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The Question About Men That Made This Woman a Billionaire

Monday, June 21, 2021 10:00 AM | Anonymous

At 17, she asked herself, “Why are men always in control in relationships?” At 31, Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder of the woman-focused dating app Bumble, is the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire.

he first time I met Whitney Wolfe Herd, four years ago, Bumble HQ was a humble two-bedroom apartment in downtown Austin, Texas. A fresh-faced team of just 10 (with a further 20 in London, New York and Los Angeles), plus Wolfe Herd’s elderly golden Labrador, Jack, were crammed into the tiny space, whose entire second bedroom was a storage cupboard of bright yellow Bumble-branded merch. Wolfe Herd, then 27 and undeniably impressive – polished, passionate, articulate, driven – had founded the dating app that forces women to make the first move just two-and-a-half years earlier. She had recently made the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 list, alongside Australian actor Margot Robbie, bestselling American author Emma Cline and American Olympic gymnast Simone Biles.

In the four years since, she’s been busy. She got married – to Michael Herd, a 33-year-old Texan oil heir, in a lavish three-day event at a castle on the Amalfi Coast – and had a son, Bobby, now 18 months. Bumble’s employees now number more than 700 across offices in Austin, Barcelona, London and Moscow, with 42 million active users in 150 countries. And in February, four hours after Bumble was floated on the New York Stock Exchange, 31-year-old Wolfe Herd became not only the youngest female CEO to take a company public but also the youngest self-made female billionaire, with an estimated net worth of $US1.6 billion ($2 billion). I’m not quite sure what I’ve been doing with my past four years but, certainly, I now feel like a bit of a slouch.

When Wolfe Herd logs onto Zoom today – on-brand in a pink, blue and black Bumble jumper – she has apparently not aged a day either. The only slight difference is her diffidence in disclosing her whereabouts; I’ve visited her former home, a mansion in enormous grounds beside Austin’s Colorado River, but the family no longer live there, she tells me. I imagine they’ve upgraded to somewhere even grander, given their combined worth these days. Since she’s using a yellow Bumble-branded background, however, I have no clues, save for some loud birdsong and occasional shouts from her toddler son. I don’t blame her for guarding her privacy: she’s a billionaire with a baby and a disturbing history of being targeted by trolls.

She is, in fact, one of only 100 self-made female billionaires in the world, with self-made women still accounting for just 5 per cent of the world’s 500 richest people. Part of the problem is a lack of investment in female-founded companies. “It’s hard for women to get capital, because we are held to impossibly high standards,” says Wolfe Herd. “Men are applauded for being big, wild thinkers, while women are given very strict guidelines not to be too out there, to be measured and reserved. It’s hard for us even to be convicted in ourselves for fear of being labelled as self-obsessed or arrogant. I know because I have lived this.”

Even Wolfe Herd’s success is disparaged by some, her achievements belittled because of her partnership with Badoo, the social network behemoth owned by Russian businessman Andrey Andreev, who invested heavily in Bumble in its start-up phase. “Badoo also made investments in a lot of other businesses that you’ve never heard of and which don’t exist any more,” counters Wolfe Herd. “We were given very modest resources and it was not $US100 million as some people reported. The notion that I just had everything handed to me, that’s not the truth.”

I’ve hit a nerve and understandably so. That it’s easier for some to believe that Wolfe Herd – who has been dubbed, somewhat patronisingly, “the Elle Woods of the tech world”, a reference to the 2001 Reese Witherspoon film Legally Blonde – is simply the front-of-house furnishings and not the true founder of a billion-dollar business is evidence of exactly the misogyny she built her app to fight.

For anyone who hasn’t been on the front lines of dating for a decade, Bumble works in a similar way to Tinder or Hinge – based on location and proximity, users swipe right for yes, left for no – but, crucially, women call the shots. Men cannot initiate a conversation (even if they swipe “yes”) and the female party has 24 hours to strike up a chat before the “match” expires. (In same-sex matches, both parties can initiate.) Although basic membership is free, users can upgrade to a premium plan for $44.99 a month or pay $79.99 for 30 “spotlights”, which sends their profile to the front of the queue that others will see when they swipe.

“Do I think we’re solving the world’s problems? No. Do I think we have the potential to shift behaviour in a more positive direction? Yes.”

“It’s not a biological imperative that says men have to ask us out; it’s social conditioning. And the internet has been engineered to reflect gender norms in relationships. But we can change it,” says Wolfe Herd. “I cannot count how many times I have heard women say, ‘I would have never made the first move, but now I approach in real life, too. I’ll make the first move.’ ” She beams. “And they tell me, ‘It’s because Bumble has normalised that for me.’ Bumble has normalised making that first move, whether in person – seeing someone that you think is attractive or interesting – or elsewhere, like sending someone your CV.

“Do I think we’re solving the world’s problems? No. Do I think that, by making small tweaks through product and technology, we have the potential to shift behaviour in a more positive direction? Yes. And do I think that there are long-term positive implications from that? I do believe that is true, yes.”

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