Fast-growing startup Happn has a unique--albeit risky--strategy to promote women's equality.  

On Tuesday, in honor of International Women's Day, those seeking romance on the dating app will encounter pictures of bruised models alongside regular dating profiles. The pictures come accompanied with the words "I'm One In Three," representing the grim statistic that as many as one third of women have experienced physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime. Happn has partnered with Equality Now, an international human rights organization, to launch the campaign.  

"Our primary focus is to facilitate encounters in real life. Making the connection between overlooked survivors of violence against women and all the rest of us who otherwise pass them by every day, Happn is a means to raise awareness for the cause," said Didier Rappaport, the co-founder and CEO of the Paris-based company. By clicking on these profiles, users can donate to Equality Now, or start the conversation on social media using the hashtag #OneInThreeWomen.

It's unclear how users will respond to these disturbing images, though, which are likely to cause some degree of emotional distress. The strategy will likely alienate a significant portion of its customer base. Still, this may be precisely the point. As journalist Rebecca Reid writes in The Telegraph:

"There will be those who find the project too graphic, who accuse it of being crude. And in some ways, it is. But if you're going to convey a brutal message to a vast quantity of people, being direct is the only way to go about it."

Beyond simply raising awareness, the goal is to affect change in both the developed and the developing world. Consider, for instance, that female genital mutilation is still prevalent in about 28 African countries, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Just 125 countries globally have outlawed domestic violence, and in the U.S., a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds, according to National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"We hope that showing how enormous this problem is will inspire everyone to call on their governments to end all forms of violence against women," said Yasmeen Hassan, Equality Now's global executive director.

Today, Happn counts more than 13 million users across 35 cities globally, up from 10 million just two months ago. The app uses an in-built geo-location tool to pull up profiles of other users within a 250-meter (820 foot) radius, in an effort to facilitate those "missed connections." Say, for instance, an attractive person exits the grocery store before you have time to introduce yourself. With Happn, the opportunity isn't lost -- simply open the app and connect with them digitally.

Though the U.S. is arguably the company's most important market, Rappaport says the app's most-engaged cities are currently Sao Paulo, Brazil and London, England, with New York City coming in fifth. Earlier this month, the company tapped Serge Gojkovich, formerly of the all-male dating network Grindr, to serve as the U.S. marketing chief.

"Our mission is not to say come, and you will find love," Rappaport explained in an interview with Inc. "Our mission is to make real-life meetings, then people are free to do what they want." Recent features, including voice messaging, and integration with apps such as Spotify and Instagram, are meant to help users to "express who they are" from behind their phone screens.

When asked what sets Happn apart from competitors stateside--behemoth Tinder, with its 50 million active users, most obviously--Rappaport pointed to a cultural singularity: "French people, we know what is love and what is romance," he said. "First, we have put the little coincidences of life at the center of our process. In that way, we are poetic, and we stay poetic." 

Published on: Mar 8, 2016