It’s hard not to root for Whitney Wolfe.
In little more than a year, she has gone from a high-profile job at the massively popular dating app Tinder to filing a sexual harassment lawsuit that accused her former Tinder bosses of “atrocious acts,” which kicked off what she now calls “the whole media unraveling,” invasions and distractions that continue to erupt at unexpected times.
Her story was widely seized upon as evidence that tech culture is toxic to women, that dating apps such as Tinder are misogynist at their core, that she’s a hero, that she is just seeking attention. She has her own views on all of this. But that hasn’t stopped others from seeing her as a symbol of their own convictions.
Post-Tinder, she struck out on her own, founding her own dating app and naming it Bumble, which is described as like Tinder, except women have the power. Her small company just celebrated its first anniversary.
And she is still just 26.
Now, Wolfe was at the Washington Post Live’s Ingenuity technology summit on Wednesday, past tables of free Kind bars and people starting at laptops, when a young man approached. He held out an iPhone and asked to take a photo with her. He had watched her on stage discussing how she built Bumble.
“So you like it?” Wolfe asked.
“Yeah. It’s awesome,” he said, adding, “I admire you a lot.”
Wolfe smiled. She seemed unsure how to respond. Thank you, she said.
“It’s crazy that you want to take a picture with me.”
She got only a few more steps before a young woman stopped her.
“I just had to tell you,” the woman said, “my best girlfriend met her boyfriend on Bumble.”
Wolfe beamed. She arranged to send them Bumble T-shirts.
Wolfe claimed this degree of fandom does not often happen. She is not usually mobbed like this.
But her story clearly still resonates -- even though she'd prefer to avoid discussing parts of it.
She can’t talk about her Tinder lawsuit, which resulted in chief marketing officer (and her former boyfriend) Justin Mateen’s resignation. There was a settlement reportedly in her favor that secured a promise of confidentiality. But the lawsuit details text messages too crude to detail here and describes how she was stripped of her co-founder title because, as Mateen allegedly said, having a female co-founder “makes the company seem like a joke.”
Wolfe left Tinder, but Tinder has continued to make headlines. The app allows users to swipe left or right for dating matches. It has been criticized for making women a commodity and killing romance – some female users complain men flood them with lewd photos. Just last month, just as Tinder’s parent company was preparing to go public, chief executive Sean Rad gave an off-kilter interview to London’s Evening Standard, where he bragged about his lifestyle and tried and failed to summon the right word for someone turned on by intellect: “I want to say ‘sodomy’?”
“It’s sapiosexual,” Wolfe said now, smiling a bit as she pronounced the peculiar word popular in online dating profiles.
But Wolfe believes dating apps, even Tinder, can work for women.
“I don’t think the platform is inherently bad for women,” she said.
Wolfe said the challenge is in how the technology is used.
“Men and women alike, when given easy access to something like sex, they will oftentimes capitalize on it. It’s human nature,” she said. “I was just on a ranch last weekend and I watched all the animals do that. We’re animals.”
When she left Tinder, Wolfe vowed to leave dating apps behind. But Andrey Andreev, founder of the social-networking site Badoo, asked her to come up with an idea.
Wolfe decided on Bumble because it gives women more control. She compared her app to a Sadie Hawkins dance, where women ask the men. On Bumble, once two people “swipe right” as a signal of interest, only the woman can start the conversation. If she doesn't, the match disappears in 24 hours. (The app is friendly to gays and lesbians, as well, but anyone can initiate the discussion.)
Allowing women to essentially opt-in to a conversation is empowering, Wolfe said.
Bumble is different than most tech startups. It’s based in Austin. It has 13 employees, just one of them a man. The app has logged more than 15 million unique conversations and 80 million matches. More than 90 percent of the female users have taken the first step and started a conversation. Bumble just launched an Android version to go along with its Apple one. They had a party at Bumble's offices in Austin this week to celebrate their first year. There was a yellow cake with a beehive design and "Bee Sweet" balloons. Next year, the company plans to introduce a way to make money and has its eye on one day going public, Wolfe said.
Wolfe said she has no ill will toward Tinder, a company she helped create when she was just 22 but is now her competition. Still, she chose her words carefully.
“The app itself is great. I wish it well," she said. "I really do."