The Founder Of Bumble On The Future Of Dating & Making It In Your 20s

Photo: Kristen Kilpatrick
You have to be in the right frame of mind before sitting down to comprehend what Whitney Wolfe, the founder of Bumble, has achieved so far in her career. Because not only is she the CEO of the US's fastest-growing dating app (over 22 million users worldwide, and counting), with a stake in the business that would make her a centimillionaire, she’s also 28 years old. If you're at all lacking in self-esteem, it's a bit of a kick in the teeth.
Wolfe, who also happens to be on the current cover of Forbes magazine and included on its esteemed 30 Under 30 list (no big deal), is credited with having changed the dating game by letting women make the first move.
Famously, she was inspired to start her feminist company after a scarring experience as one of the cofounders of Tinder, which remains the world’s most downloaded dating app. Wolfe sued the company for sexual harassment in 2014 and alleged that she’d been discriminated against while working there. She claimed her ex-boss and former boyfriend, Justin Mateen had sent her abusive texts and called her a “whore” after she ended their relationship, while another cofounder was purported to have said that having a female cofounder made the company "seem like a joke". The case was settled without admission of wrongdoing for an undisclosed sum.
Following the ordeal, which sent her into "a deep depression", it’s no wonder Wolfe decided to take a different tack in her next venture – by focusing on women. In so doing, she has gained the ultimate revenge in an already saturated market. Bumble is now Tinder’s closest competitor and is quickly catching up, with faster year-on-year growth.
Given all that Wolfe has achieved at such a young age, you wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling trepidation before meeting her (her recent Italian wedding to Michael Herd, a restaurateur who's also in the oil and gas business, even warranted a lengthy feature and whole gallery’s worth of images in Vogue. Again, prepare to feel at least a little envy as you click on). But in person, Wolfe's refreshing candour and concern for the people around her are disarming, immediately putting you at ease. Refinery29 sat down with the barnstorming entrepreneur to talk self-care, overcoming rejection and her company's recent foray into networking, Bumble Bizz.
On dealing with sexists in the workplace
"When we were building Bumble Bizz, a lot of people told me they were glad because they were being solicited through LinkedIn by guys saying things like, 'Professionally speaking, you’re really beautiful'. That’s not professional. This happens a lot – I get those messages. Even if they’re not necessarily inappropriate in an inflammatory sense, they'll say stuff like, 'Hi, I saw you on Bumble and just thought I’d reach out to you here'. No, that’s not how this works, don’t do that.
"My advice would be to just ignore messages like that. Don’t engage with bullies or harassers. Telling them off is great if that gives you peace of mind, but it’s just not worth your time to engage with those people. Bumble is great because women have to make the first move so you’re protected, it’s secure, you aren't being bombarded by messages in dating or in the professional realm."
On attending to fragile male egos
"When the woman makes the first move, there’s a whole psychology behind it. If you look at traditional male-to-female connecting, men have been given the role since day one to go after women and chase them down. Given that role and expectation, they’re obviously going to get turned down at some point because if you’re always doing something, you’re not always going to succeed at it. They’re going to be rejected.
"While women have been trained to play hard to get, to be demure, we’re telling men to be aggressive and go after her. But in order for him to get here, he has to figure out how to push through rejection and unfortunately, when someone experiences rejection, it can breed aggression and aggressive behaviour. It makes you insecure. I’ve been rejected before and it made me insecure and there have been times in the past when I’ve said something mean as a result. It’s just a natural human instinct to be like, 'I didn’t like you anyway'. Even after a simple rejection, like not getting into a certain school, someone might say, 'Oh, I didn’t want to go there anyway'. Yeah, you did, but it didn’t work out. So when it comes to love and romance, especially hiding behind a profile screen, men become aggressive. The nice thing is, if a woman is making the first move, that dynamic evens out."

I’ve been in a place in my life where I’ve had no confidence, no self-respect, zero self-worth and it was really easy to hurt my feelings. Then when you rebuild some of that, you become stronger.

On making the first move
"Personalised lines are the best. We ran a study comparing people who just said 'hey' and those who said 'hey' with a first name, and that made such a difference because it was obvious the person was talking to them specifically and not just anyone. We’re building conversation starters into the app soon and I can’t give you too much detail, but we’re playing with a few ideas, such as the most popular conversation starters of the day, and stuff like that."
On dealing with rejection
"Don’t take it personally. Every human on earth has their own personal preference. It’s ok – you cannot expect every single thing to go exactly the way you want it to, people are so different from each other and it’s ok to let certain things work and certain things not work. It's about finding confidence within and feeling secure, regardless of what people around you do.
"But this is easier said than done, which is why I want to build a company that encourages empowerment, confidence and respect, because when you have self-respect, it’s really hard to get you down. I’ve been in a place in my life where I’ve had no confidence, no self-respect, zero self-worth, and it was really easy to hurt my feelings, anything would trigger me to be sad. Then when you rebuild some of that, you become stronger."
On picking yourself up after a knockback
"First of all, you have to realise that things are bigger than just you – that’s what I had to do. I had to think: all this stuff that is hurting my feelings, making me depressed, sad or anxious, this is bigger than just me and every time I feel this way, there are millions of women around the world who probably feel this way, too. Once you make it bigger than yourself and strive to do something to make a change for others, it will rebuild you. I know a lot of women who have been in abusive relationships and they healed by helping other women going through that. See if you can lend an ear, help or support to others going through something similar."
On ageism in the workplace (and why profiles on Bumble Bizz don't contain a user's age)
"I’ve never experienced it myself, but unfortunately a lot of women I’ve spoken to have. They've got married or are in abusive relationships and are now in their 40s or 50s and they may want to get back in to the workplace or be trying to rebuild their lives but they’re scared and thinking, 'Who’s going to hire me when there’s a 22-year-old, fresh out of university with all these skills?' They feel at a disadvantage. I wanted to alleviate the assumption that employers are only looking for 20 to 25-year-olds. It works the other way, too – some people assume you have to be in your 40s to have any experience but maybe the 20-year-old has just as much savvy and skill."
On being the CEO of the US’s fastest-growing dating app in her 20s
"I try not to let my age affect how I run the company, other than ensuring it means I have a good understanding of what women my age are going through. I think it’s been a huge help because I can tell you what it felt like to be a 25-year-old three years ago, and I can relate to this young dating scene. And now I’m transcending that – I just got married – and am thinking about family, so these things are now in my mind, which changes how you think about the older demographic. It reminds me that I need to be thinking about women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, but that I also need to be paying attention to what the 19-year-olds are doing. Age is so important because, in terms of culture and in terms of marketing, it does define what people are interested in."
On the pressure to carry on achieving after so much early success
"It’s all relative. What I perceive as what I’ve achieved might be different to what someone else thinks I’ve achieved. I don’t measure achievements by 'I did this or that by this age'. I measure it by the impact we’re having. It’s inspiring and exciting. A German woman told me just this morning that it’s still taboo for women there to make the first move and that excites me because it means we still have so much left to achieve."
On leading a family-friendly business
"We’ve hired a lot of women with children recently and it’s given me a lot of perspective on just how hard it is to be a working mum. I have so much respect for the men and women with kids that it's made me think about it more than I would have a year or two ago. I wasn’t thinking about the mum market before because it didn’t touch me. Now, we let our employees bring their children to work, we let them leave early to go do school pick-ups or drop-offs and then they get back online later. We’re a very mother-friendly workplace – we have a pumping room for new mums. We try to take care of people so they can balance their lives. I’m not good at practising this in my own life, I’m trying to get better, but you have to have balance."
Photo: Kristen Kilpatrick
On the possibility of adapting Bumble for parents in the future
"Absolutely [we would introduce new features for parents]. They’re not so much my ideas at this stage, they’re team members’ ideas – the mothers and fathers on the team often say, 'I wish this or that existed'. They’re not wild about anything else on the market right now, so maybe that's something we’ll think about down the road."
On striking the perfect work-life balance
"We like [that Bumble allows users to flick between dating, socialising and networking], because we want to mimic real life. We don't want to separate it to a point where it feels unnatural. If you walk into a bar, for example, there will be lots of different connections taking place – people on work meetings, groups of friends, new mums talking to each other, romantic relationships taking place. In your phone you're getting messages from people you work with, people you went to school with, people you might be romantically interested in. This is what makes up your life. I don’t believe it’s healthy to separate them so much. We think that if you're connecting in an empowered way, it’s ok for them all to live together.
"The nice thing about Bumble Bizz is, it’s not necessarily work, it’s networking and just getting to know each other. It’s not stuffy and serious, it’s fun. You could be like, 'Hey, oh you’re a journalist too, I love that magazine, let’s get a coffee and talk about what we love and don’t love'. Or you might be tired and want to talk to someone who can relate to your particular work problems."

I know how bad it made me feel when I was going through dark times and I would read about all these 'boss girls' and successful tech people. They sounded so perfect and I thought, 'This will never be me.'

On reports that she wakes up at two-hour intervals every night to check her emails
"I’ve tried to do it less but it still happens a lot. I’m trying to get my sleep under control. I’m doing Headspace and I’m trying to sleep with my phone charging on the other side of the room. I get so nervous [putting it on airplane mode] because there are a lot of things that can go wrong and I’m very close to my loved ones and I like to always have contact."
On striking a balance between presenting the 'real' you and the optimum version of you on social media
"This is a huge topic in our office right now. Mental health is so important and we think the pressure to be perfect is making us all crazy and sad. But it’s hard because, on the other hand, when you’re meeting new people you want to put the best foot forward.
"We’re working through this conflict right now as a business, too. Do we team up with an empowered beauty brand and encourage users to go makeup-free in their profile pictures to raise money for charity? There are so many different things we can do. Just be yourself, whether you’re dressed up to the nines or in your comfy workout clothes; be whoever you want to be."
On being open about her own struggles with stress and mental health
"I do [feel a responsibility to be open]. I like being honest and I know how bad it made me feel when I was going through dark times and I would read about all these 'boss girls' and successful tech people. They sounded so perfect and I thought, 'This will never be me because I have all these problems'. I think it’s healthy and important [to be open and honest]. We have an audience of 22 to 23 millions users now – that’s a lot of people and as the CEO, it’s my responsibility to ensure that both my team and our users feel healthy and happy."
On dealing with work stress
"If you can give me the answer [to how to deal with it], I’d be really grateful! I don’t [deal with it]. I’m struggling. I have panic attacks. I have horrible anxiety. I have really, really good days where I feel on top of the world, I’m on inbox zero and feel like a machine, and then there are times when I think I can’t do this anymore and it’s ok to feel that way. Not everything is going to be easy and when you just accept and embrace that, it becomes easier."
On her self-care rituals for staying grounded
"I try to put the phone down throughout the day – even just for 20 minutes at a time – and get some stuff done and think about something else. I’m trying to read more and spend more mealtimes with no phone. With my husband, I try to leave my phone in the car at least two to three times a week if we go out to dinner, or leave it upstairs in the bedroom while we cook."

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