US$720m at 33 years old: The unlikely education that got the Bumble founder rich

whitney wolfe herd
Source: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

Bumble founder, Whitney Wolfe Herd, is one of America’s most successful self-made women entrepreneurs. Her estimated net worth was US$740 million as of June 2022.

She was part of Forbes 30 under 30 in the Hall of Fame category and Consumer Technology category in the same year. 

Previously the co-founder and vice president of the dating app Tinder, Wolfe Herd has since moved on to start her own dating app Bumble, where women have to make the first move.

“When I founded Bumble, it was because I saw a problem I wanted to help solve. It was 2014, but so many of the smart, wonderful women in my life were still waiting around for men to ask them out, to take their numbers, or to start up a conversation on a dating app,” shares the 33-year-old entrepreneur. 

“I thought, what if I could flip that on its head? What if women made the first move, and sent the first message?”

The app currently has a community of over 100 million users across six continents and has celebrated over 1.5 billion first moves. 

But what inspired her to start a dating app which prioritised women’s experiences is not what you’d expect.

How Whitney Wolfe Herd took Bumble from zero to a million-dollar brand 

Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and the power of branding

After experiencing an abusive relationship in high school, Whitney Wolfe Herd left Utah to escape her ex.

She ended up attending Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas County, Texas where she majored in international studies. 

On one of her first days in uni, she met Alex Williamson, her Kappa Kappa Gamma Big Sister (she is currently Bumble’s chief brand officer), who encouraged her to rush (US campus speak for joining a sorority).

As a new girl on campus with no friends at that time, this gave her instant access to a social group. 

The Greek life, or Greek system in American universities, refers to fraternities and sororities. These are organisations that use Greek letters for their names (e.g. Kappa Kappa Gamma).

Sororities are rooted in socialising and building connections either for dates, friends or even potential future business partners. But at its core, being part of a sorority was a brand.

It meant knowing how to carry yourself, how to navigate around rules and expectations around how to look, how to behave and whom to hang out with — all designed to tell the world what kind of girl you are.

Whitney Wolfe Herd

Whitney Wolfe Herd was part of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. Source: Sean Rayford/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

The birth of Bumble: Disastrous relationships and sorority experiences

So, in what way did Greek life shape Whitney Wolfe Herd? 

Before we dive into that, it’s necessary to understand that Greek life has historically been an extremely privileged institution in terms of race and class throughout their history, according to the New York Times

Such traditions and practices were carried forward in sororities and fraternities. These range from rigid rules sororities are held to on a national level and are as dangerous as policies contributing to the perpetuation of rape culture.

For example, the national Pi Beta Phi policy at the University of Oregon states that social events may be hosted or co-hosted only at off-campus venues, men’s fraternities or private party rooms, but not at their own chapter house.

These rules automatically strip women of their voice to make choices.

Prior to attending SMU, Whitney Wolfe Herd dated an abusive boyfriend on and off in high school.

“I experienced severe emotional abuse from my high school boyfriend during my really formative years, and it stripped me down to nothing,” she tells Times Magazine.

“It showed me a very dark side of relationships, and it helped inform my understanding of what was wrong with gender dynamics.”

The community she grew up in also played a part in perpetuating that women didn’t have much power over their choices.

Though her family wasn’t Mormon, the Herd family lived in a community that was deeply rooted in the religion’s conservative values.

Herd’s childhood friend Liddy Huntsman told Time Magazine: “Women are looked at so differently here. The male is who you obey.” 

All these experiences led to the birth of Bumble.

Whitney Wolfe Herd

Bumble currently has a community of over 100 million users across six continents and has celebrated over 1.5 billion first moves. Source: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

From co-founding Tinder to starting her own dating app

At the start of her career, she was the co-founder of the dating app Tinder where she focused on marketing. Around the same time, she began dating one of the co-founders Justin Mateen. 

As her relationship with Mateen soured, so did her position in the startup.

Former Tinder employees reportedly remember  Herd was verbally abused by the executives, including being slut-shamed in the office and being resigned to “fetch breakfast”.

After filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company in 2014, she left Tinder and set out to “prove everybody wrong.”

Williamson commented that Herd wanted “to prove that she was the person that did the marketing behind Tinder, she did help the company grow, and all that was being stripped from her. She did it once, and she’ll do it again, better.”

Similar to Greek life, the anchor of the app was its branding. And at 24, branding was the thing Wolfe Herd knew best. 

She branded Bumble as a friendlier dating app for women.

The app’s central feature is that only women can initiate a conversation in heterosexual matches, sparing users from the spamming that women often endure on other sites.

Just like every start-up, there were growing pains. A former Bumble employee shared that the app received so much negative feedback about the user interface:

“But all Wolfe Herd cared about was the brand.”

Initially inspired by Sadie Hawkins school dances where women ask men to be their date, the CEO intended for Bumble to be a social platform where women could take charge of relationships, platonic or not. 

She never wanted Bumble to be branded as just another dating app, but to be a platform for meeting every type of person you might want in your life. 

“We’re definitely not trying to be sexist, that’s not the goal,” Herd said. 

“I know guys get sick of making the first move all the time. Why does a girl feel like she should sit and wait around? Why is there this standard that, as a woman, you can get your dream job but you can’t talk to a guy first? Let’s make dating feel more modern.”

Despite being known as the “feminist Tinder,”, Bumble has positioned itself as a networking platform rather than a dating app.

In 2016, the company introduced a new model “Bumble BFF” which allowed people to use the app to make platonic friendships. 

The app also has introduced another model called “Bumble Bizz” where users can use that feature to grow their professional networks. 

whitney wolfe herd

Whitney Wolfe Herd worked on Bumble with a new mission of reinventing the Internet for women. Source: Steve Jennings/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

Whitney Wolfe Herd: Empowering women to take charge of their romantic life

After the lawsuit with Tinder, Herd experienced cyberbullying. Having personally gone through that first-hand, she gained a new perspective on how social media could easily be weaponised.

Since then, she had a new mission: to reinvent the Internet for women and for future generations.

“When you think about it, women are making the first move, which is empowering,” the Bumble CEO says. “We tolerate zero abusive behaviour, so that kindness piece is there, too.”

Efforts included the push to ban unsolicited lewd photos in 2019 which imposed a US$500 fine on anyone who sent unsolicited photos.

The company also worked on verification processes to weed out fake accounts and rolled out new guidelines around harassment and body shaming.

Herd acknowledges that working towards changing behaviour on an app can only do so much. 

“Do I think by a woman making the first move on Bumble we’re going to solve every women’s issue around the world? No,” says Herd.

“Do I think it’s a good first step to recalibrate an age-old system that sets us all up for failure, men and women? Yes. Because the Internet has the megapower to shift behaviour – if you use it for good.”

To help spread the word of Bumble at the start of its launch, she created a network of Bumble Ambassadors, college women who live the brand’s core message of being kind and embodying its values.

A week before the woman-first app launched, Herd called her team and told them to book a flight to Austin the next day.

When they arrived, she announced they would be filming a promotional video of them skydiving. None of her colleagues questioned the idea.

“The whole point of it was that if we can jump out of an airplane, we can message a guy first,” Samantha Fulgham, director of field marketing says.