While she worked for the family firm, Bela had a knack for setting up couples, several who would go on to marriage. When it came time for her own reinvention, she took that natural skill and created her own business around it—Smart Dating Academy is now responsible for hundreds of successful matches.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in a loving family with educated parents who immigrated from Bombay, India, to the suburbs of Chicago, and one younger brother. If you’ve ever seen the beginning of the film, The Namesake, their beginnings were pretty similar. My dad, a chemist for a large corporation, was also always an entrepreneur at heart, and became a minority partner in a chemicals/coatings business when I was in junior high school.
After I graduated with two degrees from the University of IL, Urbana in 1993—German and Finance—I went to work in mergers and acquisitions with Arthur Andersen Consulting. My dad’s business had expanded quite a bit by then (he bought out his partners, was the sole owner, brought my mom onboard, and had grown into the second largest supplier of non-stick coatings in the USA), and he wanted to build his business abroad. I knew that this could be a great opportunity for me to really hone my business skills and “grow up quickly in business,” so I went to work for his company, Coatings and Chemicals (CCC), in 1994. While I was based at the headquarters in Chicago, I traveled extensively all over the world, to Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America.
My dad was harder on his children—my brother had also joined the business—than on anyone else in the company; his mandate was that we would be the people who would turn the lights on in the morning and turn them off after everyone left in the evening. I learned every aspect of the business and developed a thirst to do more and more during these years. I did everything from solving technical problems on customers’ production lines to driving forklifts, from closing big client deals to helping close the books. Working in the family business is what I call “Best.Decision.Ever” (well, until my next act!).
We decided to sell the family company in 1998, during a great market, to Akzo Nobel. My parents and brother retired by 2001, and Akzo Nobel kept me on until the middle of 2006 to help manage and integrate our company (Akzo was a multi-billion dollar company). I was one of the youngest women in management in the organization (which had 66,000 employees compared to CCC’s 80 employees).
What’s interesting is that during that entire time, I was the go-to girl for dating and love advice, and had set up many happy couples (on gut!) who were now getting married and having kids. Literally, I would say, “I found a guy for you; go out on one date, and I know you will marry him! “and it started to happen. My first match became official with their engagement in 1999, and I knew at that moment that I wanted to help people find love as my purpose. It took me ten years to build up the courage, put a plan together, and make it happen.
How did you “find a guy”?
I met my husband, Andy, for the first time in 8th grade, but we were just acquaintances for many years. He was a smart, active, great guy who was a good friend to everyone—loyal, trustworthy, reliable, and always on board to have a good time.
Serendipitously, Andy and I both attended the University of Illinois in Champaign and ended up living in the same dorm, Illini Tower. We each went into college with a long-distance relationship and we would spend hours bonding over the travails of that. By the end of our first year, we had become great friends. Our long-distance relationships had come to an end so we dated others while still hanging out together as friends.
After several relationships failed, I put myself through a thorough analysis of “my dating patterns.” I looked for what was attracting me, what worked, what didn’t work, what my responsibility in the breakup was, what his responsibility was. This exercise helped me define the characteristics I was looking for in a partner and I realized, shortly before college graduation that Andy met all my criteria—we started dating soon after, in 1993. We were engaged in 1996 and married in 1997.
I use a similar tool, which I created, called “The Marriage Map” to help my clients today find love—we are averaging at least two engagements per month!
When did you start to think about making a change?
I had been dreaming about it for years, since that moment in 1999. I watched the growth of the dating company, It’s Just Lunch, and knew that I wanted to do something like that. The feeling really began to grow after 2004, when I had my daughter Jaden. I gathered my strength and left Akzo Nobel, even though I really loved it, to figure out how to do it. I hemmed and hawed, and researched for a while, then had my son Max in 2008.
One day, in June 2009, I read something that struck a real chord in me, and it changed everything. It was an anecdote about failure vs. regret. I went for a run, and imagined myself, sitting in a rocking chair on a patio in 50 years, telling my four grandkids a story. The story could be one of the following:
Story 1: “I want to tell you something that I dreamt of, but never did because I was so scared of failure. It was a dating company…and I wish I wouldn’t have let my fear run my life. I am going to tell you about regret, so you don’t have any in your life, hopefully.”
Story 2: “I want to tell you a story today that was hilarious. I had this CRAZY idea to start a date coaching company when I was around 40, and it was a HUGE debacle and abysmal failure. But, I’m so glad I did it because I learned that I could try anything, learn something from it, and still have the love of the people in my life.”
WOW. That was seminal for me. At that moment, it crystallized. I would be happier telling Story 2, and did not want to have the regret of Story 1. That day in 2009, I started doing my research on the dating industry, and I have never looked back.
What is your next act?
Smart Dating Academy is my third child, and a big love of my life. We help single professionals all over the country figure out why they aren’t meeting the right people (dating patterns? family of origin issues?), and then help them to put a plan together to have fun, meet people who will give them happy and healthy love.
We coach and consult around best online sites/apps (depends on each client), take client’s photos at our awesome studio in the West Loop of Chicago, write their profiles, teach them how to write emails/texts that get responses, help them get good setups, teach them how to strike up conversations with cute strangers and find good places to meet people in person, and so much more! We are like personal trainers for their love lives—and it works. We have helped hundreds of people find love, and have lots of amazing success stories from singles in their 20s to their late 60s!
Our typical clients are successful, professional men and women, ages 25 to 75. They reside in the US, with about 50% from the Midwest; the remaining 50% fly in from out of state to work with us.
Our clients are very ready to find happy healthy love and are willing to invest the time and resources to do so. We have them fill out very extensive questionnaires and our Marriage Map, so we have a full idea of their family backgrounds, all significant relationships, why they think they’re single, and a “360 Feedback” survey where we ask their family, friends, and exes, to email us in response to the question, “Why hasn’t this person found a partner yet?”
Once we have put a plan together for our client, we meet at the Four Seasons in Chicago for a “Jump Start” session. We clarify old patterns and put together the “right” checklist for the first time, then give them an online makeover with new lifestyle photos, a new profile, etc. Now they have the right “lenses” on to focus on the good people and to throw the bad ones back in the pond, avoiding heartbreak, disappointment, and wasted time.
Can you share stories of women you’ve helped?
We see great stories happen all the time, to women over 40, on a regular basis. One woman, who graduated Harvard and has a great job in Chicago, had virtually no dating experience when she came to us. She signed up for a year-long program, where we taught her who her High GHQ® man is (High in Good Husband Qualities). We made over her profile and coached her weekly. She met an amazing man online (yes, online works with the right tools!), and they got engaged over Labor Day weekend!
We also worked with a beautiful woman who owns a very successful food business in Chicago and saw us on an ABC TV show. She was chronically attracted to narcissists and unavailable men. She found love online as well and is very happy with a successful artist who lives in Chicago. I could go on, but I promise you that love is everywhere, and it can happen to you too!
How did you figure out how to get started? How supportive were your family and friends?
What’s funny is that I thought I would go work at a local dating service to see if I really liked this or had a knack for it. I hand carried my resume and various press articles in, hoping for an in person meeting with Human Resources but I didn’t get past the lobby and was quickly ushered out by a 22-year-old assistant. That’s when I knew I had to do it on my own and take the plunge—come hell or high water!
My husband and family were totally supportive. They had seen me thrive in the coatings business, which was totally new to me and said, “You mastered high temperature coaching technology, and ran a laboratory full of Ph.D.’s. You can do this!” So I jumped.
What challenges did you encounter?
Gosh, every single one, really. I knew virtually no single people in Chicago because I’d been married for 12 years at the time and started going to singles events to network and meet people, in order to get the pulse on the Chicago singles market. It was hard to walk into events alone, and as a married person. People were like, “What are YOU doing here?” It ended up being great; I met so many people who are still friends today through that exercise.
I also had no “team” to bond with or any colleagues anywhere in Chicago. It was isolating in the beginning! And people really didn’t understand what “date coaching” was. People understood “Yenta style” matchmaking, but not date coaching. I had to explain it every single time I went out. People looked confused. When I realized that and started saying, “We are like personal trainers for your love life,” it clicked (and I still explain it that way today)!
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I had a bad experience with a client from Wisconsin, who ended up being very mean and pushy, demanding hours of time for nothing. She would yell and scream so finally, one day, I fired her by phone. Ironically, she begged me not to fire her and we left things on good terms, but it felt really good to part ways. Now, I really trust and listen to my gut every time I speak with a potential client; if something sounds “off” or wrong, or the person sounds negative or unwilling to work, we don’t take them on.
When I’m feeling down, my husband and parents are great sounding boards. They have always encouraged me when I needed it, which was key! My husband tells people that he doesn’t know anyone who is better suited to their job than me, because I built a business around what I’m good at and truly love.
How did you get on TV?
There was an unexpected turn to my career in late 2010. I received an email from a producer at WGN-TV in Chicago, asking for help with a TV segment (to help an attractive smart producer figure out why she was still single, on live TV!). I was scared to death but I did it. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to do a radio show on WGN, then a few interviews with Chicago Tribune journalists. This continued to snowball into TV appearances on FOX, NBC, ABC, WCIU, CBS, the Today Show, and now I am the dating expert on the Steve Harvey Show and a regular on many of the abovementioned networks. This has been a great stretch for me—I’ve grown to love this part of my job.
Check out some of my media appearances:
Read: Huffington Post
Read: MORE Magazine
What have you learned about yourself through this process?
I’ve learned that I am good at certain things, and not great at others. I’ve also learned that you can only get so far by yourself—I spent way too much time doing things on my own with no help. I have now built a team of people around me; I have a ways to go, but it’s definitely a big step in the right direction.
I’ve also learned that you can do and even become quite good at what you’re most afraid of if you work really hard at it. I was terrified of public speaking before I started Smart Dating Academy—I mean deer in headlights, knots in my stomach scared, not a few butterflies in my stomach scared. Before my first TV appearance at WGN in 2010, I practiced all night for a 7:30 a.m. segment (I didn’t sleep a wink) and it went great. Practice and hard work are so important, and for me to build my confidence, they were crucial. Don’t get me wrong, I still get nervous (I just filmed the premiere to the Steve Harvey show and there were about 2,200 people at the Oriental Theater in Chicago; I thought I would have a panic attack) but I know that once I get out there, I’ll be fine.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Do it! Life is too short to sit there and worry, fret, and be anxious about what others will think. Realize that time is limited, and get moving. We so often think we’ll do it later or next year or when I’m ready. Before you know it, five years go by, and we’re still dreaming. Like Nike aptly said in the 80s, “JUST DO IT!” And keep in mind, out of the two worst-case scenarios, it’s better to have a failure than a regret, right?
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
You should love helping people, beyond anything else. You should be ready to work all hours sometimes because dating dilemmas have no bounds. And, be a voracious reader and connector. You need to keep on top of everything in this field, especially technology, because things change on a weekly basis. What was a great app last week may disappear next month, and be replaced by something totally different!
What resources do you recommend?
Read a lot of psychology. I am really into Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help YouFind – and Keep – Love by Dr. Amir Levine right now. I also love Ann Demarais’ book called First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Others See You.
And the best non-dating dating book is the amazing How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I love that book.
I’m also obsessed with the work of Dr. Helen Fisher; she is both amazing and beautiful.
My friend Rachel Greenwald also wrote a great book called Have Him at Hello: Confessions from 1,000 Guys About What Makes Them Fall in Love . . . Or Never Call Back which is a great read for single women. She is my mentor, and I love her dearly.
What’s next for you?
For now, I am super happy with Smart Dating Academy. I’m also on the Executive Council of the Cara Program, and with Step Up Women’s Network. I love being a mom, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, perpetual student, mentor, and friend to many. I am grateful to have the life I do.
Contact Bela Gandhi at email@example.com and 312-643-1516