For Bumble, the Future Isn’t Female, It’s Female Marketing
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Whitney Wolfe Herd remembered the day she decided to go after dick pics.
“It started with me barging into a meeting and being like, ‘Guys, we’re going to make a law, and we’re going to make dick pics illegal!’ ” she recalled. Wolfe Herd founded and runs Bumble, the dating and networking app that says it offers women a safe way to meet people online. Bumble had already banned users from posting such pictures to their profiles and was working on software that could detect them when sent in a message. Yet according to a company user survey, about a third of Bumble women had received lewd photos from men, whether through text or other social media that Bumble couldn’t control. “I was just like, ‘This is bullshit,’ ” Wolfe Herd said. If it were illegal to flash someone on the street, she reasoned, there should also be a law against flashing people online. Bumble is based in Austin, so Texas seemed like a good place to start.
Wolfe Herd didn’t have many political connections in the state, but her husband did. Michael Herd is president of his family’s oil business, Herd Producing Co., and a family friend of Gaylord Hughey, an oil and gas attorney who’s one of Texas’ top Republican fundraisers. Wolfe Herd called Hughey, Hughey called a lobbyist, the lobbyist got Democrats and Republicans to sponsor a bill, and in August, Governor Greg Abbott signed it into law. Now, anyone sending photos of “intimate parts” to someone in Texas without consent could be fined $500.
Journalists weren’t allowed at the closed-door bill signing, but Bumble wanted me to be there. I’d been working on a story about the company’s pursuit of gender equality for almost a year. I flew to Austin for what turned out to be a lot of clapping, some polite laughter, and the ceremonial giving away of the governor’s signing pens. When it was over, Wolfe Herd was ecstatic. “I have five other ideas of the next laws I want to pass,” she told me, “basically extensions of what you’ve seen today.” She wanted a law against online harassment, another to end verbal abuse. “Catcalling,” she added. “There’s got to be a digital counterpart to that.” She wanted to make sure delivery apps conduct background checks on their workers. “I want to take it to the federal level next,” she said. “I can’t say we’re a mission-driven company if we don’t put our money where our mouth is.”
This kind of attitude has distinguished Bumble from its rivals. It’s also part of the company’s focus on women. Everything about the brand—its bright honeycomb logo; its pop-up parties at Coachella and in Aspen, Colo.; its embrace of Lizzo memes on Instagram—is designed to attract young women who live and work in cities and order everything from wine to potential partners on their phones.
Men are on Bumble, too, of course. Most dating apps skew disproportionately male, and the company has had no problem signing them up. But on Bumble they seem almost an afterthought: If a man and woman both swipe right on each other, the man can’t talk to the woman unless she contacts him first. For that reason, and because Wolfe Herd and 81% of her employees are female, articles about Bumble often describe it as an app “by women, for women.” Nearly every interview Wolfe Herd does, be it on a morning talk show or a South by Southwest panel, focuses on how the app is designed to prevent the harassment and verbal abuse women face when they try to date online—or be on the internet at all.
“We want women to feel safe and empowered while using Bumble,” Wolfe Herd told Teen Vogue in 2015. Two years later, on CNBC, she said that making women message first “reduces harassment, creates a kinder exchange between two people,” a statement she’d later repeat to me. In 2019, CBS This Morning said Bumble made online dating “safer,” Inc. claimed Wolfe Herd was “on a mission to clean up the internet,” and Fast Company reported that she was building “the female internet.” Bumble’s message of empowerment has given it an almost spotless reputation. “It’s created this kind of groundswell of ‘Wow, this company is doing good,’ ” Wolfe Herd said.
Over the years, Bumble’s name has become shorthand for a company that takes equality seriously. Women who’ve been harassed or discriminated against in other areas of their life lament on Twitter that there’s no such thing as “Bumble-ified rideshares,” “Bumble for gamers,” or even Bumble “for people at bars so I screen out people who step on my feet.” Several women told me they use Bumble because they think it’s safer than other dating apps.
Today, Bumble is the second-most popular dating app in the U.S., behind Tinder. The company says it has 81 million users in 150 countries, though only 11 million of them use the app at least once a month, according to mobile analytics company App Annie Inc. Still, a lot of those people pay for extra features that, among other things, let them see who liked their profiles ($24.99 monthly) or “spotlight” their account so it shows up prominently in other people’s feeds ($3.60 a month).
Bumble doesn’t share its financial information, but former employees say that such extras have made the company profitable since at least 2017, and that at one point last year, Bumble was pulling in about $10 million a month in revenue. In November the private equity giant Blackstone Group Inc. announced a majority stake in Bumble’s parent company, MagicLab, at a valuation of $3 billion, and installed Wolfe Herd as chief executive officer in place of its controversial founder, Russian billionaire and tech entrepreneur Andrey Andreev. In a statement, Wolfe Herd said she would “keep working towards our goal of recalibrating gender norms and empowering people,” bringing Bumble’s feminist mindset to the rest of the company.
This is a pivotal moment for Wolfe Herd. It’s her chance to affect the lives—and relationships—of millions of people. Online dating is the most common way to find a romantic partner in the U.S. According to a 2019 survey by researchers at Stanford and the University of New Mexico, almost 40% of heterosexual couples and 65% of same-sex ones now meet online. And the issues Bumble is tackling are endemic social ills. The Pew Research Center says that more than 40% of people in the U.S. have been harassed or threatened online; women, especially those under 30, are more than twice as likely as men to receive sexually violent threats they find “very upsetting.” So far, no online platform has gotten a handle on this kind of abuse—though many, like Bumble, are trying.
After months of reporting, it wasn’t at all clear how Bumble was keeping women safer or leading to more equitable relationships. Wolfe Herd and others talked a lot about how they were addressing these issues, but the company failed to provide tangible evidence that it was successful. Instead, Wolfe Herd spoke in general terms. At one point, she said, “Our mission, really, ultimately, is to stop misogyny.” The idea that a dating app could eliminate something that’s gone on for millenniums seems naive, as if Seamless were claiming that faster taco delivery could end world hunger.
Based on interviews with more than a dozen people who’ve worked for Bumble or its parent company, it seems to have no system in place to verify that its app is safer, or its users less sexist, than elsewhere. (Most asked for anonymity because the company’s nondisclosure agreement bars employees from saying anything “likely to be harmful” to Bumble’s reputation.) The workers said Bumble establishes policies that it assumes will lead to change but doesn’t follow up to see if they actually do. Instead, the only thing Bumble does know is that people “perceive” it to be safer. In other words, it tracks its reputation. “From an empirical perspective, they can’t say, ‘We have limited misogyny on Bumble’ because they never had a way to measure it,” said Jessica Carbino, who worked for more than a year as Bumble’s sociologist before leaving in March. “If they have that data,” she said, “I haven’t seen it.”
In addition, eight former employees said the company’s internal culture is the opposite of the values of kindness and respect it preaches. They said Bumble’s top executives run the company as if they were the popular group in high school. One woman said that when Bumble had only a handful of employees, it was common for one or two people to be excluded from outings with no explanation. Another said she had no idea that a place so outwardly committed to empowering women would be such a disempowering place to work. In response, a Bumble spokesman said in an email, “Inclusion is at the heart of what we do—and our workplace reflects that.” Later he added: “At Bumble we are committed to empowering women and promoting integrity, equality, confidence, and respect during all stages of the dating experience.”
Wolfe Herd is 30 years old. She has thick, blond hair; big, almond-shaped eyes; and a tendency to talk about herself in a self-deprecating, endearing way. The first time we met, at the beginning of last year, we spent hours in her office, drinking Topo Chico seltzer and talking about our families and backgrounds as Van Morrison played quietly on a faux vintage stereo. Growing up in Salt Lake City, she said, “I didn’t know what the word ‘feminism’ was—I thought it was a bunch of 1970s women.” I told her I knew what she meant.
Wolfe Herd went to college at Southern Methodist University, and then in 2012, at 23, she became Tinder’s first vice president for marketing. She engineered the app’s explosive growth on college campuses by persuading women in sororities to sign up—then showing fraternities how many Tri Delts or Pi Phis they could meet if they did the same.
Her time at Tinder didn’t last long. In 2014, Wolfe Herd sued the company for sexual harassment. A nondisclosure agreement she signed to settle the lawsuit prevents her from talking publicly about what happened. But the lurid details of her complaint—that co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen wouldn’t mention her in interviews because they thought having a “girl founder” made Tinder look unprofessional, for instance, or that Mateen called her a “whore” in front of colleagues—give a clear picture of her allegations. (The suit was settled with no admission of wrongdoing from Rad or Mateen.) It’s not that Tinder turned her into a feminist, Wolfe Herd said. It’s that what she experienced before and during the lawsuit was so the opposite of equality that she came to understand how vital feminism was. “I was getting rape tweets, death tweets, go-kill-yourself tweets,” she said. “It was really painful.” Bumble was born out of that pain.
When Wolfe Herd left Tinder, Andreev offered her a job as chief marketing officer for his dating app, Badoo. Based in London and with tens of millions of active users mostly in Europe and Latin America, Badoo was one of the world’s largest apps of its kind. She turned down the job and instead pitched him on a female-only social network for women to send each other compliments. He wasn’t interested.
“I said, ‘Whitney,’ ” Andreev recalled in a phone interview in April, “ ‘I have hundreds of engineers. I have all this. I understand how we can monetize you, how we can scale the user base—it’s hundreds of people who’re experts on dating.’ ”
Eventually, Wolfe Herd agreed to start a dating app branded for women. Andreev would own about 80% of the company, and she would get 20%. Badoo’s engineers in London would build it, but it would be marketed in Austin, where she lived.
When Bumble started in December 2014, it looked a lot like existing dating apps, except for the requirement that women message men first. This rule became Bumble’s defining characteristic, and its tag line—“Make the First Move”—appears in bright, yellow letters in the company’s offices. Wolfe Herd describes the feature as a way to give women the upper hand. “It’s so much more than just a product gimmick. There’s a true impact from that. It completely reduces all of the tension and friction between the genders,” she told me. “That’s why we have the lowest abuse rates of any platform.” When I asked what those abuse rates were, she told me to talk to her publicist. The publicist promised to get me numbers but eventually admitted Bumble didn’t have them. It knew about its own app (7% to 8% of Bumble users were kicked off for behavior that violated its policies, a figure that the company says has remained steady for years), but it didn’t have corresponding numbers for other apps because there’s no third-party source for that data.
The only piece of internal research that the company could point to when asked why it claimed to be safer than its competitors was a 2018 SurveyMonkey poll of users of 14 dating apps, conducted by Carbino. But this survey contradicted that assertion. In it, 26% of respondents said they’d been harassed on Bumble—a lower percentage than on Tinder, OkCupid, and Match, but higher than the percentage who reported experiencing harassment on Hinge, EHarmony, and others. Bumble’s survey didn’t explain how many users were on each site.
And what happened after a Bumble user sent that initial message to a possible date? Wolfe Herd liked to say that women were “empowered” when they talked to men first. “It’s a recalibration of what society expects,” she said. But the app forced them to do it. New relationships are full of firsts: first dates, first kisses, first conversations about making things official. Did Bumble know if these newly empowered women took the initiative there?
“No,” said Priti Joshi, Bumble’s vice president for strategy. “We don’t have a way of saying, ‘Women are asking to move this into the real world more than men are,’ or vice versa.” For user privacy reasons, Bumble and other dating apps don’t read messages unless they’re flagged as inappropriate. The company knows women send the first message, but after that it doesn’t know who’s making what move, or when.
People who use Bumble said that a relationship (if there is one) unfolds the same way as it always has. “The majority of the time, I still ask women out,” said Ian Sanderson, a 29-year-old engineer in New York. “Sometimes a woman will be more aggressive, but that’s not because of Bumble. It also happens on other apps.” There’s still ghosting on Bumble, and rudeness, and men who reply to a question about their tattoo with, as one woman received in a message, “I’ll let you see it in person when your [sic] giving me a bj.” Andrea Silenzi, who used to host a dating podcast in Los Angeles, said she likes the women-message-first feature, but not because it’s empowering. “It’s more like a screening feature,” she said. “That’s about it.”
Although Bumble was built by Badoo, in Austin it looked and acted like a scrappy tech startup. For the first few years, Wolfe Herd and a small, mostly female team worked out of an apartment. Early on, they wanted to name the app Moxie, but it was already trademarked, so they went with Bumble because of all the marketing possibilities it afforded (queen bees, buzz, a community called the Hive). Wolfe Herd’s early hires were people she knew: two Tinder designers, her sorority “big sister,” a friend of a friend from SMU, a family friend of her husband’s, and so on. Around the office, they were known as the OGs. In 2017, Bumble moved into a squat, sunshine-yellow building with plush couches and honeycomb-shaped shelves for an effect that fell somewhere between a ’60s cocktail lounge and a blowout bar. Instead of perks such as foosball and kegerators, Bumble offered free manicures. At the time, the company had about 40 employees and was 82% white.
Bumble’s message of female empowerment earned it a flurry of positive press. (“Bumble is changing the face of dating apps,” Harper’s Bazaar declared when the app wasn’t yet 3 weeks old.) Within a year and a half it reported 5.6 million users; at 2 years that figure had almost doubled. As Bumble took off, Wolfe Herd, who’d never given up on her idea of a female-only social network, looked to expand. In 2016 the company introduced BFF, a version of the app for people who wanted to make friends. A year later it added Bizz, a professional network that Wolfe Herd described in an interview as an “empowered LinkedIn.”
As millennial women grew more politically vocal during and after the 2016 presidential election, Bumble reflected their mood, becoming more brazenly feminist. Its social media posts changed from cutesy quips—“Be the hot ex-girlfriend your ex-boyfriend stalks on Instagram”—to information about Planned Parenthood fundraisers, minirants about the pay gap, and inspirational quotes from Gloria Steinem. In New York, subway cars were plastered with Bumble ads that said, “Be the CEO your parents always wanted you to marry.” The day after Christine Blasey Ford testified in September 2018 that, as a teenager, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her, the New York Times ran a full-page Bumble ad that said, “Believe Women.”
“We’re not here to capitalize on equality,” Wolfe Herd said about Bumble’s marketing. “We don’t need to slap ‘The Future is Female’ on a T-shirt and put it on our store.” It had, however, posted the phrase to Instagram.
Around this time, the company also announced new anti-harassment features. In 2016 it banned shirtless mirror selfies (“offensive”), nude or underwear shots (“bad manners”), and shirtless or bikini photos taken indoors (“too similar to underwear”). A year later it outlawed hate speech and symbols as defined by the Anti-Defamation League and implemented photo verification to reduce catfishing. (Sharon Stone was briefly kicked off Bumble in December when a user flagged her unverified account as a fake.) After a string of mass shootings in 2018, Bumble banned photos of guns. Every time the app rolled out a feature, it got great press—and, at least once, violent threats from readers of neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.
As with the message-first feature, it’s hard to tell if these policies or new platforms helped women. For example, Bumble announced Bizz in 2017 with a Wired UK cover and a dinner party in New York. Kate Hudson and Karlie Kloss were there. Pop singer Fergie performed. Wolfe Herd gave a speech about power lunches and old boys’ clubs and how Bizz would give women agency over their jobs in the way Bumble had put them in charge of their relationships. On Instagram the company said, “We’re challenging sexism in the workplace.”
But when I tried it, I couldn’t figure out how it was challenging anything. For one thing, Bizz looked like a dating app; my face was more prominent than my professional credentials. The people swiping right on my profile were overwhelmingly men whose careers had nothing to do with mine. One guy offered free Pilates classes. Another said he was a “celebrity manager” and that I should swipe left if I was “boring and easily intimidated.” A third wanted to “connect with people who have innovative and creative ideas” and also sell me on his restaurant-recommendation app. A fourth said he ran his parents’ family-owned business but wouldn’t say what it was.
Treating professional and dating profiles similarly is odd, given the company’s mission. For decades, academic research has suggested that women and minorities are disadvantaged when applying for jobs. Studies show that résumés for applicants with black-or Asian-sounding names get 30% to 50% fewer callbacks. A 2012 study found that science faculty at research universities rated applicants as less competent and offered a lower salary if the name on a résumé sounded female. Bizz seemed almost willfully ignorant of what forms workplace discrimination takes.
“Bizz is not the most amazing experience. It’s not,” Wolfe Herd admitted. She knew it was hard to network and that Bizz pages resembled dating profiles. The platform, she said, “is more of a little incubator test site right now to see if the concept works.” Bizz, which has been available for more than two years, doesn’t appear to have been meaningfully updated since its release. “Candidly,” Wolfe Herd said, “Andrey didn’t want to put the product investment into it.” (Andreev didn’t comment.)
Andreev’s attention to equality within his own company wasn’t stellar, either. According to 2018 public filings, women’s median hourly wage at Badoo is 44% less than men’s—much higher than Britain’s national average—and 72% of the lowest-paid jobs are filled by women. Upper and senior management is only about 14% female. In July, Forbes reported that a former female Badoo CMO said she was asked to “act pretty” for investors; that workers threw drug-fueled parties in the company’s offices; and that female employees’ looks were discussed openly. Andreev denied the claims and hired an outside company to investigate allegations of sexual harassment. Bumble confirmed the report was completed but declined to make a statement about its findings.
According to the company, Wolfe Herd didn’t know about Badoo’s reputation and was horrified to think the allegations might be true. But in 2017, Bloomberg Businessweek reported on what it called Badoo’s “wild soirees” with half-naked models asked to pole dance or used as human sushi platters. And based on Instagram posts, she and several Bumble executives attended Andreev’s Halloween party in 2015. Mid-level Bumble employees in Austin were aware of Badoo’s reputation. They knew, for example, that on International Women’s Day, Badoo gave men the day off. The joke at the company was that if women wanted to be equal, they had to do extra work. (Andreev and Bumble didn’t comment.)
In Austin, Bumble apparently had its own culture issues. On the second floor near Wolfe Herd’s office, a pink neon sign reminded people to “Bee Kind.” But current and former Bumble employees said the company had a Mean Girls vibe, with the OGs serving as the popular clique. Some employees said they felt excluded because they didn’t have the right look or connections. A former intern said he was told to lay gravel and pot plants in the back courtyard at his boss’s house; he didn’t feel comfortable reporting the issue because his boss was Wolfe Herd’s close friend. One person, a woman of color, said that when she asked why Bumble used so many blond models in ads, Bumble’s chief creative marketing officer—a blond woman—said that was the look she preferred. Several people mentioned Wolfe Herd’s habit, when Bumble was smaller, of giving extravagant Christmas or birthday presents such as Chanel shoes or artwork to some employees and not to others. (The Bumble spokesman didn’t comment on the allegations by the intern. He said the story about gift-giving was false and the one about blond models— which the marketing officer denied—was inaccurate.)
In 2017, Bumble threw a party and hired the band Spoon to play at the opening of its new headquarters. Some employees were invited; others saw party photos on Instagram and wondered why they’d been left out. Wolfe Herd is adamant that she has never knowingly treated employees unfairly. “It’s not like we’re like, ‘You’re our favorite, you get to go to Lollapalooza,’ ” she said. That party had been primarily for media, and it just wasn’t possible to invite all of Bumble’s then-40 employees to the opening of the company’s offices. “We have a fire code issue, OK?”
Today, Bumble has about 140 employees. It’s expanded its office space and scaled back the birthday presents and is 51% white, which makes it significantly diverse. Visitors to its headquarters can select their preferred gender pronouns. Company lunches have vegan options. “We do Woke Wednesdays,” said Caitlin Sullivan, who until recently was Bumble’s associate director of people and culture, referring to an internal program where outside speakers talk about social issues. “We had someone talk about the bamboo ceiling, which is about Asian people just having a really hard time moving up within corporations.”
When Wolfe Herd learned that former employees were talking to me, she asked that I fly to Texas so she could address their allegations in person. She appeared shocked by what she heard, and that people were afraid to come forward by name. “I would never suggest anyone get in trouble for speaking their truth,” she said. Of course, she added, if they did say something, “technically, somebody at the company could sue. That is according to the law. Not according to my wishes.” She alternated between asking me if she was a bad CEO and saying she felt employees’ criticism of Bumble was unfair. “It’s almost like, because we’re a company with a mission that is trying to not just pump a product, but pump a product that raises eyebrows and turns the tables, we’re kind of being held to unrealistic standards,” she said.
After all, she added, Bumble really was trying to make its app better for women. It offered users safety tips, such as the recommendation that people FaceTime before meeting in person. Its partnership with the Anti-Defamation League was a response to the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. “The day after Charlottesville, they called our local office and said, ‘We have to do something,’ ” said Renee Lafair, ADL’s Austin regional director. The ADL provided “key words and phrases” that Bumble could ban to curb white supremacy. The company told users that if they saw them in a profile, “please use the ‘block and report’ feature in our app so our moderation team can ban the user.” (Most dating apps have similar bans on hate speech.)
When I asked if the policy had successfully reduced hate speech on Bumble, I received confusing answers. Cecily Gold, Bumble’s director of community experience, said that by being proactive, the company was “creating communities where people know what they’re getting into from the beginning.” She added that this led to lower harassment than on other dating apps but couldn’t tell me how much lower because “I don’t have the stats.” Later a publicist said that reports of harassment had gone up—proof, according to Bumble, that “block and report” was working. Later still, he said that since August reports of rude or inappropriate behavior had gone down 30%. The company also shared 8 app reviews and 11 testimonials from Bumble users about how the app had helped them (“Amanda has been empowered to devote her time and energy to seeking treatment for her rare cancer”), as well as a brief synopsis of Blackstone’s due-diligence findings, which said Bumble users “believed” it was better than the competition at such things as “catering to women’s overall needs” and “offering the broadest set of female-friendly features.”
The only internal research on safety that Bumble could provide was Carbino’s 2018 SurveyMonkey poll. In Carbino’s poll, she surveyed more than 4,500 people—65% were men, and more than 80% were white. She found that 80% of women said Bumble users were more “respectful,” and 77% said they felt safer meeting someone on Bumble than on another app. “While this does not directly establish that Bumble is safer than other similar dating apps, it does go directly to the user’s perception of Bumble as being safer, which is what I tested for,” Carbino said. Bumble didn’t provide any specific information about how its individual policies had affected user behavior.
Bumble is now 5 years old, and its future has never looked so muddled. When Wolfe Herd and I first talked last January, she discussed moving the brand offline. She liked skin-care products. Would women want to put Bumble on their face? “When a woman is taking her makeup off before bed, let’s remind her that confidence is key,” she said. Would women watch Bumble-funded movies? Listen to Bumble-produced podcasts? The company has opened pop-up cafes in San Francisco and other cities and was planning a permanent coffee shop and bistro in New York. “We want you to go to our actual, physical coffee shop,” she said. “Maybe we’ll have marriage planning services down the road. Maybe we’ll have Bumble day care!”
“Forget about the lotion,” Wolfe Herd told me several months later in August, when I was in Austin for the bill signing. Day care was tabled, too. She had a new vision: “Don’t think of it as Bumble vs. Tinder. Think of it as Bumble vs. Facebook.” She explained that in addition to finding people dates, Bumble could crowdsource advice. “Pregnancy, a breakup, chronic pain, where to go for the best live music, where to learn how to cook, anything that is supplementary to life,” she said. That sounded a little like Facebook. But it was also just stuff people Googled. “It kind of comes back to my original vision,” she said, “a woman-and girl-only social network.” Correction: stuff women Googled.
This erratic vision isn’t new. Former Badoo employees who worked on the Bumble app said Wolfe Herd sometimes announced new features to the press and then asked the team to build them. The company spokesman said, “Bumble has never announced a feature without the full awareness of the product development team.”
Later that day I sat in on a planning meeting for the New York coffee shop and bistro, which was set to open in December. “It’s called Brew-ery,” Wolfe Herd said. “During the day, it’s ‘brew,’ and then it’s this ‘-ery’ nighttime thing.” Brew-ery could be a meetup spot for Bumble dates and a way to introduce people to the brand who didn’t know about the app. Bumble had signed a lease on a space in SoHo and teamed up with Delicious Hospitality Group for the food. “Boom!” said Caroline Ellis Roche, Bumble’s chief of staff, when she showed Wolfe Herd renderings of the restaurant. “How cute is that?”
She’d revealed a royal blue brick exterior accented with Bumble’s signature shade of yellow for a sort of French bistro look. There were striped awnings, sidewalk seating, and terrazzo floors. Ellis Roche clicked through slides of coffee cup, coaster, and napkin prototypes as Wolfe Herd reacted with an “uh-uh,” “keep going,” or “this is good.” At one point, there was an intense discussion about whether the pattern on to-go cups should be triangular or squiggly. “Let’s be mindful not to be too copycat of other brands we love,” Wolfe Herd said. “I don’t want it to look like we’re borrowing too much from Outdoor Voices or Glossier. Or the Wing. Let’s be our own thing.”
The next day was the bill signing. It was almost 100F in Austin that morning, and Wolfe Herd was about six months pregnant. If she was uncomfortable ascending the Capitol steps in a blue dress and matching suede heels, she didn’t show it. She shook state senators’ hands, answered questions about her due date, and posed for a photo with Governor Abbott. It’s almost impossible to pass a law in Texas without Republican support, which normally would be a problem for a company that sponsors Pride events and has donated $100,000 to the gun control advocate March for Our Lives. (The organization is affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg LP, which owns Businessweek.) But Wolfe Herd’s husband had given almost $325,000 to Republicans, including to Donald Trump’s campaign, during the 2016 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Still, Bumble had to be careful about making public statements on partisan social issues while the bill was under consideration. Bumble has run at least two donation campaigns for Planned Parenthood, and Wolfe Herd is unabashed in her support for a woman’s right to choose. “That is something that Bumble should stand for,” she told me. But not while the bill was being passed. “One thing we did not react to, which I wanted to, and we were going to, but it came too close to our law,” Wolfe Herd said, “was this crazy abortion stuff.” She was referring to laws passed in 12 states last year restricting abortion. Planned Parenthood had just lost $60 million in federal funding as a result of a Trump administration rule barring clinics that refer patients for abortions from getting government money. Bumble’s social media channels were silent.
Apparently, the company had made the decision that outlawing dick pics would do more for women than making a statement about—or raising more money for—reproductive rights. As far as the science goes, there’s not a lot of evidence a law would be helpful. To date, there’s only one psychological study of men who send unsolicited lewd photos. Published last year in the Journal of Sex Research, it surveyed more than 1,000 men, half of whom had sent unsolicited pictures of their genitals. It found that only 6% did so because they had feelings of animosity toward women. Women’s reactions to dick pics haven’t actually been studied, and surveys of gay men indicate that they sometimes respond positively to photos. In the first three months since the law went into effect, Austin police said they’ve received 10 lewd-photo complaints but would not say how many were investigated or followed up on.
There are plenty of people at Bumble who think the company lives up to its ideals. Some employees told me they felt Bumble was being held to a higher standard because of what it represents and what it’s trying to do. Tinder’s not lobbying for laws, they pointed out, or taking out ads that say “Believe Women.” But that’s the point. When young women are promised equality and safety—even something as nebulous and indefinable as empowerment—they’ll use a service or buy a product because they want so badly for those things to exist. If they later come to believe that this vision of the future isn’t female but just female marketing, they won’t feel just disappointment: Several women who worked for Bumble said the company had broken their heart.
When the bill signing was over, Bumble’s legal team went out for a celebratory lunch. Before they left, Wolfe Herd pulled me aside. She said she wanted Bumble employees to feel free to talk to me and asked if I’d please relay the message. That was the last time we spoke. Over the intervening months, the opening of Brew-ery was again delayed and Wolfe Herd had a son and started a four-month maternity leave. Bumble workers still didn’t trust her assurance that they were free to talk. Not only were they still hindered by the nondisclosure agreement, but Austin is a small city. Many of them still live there. They were applying for jobs or starting their own businesses and worried Wolfe Herd would retaliate against them. She was too wealthy, too well-connected, employees said. Compared with her, they were nobodies. Once Wolfe Herd was named CEO of MagicLab, I asked Bumble if her promise not to sue held true. Now that she was officially in charge, would she let people speak out? The answer was no.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bret Begun at firstname.lastname@example.org, Jeff Muskus
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