I have seen the future. But there were no hoverboards or microchips under the skin. There were no armies of free-thinking droids. There was no Jetsons city in the sky.
Instead, unexpectedly, the future was lingering in a members' bar in Soho. Somewhere between glasses of champagne and polite chat about the London weather, the future whisked in, whisper-thin, groomed, glam, big-eyed.
The future I have seen came in the shape of 26-year-old Whitney Wolfe and her team. Whitney Wolfe was a co-founder of Tinder, the dating app that caused shockwaves around the world because of the way it encouraged young people to meet and connect. As the app spread like wildfire and irreversibly altered dating goalposts, Wolfe was then embroiled in a legal case with one of her fellow co-founders, who she also had an on/off relationship with. Wolfe claimed she had to leave the company when his behaviour became abusive and threatening. Wolfe walked away with $1m and stocks in Tinder, aged 25.
What had started as an experiment at tech incubator hatch.com turned into an app now valued at $750m, used by over 50 million people (12 million matches a day) and which has been dubbed by Vanity Fair the “Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse”.
How often are groups of young women dismissed as silly, daft, easily distracted? Yet Wolfe co-founded surely one of the most influential mobile apps yet
After Wolfe left Tinder in the controversy of the trial, she launched Bumble in December 2014 – another dating app with a small team of women. Bumble, which, in a similar way to Tinder, works on the premise of swiping your way to romance, has one major and influential difference: men can’t approach women first.
Caroline Ellis, Bumble's director of operations and international marketing, told me that this simple rule is attracting different types of people to the app, and the culture of the app is affecting how women and men are behaving off their phones, too. “Girls are approaching guys in bars,” she tells me. “And guys aren’t expecting to pick up the cheque if they are on a Bumble date.” It’s impressive (especially in the space of 14 months). Bumble gives permission for women to be confident, to take charge, to not be confined by traditional ideas of who should approach whom. And, in turn, the app attracts men who in no way find this problematic. Arguably, Bumble is the first feminist app, which stamps all over traditional notions of courtship and which celebrates women who make the first move – millennial catnip, surely?
The fact that the first feminist dating app has come from Whitney Wolfe, however, is not that surprising. A very young woman in tech, who has has been through a high-profile, expensive and gruelling lawsuit, probably has developed not only a tough skin, but a heightened sense of sexism. As a result, Wolfe is working with a lot of women – and young women (I almost spat my champagne out when Caroline Ellis told me she was 23). The goal, her team tells me, was always to empower women.
And Wolfe’s commitment to empowering women was entirely evident in the parallel universe that I stepped into that evening. Here was a global tech business, hosting a room full of journalists, and there wasn’t a single man in the room. I looked at these confident, glamorous twentysomethings working the room, complaining about demanding schedules back and forth across the Atlantic, with plans to head to Brazil and Australia, and wondered who were they. Of course, I’ve been in rooms where there are only women, but normally we’re discussing sexism or FGM or more women on boards. We’re not normally chatting to one of the most exciting people in tech about the launch of her second widely successful app. And how often are groups of young women dismissed as silly, daft, easily distracted? Yet Wolfe co-founded surely one of the most influential mobile apps yet. And now Bumble is the second most popular app in the US after Tinder. That would suggest there’s nothing silly or daft about her.
My hope is that I was actually looking into the future, not a parallel universe where one woman has slipped through the net and snuck into a territory reserved for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. My hope is that it wasn’t a false projection of what could be if Silicon Valley did something meaningful about its massive gender problem (despite the work of the valiant few), but actually a window into what life will be on the not-so-distant horizon.
Wolfe was very vocal about her appreciation to Michelle Kennedy, who is seven years her senior, the British deputy CEO of Badoo, who sits on Bumble’s board and seems to be Wolfe’s righthand woman for everything. “Michelle is proof that women don’t have to choose – you can have a family and be the deputy CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company,” she told the room. The importance of a mentor goes without saying but, clearly, Wolfe is wondering how she will continue her success if she wants a family – and, at a mere snip of 26, where Wolfe will go is anyone’s guess. But, as she learns from 33-year-olds, and employs 23-year-olds, wherever she’s going I’m pretty sure she’ll be taking other women with her.