After an acrimonious departure from Tinder, Whitney Wolfe has made a defiant return with Bumble, a dating app where women make the first move. Ellie Austin meets her.
Whitney Wolfe is 10 minutes into having her photograph taken and there's a problem. The (female) photographer wants to try some shots of her reclining on a sofa, but Wolfe isn't buying it. "It's too sexy for me. I want this to be taken seriously," she says. "Would you put a male CEO on a couch lying down when he's doing an interview about his business?" She has a point, but her stance is also indicative of something broader.
Wolfe, 28, landed her first tech job five years ago when she was hired by a Los Angeles incubator to develop ideas for start-ups. One of the launches she worked on was the dating app Tinder, and she eventually became its vice-president of marketing. She also began dating its co-founder, Justin Mateen. In 2014, as the app's popularity rocketed (it currently has an estimated 50m users), things turned sour for Wolfe, both professionally and personally. The relationship unravelled and she lost her job, taking Tinder to court for sexual harassment and discrimination (she alleged that she was stripped of the title of co-founder). The lawsuit was settled out of court with neither party admitting wrongdoing. Some saw Wolfe as a feminist icon - the public face of a long battle for equality by the women of Silicon Valley - but, inevitably, angry corners of the internet branded her a gold-digger.
Others might have quietly retreated from an industry that had caused them such public anguish; Wolfe returned defiant. Within months of her departure from Tinder, she had launched Bumble, a dating app in which women make the first move. Dubbed "the feminist Tinder", Bumble has more than 18m users, who spend an average of 90 minutes a day on the app.
Wolfe may be one of the most successful and visible young women in the tech industry, but the judgment she was subjected to during the Tinder saga looms large. Does she fear she'll always be defined by it?
"I have to accept that it's what happened," she says matter-of-factly as we decamp to a restaurant for brunch. "But what I'd say to every young woman is, if there's something hurtful in your past, don't let it hold you back from what you want to do. A man wouldn't. He'd bounce back. Until recently, Travis Kalanick [who stepped down as CEO of Uber in June following a series of scandals] was on the cover of every magazine saying, 'I'm not an asshole.' You think a woman would get to do that? A lawsuit for a man is almost a badge of honour. It makes him cool, crazy. When a woman is involved in a lawsuit, it's 'Don't hire her. She's a devil. She'll come for you.'"
That sexism is endemic in Silicon Valley has long been acknowledged; the lack of diversity and macho, "frat house" culture has been compared to that of 1980s Wall St (see Trevor Phillips). However, in recent months tech's sex problem has become headline news. Earlier this month, an internal Google memo was leaked in which a senior employee - since fired - argued that the company had so few female coders because women are "more interested in people" than things, "more prone to anxiety" and thus biologically ill-suited to working in tech.
Wolfe shakes her head in exasperation. "I'm a firm believer that it [this mentality] goes back to childhood, when we give boys toolboxes and action figures to play with and we give girls Barbie. I don't think women make the decision not to code or build machines because they're scared of it. They do it because, from a young age, they're not exposed to those opportunities."
Wolfe has the breezy confidence you'd expect of someone who founded a globally successful company before their 25th birthday. She's been up since 5.15am answering emails, which is, she says, pretty normal. Is it true that she wakes up at two-hour intervals throughout the night to log on? "I'm trying to stop that. I get no downtime. I don't get a weekend, I haven't lived like a 20-something since I started Bumble in 2014."
There's more admin than usual at the moment as she's getting married next month to Michael Herd, a Texan oil heir she met on a skiing holiday.
How can someone so blissfully ensconced in coupledom relate to the lives of the single women downloading her app? "I don't remember anything about college other than feeling terrible for four years," she says.
"Whenever there was a guy I liked, I felt I had to wait around for him to make the first move, despite the fact that I am a go-getter in every other area of my life. So I put myself back in my college shoes and said, 'How do I fix what failed for me and practically every woman I know? How do I change things so a woman can make the first move and not be judged?' "
So, with the help of Andrey Andreev, the Russian CEO of Badoo (the world's No 1 dating network), Bumble was born. As other dating apps became associated with casual sex and sleazy men sending unsolicited pictures of their anatomy, Bumble offered an alternative that prioritised meaningful connections, with women calling the shots: both men and women can "swipe right" on their phones to register interest in another person's profile, but, when a match occurs, only the woman can start a conversation. If she doesn't, the pairing expires in 24 hours. New features allow users to meet platonic friends (Bumble BFF) and network (Bumble Bizz).
It is a clever and relevant concept. Feminism is a fierce source of pride for today's young women and any Millennial man worth his salt is well versed in the importance of gender equality. Yet I'm sceptical as to whether the app has transformed the dating dynamic as much as it claims. I've heard of brilliant Bumble dates, but there are ample stories from friends who say they have been messed around by men they met on the app. What's more, my male friends - all prolific daters - unanimously believe that the most effective way to send a man into a frenzy of desire is to pay him no attention whatsoever. How does this fit with the Bumble dictum that women should forget about appearing mysterious and make their intentions clear from the get-go?
"I understand why your friends say, 'Go cold, disappear', because society has trained them to think that women can't be too forward. But I've spoken to many men who say that Bumble is amazing because it's the digital equivalent of a guy walking a cute dog. It allows women to approach them without fear of being judged. It's very profound that, in real life, women won't behave in a certain way, but we've got them doing it on the app."
Wolfe grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her father is a property developer, her mother stayed at home to look after Whitney and her younger sister, Danielle. At school, Wolfe "failed at everything", but rather than knocking her confidence, it seems to have instilled a fearless, self-motivating determination. Aged 19, she founded her own company selling tote bags to raise funds for areas affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Bumble currently has 52 employees - 42 of whom are women - mostly based at its Texas HQ. It's clear that she feels a deep responsibility for her team, talking about "my girls" with the mother-hen protectiveness of a headmistress at a British boarding school.
"I care about their wellbeing," she says. "You need a day off because you're having a bad day? Take it. As long as people get their work done, they can go at their own pace." There are flowers if you pull off a stellar project, complimentary blow-dries and a new office coming soon with an in-built "momma's room", where you can go to "breastfeed, take a nap or scream". There is also a "no talking behind each other's back" policy. "If someone comes to me with a negative comment about a colleague, I say, 'Okay, noted. I want you to go and say this exact thing to them. We do not talk behind each other's backs. We're kind to one another.' "
In a different life, Wolfe could have run a self-help empire. She earnestly explains how she regularly emails inspirational quotes to her staff ("Something like, 'A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle'") to remind them that they're teammates, not competitors.
Schmaltziness aside, you have to admire the way in which Wolfe lives by the sisterly principles on which she markets her app.
She is frank about how desolate she felt following her Tinder departure and you sense it has become her mission to use technology to make people - specifically young women - feel less alone.
"I look up to [the Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg as an example of how to take the worst situation in your life and find a way to make yourself better by helping others." (Following her husband's sudden death in 2015, Sandberg wrote a book about her grief that she presents as a framework for overcoming adversity in life.)
Could Wolfe's desire to make a difference one day extend to politics? "Why do people always ask me that?" she laughs. "I could never run for [office]. There are people so much smarter than me."
Hold on, I say, that doesn't sound very Whitney Wolfe. Do you think Donald Trump agonised over his intellectual robustness before throwing his hat into the ring? She leans across the table.
"I'm going to be honest with you. Just because I'm running a company to empower women, it doesn't mean I'm fully empowered. Sometimes a man says something sexist to me and I laugh because I get nervous in the moment ... It's okay to admit that. I'm not being truthful if I don't tell you about my own insecurities."
Let's hope she conquers them fast. I'd vote for her.