When Olivia June, now CEO of Hey! VINA, relocated to San Francisco in her 20s, finding a new set of female friends proved challenging. June used OkCupid to connect with potential romantic partners, but she couldn’t find a similar online service for making female friends. When messaging women through the dating site proved largely fruitless, June started hosting a monthly happy hour to mingle with other women. When 60 women showed up at her initial event, she knew she was on to something.
As these meet-ups continued and the conversations deepened, June noticed a theme: Most of the women felt that their success was hindered by a “boys club” mentality. The women decided to collectively form a “girls club” to help one another rise above the patriarchal systems and gender confines holding them back. June ended up not only making female friends but also amassing a network of like-minded women dedicated to achieving greatness together.
Becoming a lady boss
June’s packed-house happy hours were proof that women wanted to connect with other women. But the technology to easily do so was still lacking. So she decided to create the software herself, but not before spending some time in the tech startup world. “I took a bunch of jobs at early-stage tech startups to learn everything I could,” she says. Once she built up her confidence and connections, she began to venture capital.
“Being a first-time female founder with a product for women definitely meant the odds of securing venture capital weren’t in my favor,” June says. She’s right: TechCrunch reported that women-led startups only secured 2 percent of venture capital funding in 2018. Nearly every investor June pitched her idea to seemed to think women meeting other women was not a problem and therefore didn’t need an app solution. Instead of backing down, June doubled down. She focused on execution, revising her pitch to emphasize that the demand for a women-only platform was high.
Hey! VINA, which June describes as “Tinder for (girl) friends,” launched in early 2016. More than 100,000 people joined during the first week on Apple’s App Store. The only other app with that stat is Instagram. In the years since, women in 158 countries have met their best friends, roommates and business partners by swiping right on Hey! VINA.
One of June’s biggest missions, through Hey! VINA and the associated blog Vinazine, is to encourage women to choose community over competition. “One of the biggest challenges for women and women’s empowerment is the narrative of women fighting each other to get their seat at the table,” June explains. This reinforces the traditional gender biases holding women back and wastes energy better spent helping one another get to the top.
“The pie is infinite and a rising tide floats all boats,” June says. If women focus less on competition and more on creating a partnership-based community, the toxic narrative will change and women will win more positions of power. Moreover, women modeling kind and supportive treatment of one another will help reduce the adolescent “mean girl” behavior that’s often a precursor to the adult cattiness.
One way that Hey! VINA encourages members to celebrate one another is through LadyBrag, a platform for sharing achievements. June says that women don’t brag as much as men, largely because our society still lauds female modesty. This modesty is holding women back: “We’re missing out on opportunities because people don’t know how awesome we are,” June says. Studies confirm that women underestimate both their intellect and competence. LadyBrag helps women get comfortable both tooting their own horns and celebrating one another’s accomplishments.
For health’s sake
In addition to connecting women and building community, June sees Hey! VINA as one way to alleviate loneliness, an often-overlooked health crisis that former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy says results in health effects, “similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” While humans are more connected than ever, they’re not truly connecting, partially because so much of their daily interactions are not in person. “You need to be face to face,” June says, “hearing each other’s voices, exchanging energy, touching.”
It may feel counterintuitive that the CEO of an app company is telling you to get off your phone, but Hey! VINA’s objective has always been to get their members offline. “Our goal is to be a utility,” June explains. “You use us to meet and then you put your phone down.” The app is essentially a productivity tool for connection. Instead of going into a bar and guessing who might be a friend match based on appearance, you can read detailed profiles or search within specific Hey! VINA communities (e.g., artists, gamers, working moms) for friends with common interests or in similar life stages.
An evolving resource
June is continuously looking for ways to add value to the Hey! VINA experience. She invites users to suggest new communities and recently added a “Plans” feature, where they can create events for groups of women to attend. Vinazine is packed with helpful content on career, friendship, sexuality and self-care.
June’s collective Hey! VINA resources are a road map for women entering adulthood, relocating to a new city or starting a new stage in life. No matter the exact route, the map ultimately leads to connection, community and a world where empathy reigns supreme. We can’t wait to see what that world looks like.