Whitney Wolfe is one of the co-founders of Tinder.
These were the business cards she carried.
So how is it she wasn’t mentioned once in the 30-slide explainer “A Brief History Of Tinder” published on TechCrunch just a few weeks ago?
Most of us hadn’t heard of her until Monday, when the news came out that she is suing the company and its majority owner, IAC/InterActiveCorp, for sexual harassment and discrimination. One of the lawyers told the New York Times that in addition to equity and lost compensation, the purpose of the lawsuit is “to make sure that her role as a woman leader in the company isn’t erased from history.”
In November 2013, fellow co-founders Justin Mateen and Sean Rad removed her co-founder title. She was forced to resign in April.
The complaint is difficult to read, suggesting repugnant abuse and coercion took place. Especially chilling are the moments described when Wolfe asked for help. Rad, the CEO, apparently told her she was being “emotional” and “dramatic” when she complained. Her job, he said, according to the complaint, was to “keep Justin calm.” Justin Mateen was responsible for the abuse (he was suspended following the lawsuit). IAC’s Sam Yagan, co-founder of OkCupid and CEO of Match.com, met with Wolfe after she left the company. She told him about the abuse and he said there was nothing he could do. In the document he’s quoted as responding, “I can still sleep at night.”
The complaint also tells a compelling story that without “Ms. Wolfe’s aggressive lobbying on behalf of the Tinder prototype, and without her remarkably effective marketing campaign, there would likely have been no Tinder.” The name of the app (which is brilliant) was apparently her idea. And in “or about July 2012, while in a car with Mr. Rad, Ms. Wolfe argued that they should ‘put Cardify to bed’ and really focus on [Tinder.]” Later, her job was marketing and outreach. Getting women to use it was not an easy task. It is a dodgy hookup app, after all. She started by visiting sororities at college campuses, where she was trusted as a former sorority sister herself. “I credit you 100% with the growth of Tinder and I think that sending you around the US to visit sororities was absolutely the best investment we could possibly have made on the marketing side,” wrote Joe Munoz, another co-founder, in an email.
Nick Summers, writing for BusinessWeek, confirms much of this. He reviewed his notes from last summer, after speaking with most of the people involved in the project for the magazine. He noticed that “Rad and Mateen seemed to be playing make-believe” with how Tinder was founded, but as the two dominated the company, they were the only co-founders named in his original story. A GQ feature last February mentions Wolfe only briefly, and with the title “vice president of marketing.” The writer describes her like a Red Bull promotions girl. She “might stand on a table in a fraternity and announce that there were 200 hot sorority girls on the app waiting for the men to sign up, then run to the sorority and tell them the reverse.”
And then there’s TechCrunch where companies write their own history:
Women are assumed to be tokens until proven otherwise.
Erasure happens even outside of hostile situations like what went down at Tinder. Take, for example, Xochi Birch, the co-founder of early social network Bebo. Last year her Wikipedia page was up for deletion because… the co-founder is her husband. So why not just redirect her page to his page?
Men are erased from history too. But no one is suggesting Michael Birch’s Wikipedia page redirect to Xochi Birch. Women are assumed to be tokens until proven otherwise.
Whitney Wolfe’s contribution to Tinder is exactly the kind of work that is essential to and undervalued at tech companies. It is emotional labor. The job is its own reward. She got to party with Greeks around the country —isn’t that fun? Isn’t that basically a perk? Women love talking to people, right?
Kate Losse, in her must-read 2012 memoir The Boy Kings, wrote about these frustrating gender dynamics at Facebook. Men, who typically work as programmers, have a clearly defined role at the company. It is harder to pin down the responsibilities of a community manager, or what the salary range should be. Losse’s essay, “Sex and the Startup: Men, Women, and Work,” published in Model View Culture, is essential reading to understand why female non-technical co-founders might find themselves saddled with tasks like buying groceries, while a boy in a hoodie with “hacker swoop hairstyle” is “valued and celebrated.”
Part of the reason the Tinder co-founders tried to erase Wolfe is they believed a “girl founder” both “devalued” the company and made Tinder “look like a joke.” The irony is, Wolfe might have been the reason early users trusted Tinder enough to sign up. It appears that Mateen and Rad were the ones who got by on their looks.