BY MEREDITH MCBEE ’19
Whitney Wolfe Herd ’11 is inside her second-floor office at the Bumble headquarters in Austin, Texas, pacing back and forth. One hand clutches her phone, while her free hand slices the air. She buzzes around the room, navigating her way through the plush pink chairs as if she is running an obstacle course.
Herd is the founder and CEO of Bumble, a social connection app that empowers women to make the first move. In just four years, her female-centric business has grown to more than 35 million users in 160 countries.
In tech speak, her company is a unicorn, a startup valued at a billion dollars or more. Wolfe Herd is something of a mythological creature herself as one of the creative disruptors behind the digital romance revolution. She is a co-founder of the Tinder dating app and the visionary force behind Bumble, America’s fastest-growing dating app.
Drawing on her own experience as the target of cyberbullying, Wolfe Herd reinvented the dating space with Bumble. She shaped an environment where users were required to mind their manners and women felt safe, respected and in control. The app’s basic interface is familiar. Users swipe right on the profiles of potential dates in whom they are interested, and left on those they’re not. Bumble upends the archaic tradition of men making the initial contact; instead, in heterosexual matches, women must start a chat within 24 hours or the match expires.
Two vertical expansions of the original platform connect other aspects of womanhood. There is Bumble BFF for those seeking a friendly connection and Bumble Bizz for those looking for a business connection.
The young entrepreneur’s achievements have earned major accolades. In December, she appeared on the cover of Forbes’ 30 under 30 issue, after making the list for the second consecutive year. She also was named to the TIME 100, Time magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people of 2018. In July, she was tapped for the board of Imagine Entertainment, the film and television production company founded by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.
Despite her success, Wolfe Herd remains humble.
“It’s not that I’m some rare breed of human,” she says. “Everybody has the ingredients to achieve what I’ve achieved.”
Her efforts are all linked to her desire to end abusive and misogynistic behavior.
“I get out of bed to reverse engineer that every day,” she says.
Wolfe Herd moves fast, both in person and in her work, jumping from one conversation to another, one potential idea to another.
Back in her office, she is still pacing. The nerve center of the Bumble hive overlooks the sunny workspace below, decorated with hexagonal cushions and a fluorescent “Bee Kind” sign. The apiary theme is carried throughout the interior, from the honeycomb motif accents to the bright yellow walls. The warm, fun and feminine vibe may not be the norm for a tech company, but it intentionally reflects Bumble’s celebration of female kindness, creativity and collaboration.
Members of her core team, some of whom have been with her from the beginning, are usually nearby. They’re accustomed to reacting at lightning speed to keep up with their CEO.
“If an opportunity comes to further our mission, Whitney’s going to have it done by the time she’s off the phone,” says Samantha Fulgham, director of field marketing who has been with Bumble from the start.
Wolfe Herd reached back to her SMU roots when creating a team to launch her startup. She recruited Alex Williamson ’10, her Kappa Kappa Gamma Big Sister who now serves as Bumble’s chief brand officer, and Caroline Ellis Roche ’14, Wolfe Herd’s chief of staff.
“She was always entrepreneurial,” says Williamson. “She could figure out how to make things happen.”
As Wolfe Herd has demonstrated throughout her career, life’s lemons become a valuable commodity in her hands.
She arrived on the Hilltop in 2007 from Salt Lake City, Utah, intending to major in advertising, but she didn’t make the cut for admission to the Temerlin Advertising Institute for Education and Research in Meadows School of the Arts.
“Maybe the reason I failed that test is because that wasn’t the right place for me,” Wolfe Herd says.
Instead, she majored in international studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, which she says provided a solid marketing foundation that has been pivotal to her career.
“I think SMU has this remarkable way for charting students on the right course,” she says. “People will work with you to make sure you’re taking the right classes to achieve your ‘big picture’ dreams.”
While at SMU, Wolfe Herd founded two companies, each in response to a problem she saw in the world. Tender Heart was a clothing line that brought a message of fair trade. The Help Us Project was a line of grocery bags that benefited the Oceans Future Project, which was a direct response to the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
After graduating, she served as a volunteer at orphanages overseas. She returned to the U.S. determined to do something creative and philanthropic, but she wasn’t sure what that was. At the time, she had no employment possibilities lined up. She was living at home, an arrangement her parents told her had an expiration date.
So, she found a job at Cardify, a customer rewards app. During her brief tenure, she had no idea that her next career move would turn the dating world upside down and change her life forever.
BUMBLE HQ Bumble’s Austin, Texas, headquarters – affectionately known as “the hive” – exudes a warm, fun and feminine vibe that may not be the norm in the tech industry, but it intentionally reflects the company’s celebration of female creativity and collaboration.
In 2012, she co-founded the game-changing dating app Tinder. She marketed the platform at SMU and on other college campuses. That early success – with all its thrilling highs – also led to a life and career crisis. She left in 2014 and filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging sexual harassment and wrongful termination.
She was bullied online by complete strangers during this period. While she had once viewed social networking as a conduit for connecting people and building community, she watched as online interactions became weaponized, and she became the target of misogynistic and hate-filled attacks collapsing on me,” she says.
At the time, she thought her career was over.
“It is unbelievable how that negativity can completely control your life,” she says. “There were moments when I let that fear engulf me to the core.”
The experience gave Wolfe Herd a new perspective on social media. She wondered what it looked like for younger people and what it would turn into for future generations. She soon had a new mission: to reinvent the Internet for women.
In her entrepreneurial fashion, she developed the framework for a female-only social network called Merci. On this platform, women could only give each other compliments.
This idea morphed into a dating app after her investor and business partner, Andrey Andrev, encouraged her to transfer her passion for a kind social network into the dating sphere.
“I said no, I’m never going back into the dating world, absolutely not,” Wolfe Herd says. “With a lot of convincing, we agreed to start this company together.”
Snippets of Merci remain in the Bumble DNA.
“When you think about it, women are making the first move, which is empowering,” Wolfe Herd says. “We tolerate zero abusive behavior, so that kindness piece is there, too.”
Wolfe Herd returned to her alma mater with her new idea. She bought dozens of cookies at JD’s Chippery in Snider Plaza, plastered each box with Bumble stickers and passed out the sweet rewards to students who downloaded the app.
To help spread the word, she created a network of Bumble Ambassadors, college women who live the brand’s core message of being kind and embody its stylish coolness and cheeky attitude.
A week before the woman-first app launched, Wolfe 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,” Fulgham says.
Nearly four years and 500 million first moves later, Wolfe Herd is never short of new ideas.
“I think that’s part of her genius, not only coming up with ideas that resonate on a personal level and have empathy and kindness at their core, but also the ability to get everybody in the room excited and passionate about the same project” says SMU alumna Cain Maclin ’12, Bumble’s vice president of marketing.
Wolfe Herd’s genuine commitment to female empowerment has made her a role model for young women, as illustrated during a recent encounter on the streets of Austin during a company field day.
Dressed in Bumble gear, the team chalked sidewalks with “Download Bumble” and posted yellow fliers advertising the app around the downtown area. They happened upon a bachelorette party, and the honoree told Wolfe Herd that one of her dreams was to meet the Bumble founder. She had no idea that the woman standing next to her was, indeed, the “queen bee.”
When she found out, she burst into tears.
“I don’t think Whitney had ever seen a fan like that,” Fulgham says. “She has no idea how many women look up to her across the world.”
Last fall, her admirers everywhere swooned over photos of her storybook wedding in Positano, Italy, to businessman Michael Herd. They met through friends several years ago. Although she didn’t know it when they met, he is the son of one of her favorite SMU professors, Kelly Herd, a filmmaker and former lecturer in the Meadows School.
“That just goes to show the serendipitous nature of an SMU education,” Wolfe Herd says. “I looked up to her for her caring, articulate and creative abilities as a professor. She’s proof that you meet professors who will have a lifelong impact on you and stay with you long after your graduation date.
“I always say I would trade almost anything to just go back to SMU for a day,” she adds.
Wolfe Herd believes her SMU experience helped her become strong and confident enough to change the dating world.
“SMU gave me the foundation to become an adult and evolve into the woman I am today,” she says.
Today, Wolfe Herd is a very busy executive. She finally puts down her phone and collapses on a plush chair for a few seconds. Then, she gets up, arms moving as she talks to a colleague. Back to work she goes.