Relationships

Michelle Kennedy Knows How Lonely Motherhood Can Be

The former Director of Bumble used her algorithm expertise to launch an app that helps mothers make new friends – and it already has 500,000 users. Future Women meets her.

By Kate Leaver

Relationships

The former Director of Bumble used her algorithm expertise to launch an app that helps mothers make new friends – and it already has 500,000 users. Future Women meets her.

By Kate Leaver

When Michelle Kennedy had her first son, she quickly realised how isolating motherhood can be. She was the first in her group of girlfriends to get pregnant; she had an older husband who wanted to get going on fatherhood. So while she was breastfeeding her tiny son, Fin, at 3am, she’d scroll through Instagram photos of her friends dancing at a club and ache with FOMO. There was this wrenching disconnect between her new reality and her old self. She felt more alone than she ever had. Michelle knew that she needed to make friends with other mothers and be in the company of women who knew exactly the exhausting realities of keeping a small child alive.

In the queue at Starbucks in London one day, Michelle started chatting to another mother waiting for her morning caffeine fix. There was an easy chemistry as they swapped breastfeeding tips and laughed about what it was like to be a mother. Her husband and son were just a few metres away. “We should swap numbers and catch up some time,” Michelle said to her new acquaintance, hoping to recruit her first mum friend. “No, thank you,” the woman replied. “I’ve already got enough friends and I’m very busy.” Michelle was crestfallen, her confidence to chat to other women crushed. She swore to her husband, moments later, that she’d never speak to another stranger again like that in her life.

So if she wasn’t going to casually meet her new mum friends in a café, what could she do? The loneliness continued. Then Michelle had a startling idea, the kind that demands your attention until you make it a reality. In her working life prior to motherhood, Michelle was a lawyer who transitioned into tech. She was integral to the launch of dating app Bumble and an executive at Badoo. She knew how to design an app that matched people romantically – couldn’t she do the same for lonely mothers like herself?

 

“Hundreds of thousands of women have new mum friends in their lives because Michelle felt precisely as lonely as they did.”

 

In 2017, Michelle launched Peanut, an app that helps mothers make friends. It has since recruited half a million users, facilitated 10 million messages and seen 100 million profile views. It launched in Australia last year, where it’s biggest markets are Sydney and Melbourne. It’s also available in the UK and the US, with plans to expand to more countries and double the team by the end of the year. If you’re pregnant or a mother, you simply download the app, fill in your profile and start swiping to meet other mothers in your area. The algorithm Michelle designed should match you with people who have similar interests and live or travel conveniently near you. There are designated conversation pages for women to discuss everything related to being a mother, a woman and a human being. The slogan is “Meet as mamas, connect as women”. It’s a proper, expansive little community, contained in your smartphone. It is Michelle’s staggeringly effective contribution to tackling the loneliness epidemic, which affects mothers profoundly. Hundreds of thousands of women have new mum friends in their lives because Michelle felt precisely as lonely as they did and was perfectly positioned to do something about it.

Michelle, meanwhile, found the mum friends she needed – they’re the women who help get her through the frightening, beautiful experience of being a mother. She’s known for a few years that Peanut was a brilliant idea. The concept for the app was endorsed by CEO and founder of Bumble, Whitney Wolfe Herd, and partially funded by Ashton Kutcher’s firm, Sound Ventures. The sorts of endorsements you tend to take seriously. “I showed Whitney my deck when I was in New York,” Michelle tells me. “I was like ‘OK tell me truthfully, what do you think?’ and she just said ‘you have to do this’. So I did. I got my first investor 48 hours after pitching to him. I flew back to London and started hiring my initial team – a grand total of four. We started building and we haven’t looked back!”

When we speak, Michelle has just put on her Out of Office for maternity leave. She’s pregnant with her second child and has spent the first eight months of that pregnancy pushing Peanut to its next level of success. She’s been flying between London and New York, attending events in impossibly elegant flowing dresses and pink power suits, speaking on television and radio, chasing investors and running a booming business. Being a CEO, a mother and a pregnant woman has been a challenge, to say the least. “Oh I mean on a physical level this pregnancy has been brutal!” she says. “I’ve honestly never been as sick as I was – it was like having Norovirus for 16 weeks. I think there were lots of times work has been affected – being late to meetings, not feeling I was able to perform my best. But I’ve really just tried to be fair to myself and the business and be honest about what I can and can’t do.”

Michelle Kennedy and her new baby, Nuala Noa, born shortly after this article was written. Image credits: Instagram @peanut

Michelle’s role as a mother is extremely relevant to what she does. She runs this app with seriously intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be a mama, so she tries to cater for women like herself – and every other incarnation of motherhood there is. She often speaks about fighting guilt, impostor syndrome and fear in her candid and rather lovely Instagram posts. She regularly speaks to the media about making the world a safer, more supportive place for parents. Fighting for mothers to feel better and more comfortable, safe and supported is part of Michelle’s job. She’s changing other women’s lives, all while managing her own. I ask how she copes with that infamous motherly juggle, between the job and the family. “Sometimes I’m doing amazing at one, sometimes at the other, rarely does that happen on the same day,” she tells me. “Ultimately, I’m doing what every working parent is doing, and that’s juggling. Sometimes I get it horribly wrong, and that feels like a failure. I suppose the discipline is in knowing I’m doing the best I can, and what is right for my family. That doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. But for me, it’s important that Fin sees me working hard to create something – that’s a lesson for life I want him to have!”

Since we spoke, Michelle gave birth to her daughter, Nuala Noa. Fin and his little baby sister will only truly understand what their mother has done, when they’re old enough to know what parenthood means and what loneliness feels like. When they’re grown, they’ll look back on their lives with Michelle and realise that while she was packing lunches and doing as many school drop-offs as possible, she was also trying to make life a little bit easier for women who choose to be mothers. She was trying to diminish loneliness and give mothers a way to make the friends they so desperately need. And they’ll see what we see now: that she succeeded.