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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 IPOa 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. 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.
Except that mess—her history of toxic relationships, the misogyny of tech—is exactly why Bumble exists. 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. 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. By that February morning in Austin, Bumble was a dating app, a business-networking bazaar and a friend-finding tool that has engineered 8.
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. After Donald Trump, after COVID, much of its messaging sounds stale and exclusive in the face of so many other massive inequalities. And of course, she knows how to brand this too.
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. 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.
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. Her husband, oil heir Michael Herd, maxed out donations to Trump in and 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. 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. She had willed all this to fruition on sheer force of vision, but she was not at peace. 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. According to friends and family, her high school years were notable primarily for an abusive boyfriend she dated on and off.
Friends say the experience was formative. On one of her first days of school, she met Williamson, who was working at a boutique near campus. 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 deed to tell the world what kind of girl you are.
After graduating in 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. Asked about the allegations, a Tinder spokesperson noted that every executive named in the lawsuit has left the company.
In the beginningBumble 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 branded Bumble as a friendlier dating app for women. 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. The company had a strong sorority vibe, four early employees say. Wolfe Herd acknowledges that the early company could be cliquey, and says she tried hard to address the gossipy culture. But she also says much of it was out of her control. 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. Wolfe Herd was not at the party. She thought she might be judged, but she was pleasantly surprised. On another occasion, Wolfe Herd surprised her with a pair of Valentino heels that arrived at her door, because she knew Mick loved shoes.
There were growing pains. Part of her vision for that brand was to take Bumble beyond the realm of dating. Inthe 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, deed to help people match with potential business contacts.
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. Because the Internet has megapower to shift behavior—if you use it for good.
InBumble logged more thanincidents 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 thanpeople 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. Each time a violation is reported by the algorithm, Norris says, it gets referred to a team of 2, human moderators who decide whether the behavior merits blocking. 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. 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. It took him almost two days to find me. When he did, I immediately started harassing him. Trap baited, I ed off Bumble and read an article about how white supremacists use Facebook to recruit new members. 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. 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? 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 are some Disney movies that tank and they suck. But that brand makes you feel something, right? 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. Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte. Wolfe Herd, 31, is the youngest woman ever to take a U.
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