thought she might be judged, but she was pleasantly surprised. “It was really that I expected it to be that way, and when I arrived, it wasn’t,” she says. On another occasion, Wolfe Herd surprised her with a pair of Valentino heels that arrived at her door, because she knew Mick loved shoes. “It made me feel cared for and actually appreciated,” Mick says.

There were growing pains.”We had so much negative feedback about the app,” says a former employee, who worked there for more than two years in the early days of the company and recalled problems with the user interface. “But all [Wolfe Herd] cared about was the brand.”

Part of her vision for that brand was to take Bumble beyond the realm of dating. Wolfe Herd didn’t want the company to be just a women-centric version of Tinder; she wanted Bumble to be a platform for meeting every type of person you might want in your life. In 2016, the company launched Bumble BFF, which allowed people to use the app to make platonic friendships. When I tried the feature, I found it full of people whose profiles said they had just moved to a new city, or were looking for yoga buddies, or wanted to meet fellow dog owners.

The following year brought the launch of Bumble Bizz, designed to help people match with potential business contacts. In 2019, as part of its push to ban unsolicited lewd photos, the company lobbied the Texas legislature to pass a bill that imposed a $500 fine on anyone who sent obscene images without consent. Bumble introduced identity verification to weed out trolls, banned guns in photos, and rolled out new guidelines around harassment and body shaming.

Wolfe Herd knows changing behavior on one app is only a small part of a larger cultural shift. “Do I think by a woman making the first move on Bumble we’re going to solve every women’s issue around the world? No,” says Wolfe Herd. “Do I think it’s a good first step to recalibrate an age-old system that sets us all up for failure, men and women? Yes. Because the Internet has megapower to shift behavior–if you use it for good.”

Wolfe Herd wants to regulate behavior on her platform the way it’s regulated offline. “If you go in the street right now and take your clothes off in the middle of the road, you’re going to jail,” she says. “You get naked on the Internet right now, chances are you’ll be fine.”

“We can fix it,” she continues, before backtracking: “Not fix it, but–there could be a consequence.”

In 2020, Bumble logged more than 880,000 incidents that violated user guidelines, according to a company representative, which resulted in consequences ranging from written warnings to temporary suspensions to users being permanently blocked from the platform. (A Bumble representative, citing legal reasons, declined to provide a breakdown of which types of punishments were implemented for which infractions, but said it has banned far more than 880,000 people from the platform overall.) The company uses artificial-intelligence programs to scan for violations like hate speech, even when no users report the behavior. The goal is to clean up the platform without relying on user reports, and to identify people who are likely to behave badly before they actually do it. For example, the AI scans profiles for images of guns and swastikas and has been trained to recognize at least 700 “stop words” (including words like suicide and dozens of racial slurs) inside of chats, according to Miles Norris, Bumble’s chief product officer. Each time a violation is reported by the algorithm, Norris says, it gets referred to a team of 2,000 human moderators who decide whether the behavior merits blocking.

The company’s latest big push is to address body shaming by imposing a ban on “unsolicited and derogatory comments made about someone’s appearance, body shape, size or health.” I decided to put its efforts to the test

If you are looking for a fun couple’s-night activity, I recommend standing over your husband’s shoulder and watching him swipe through hundreds of women on Bumble who aren’t you.

Shortly after I returned from visiting Wolfe Herd in Austin, I made my husband Mark download the app. I wanted to see how long it would take Bumble to match me with the person I had already married–and whether the behavioral guardrails it touts actually worked.

I found him in about a dozen swipes. But, true to some users’ complaints, the women-centric dating app seemed absolutely packed with women. Mark swiped past two old roommates, three women he knew from work, and two women with my exact name and age. His hand was starting to hurt. He swiped past an endless stream of women who had branded themselves as instantly recognizable “types”–Yoga Master, Dog Lover, Girl Who Loves Cocktails, Girl Who Loves to Hike, Girl Who Has Been to Rome. It took him almost two days to find me.

When he did, I immediately started harassing him. “I don’t date fat guys,” I wrote to my husband. “Ur ugly.” Mark reported me for “rude or abusive behavior.”

Trap baited, I signed off Bumble and read an article about how white supremacists use Facebook to recruit new members. I read a Pew study about how 41% of Americans say they have personally experienced online harassment and that 25% have experienced “severe” online harassment, up 10 points since 2014.

Nine hours later, I was blocked.

Once upon a time, brands were the things that got you to buy a particular car, or try a particular soap, or feed your kid Heinz baked beans. The brand was in service of the product. But in the oversaturated, superadvertised, hypermarketed attention economy, branding has slipped the bounds of advertising and become something broader, more amorphous–a statement of how to be, not just what to buy. It’s about chasing a perfectible, promotable existence.

The Kardashian empire is rooted in branding. An entire ecosystem of brand influencers is raking in billions on Instagram and TikTok. Trump rode branding to the pinnacle of American politics. Why should tech be any different?

Sitting in her office on the morning of the IPO, I asked Wolfe Herd which company she compares hers to most. I thought she would say Facebook, the behemoth of digital socializing. Instead, true to her old childhood fascination, she said she wanted Bumble to one day be like Disney. “There’s a visceral sentiment that lives within these few brands in the world,” she explained. “And sometimes their products aren’t that great. There are some Disney movies that tank and they suck. But that brand makes you feel something, right?”

The larger question, she says, is: “Do you wake up the next day feeling like you don’t have to take sh-t from that jerk anymore?”

This feeling is her product. This is her car, her soap, her baked beans. More than relationships, or friendships, or in-app purchases, Wolfe Herd is selling the feeling of power to the powerless, a sense of order in an online universe that so frequently seems lawless. That means visualizing a better Internet, and promoting a safer version of it. And even if that idealized online landscape doesn’t exist yet, Wolfe Herd will brand it into existence. What, like it’s hard?

With reporting by Mariah Espada

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Charlotte Alter/Austin at charlotte.alter@time.com