Alumni bridge entrepreneurship and online dating


By Sidney Madden, Assistant Features Editor

Bela Gandhi was always the go-to-girl for relationship advice, helping friends get out of unhealthy relationships and setting up compatible couples. When Gandhi was a student at the University in the early ’90s, she matched her first couple. Today, Gandhi has a successful date coaching business, the Smart Dating Academy in Chicago, where she teaches professionals how to date in the new online sphere.

The Smart Dating Academy originally began as a matchmaking business in 2009. Gandhi routinely flew to New York to try and pair two individuals based on superficial checklists (i.e. height, profession, etc.). She realized that unless she had access to a database with thousands of people at her disposal, this business model was not sustainable. As a mother of two young kids back in Chicago, she realized it was impractical too.

With the help of her husband, Andrew Annacone, who studies business models and mentors start-ups, her business took on a new face. Annacone, also an alumnus, helped Gandhi think of how to efficiently create the best services for her target demographic, people 28 to 65 years old.

“From a business model standpoint,” he said, “the way I viewed it was, look, you control more the deliverable if you look at it like a story. You can create much more impact much more efficiently if you turn this into a school, hence the name the Smart Dating Academy. And you’ll create more value for these people because they don’t have access to this insight.”

Gandhi attributed her dating expertise to an instinctive understanding of human interaction. Annacone said date coaching helps Gandhi’s clients with interpersonal skills that they can carry over into other parts of their personal and professional lives.

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“The process of self-exploration she takes these people through in order to find their ideal mate and also the process of communicating with people also translates to other realms of their lives,” he said.

Gandhi and Annacone first met in high school in Chicago’s northern suburbs, where they grew close in several advanced classes and a language intensive trip to Germany. When they arrived at the University, they both lived at Illini Tower. Eventually, they began dating and got married in 1997.

By the time Gandhi started date coaching, she realized dating had changed due to technology and its “fallacy of abundance.”  

“I think that along with optionality, often sometimes comes anxiety and sometimes, even paralysis,” she said. “If you look at it on-paper, there’s no better time to meet someone in the history of the world than now because of connectivity and technology, and yet, people say it’s harder than ever.”

Gandhi was struck by how her clients’ dating profiles didn’t reflect who they were in real life. She brought on a photographer to help retake profiles pictures and a writer to help with descriptions. She also brought on other date coaches to assist throughout process.

“Most coaching is fragmented and unregulated,” Gandhi said. “And so a milestone for us is really having a team of people, and people following a procedure that I know that has really been something I’ve been proud of because people told me ‘Oh, there’s no way you can replicate yourself. People are going to want to work with you.’ And people are plenty happy working with my team, and that gives me great satisfaction.”

One of the date coaches is Lindsay Anderson, whose friend saw Gandhi on TV and encouraged Anderson to reach out. Anderson, a former certified matchmaker, describes herself in an email as a “personal trainer for our client’s love lives.”

If a potential client wants to work with Gandhi and her team, the first step is filling out an inquiry form. Gandhi will then set up a call with them to make sure they are coachable. From there, they will come for a three-hour jump start consultation at the Four Seasons in Chicago. Clients can then choose to work with the team anywhere from three to 12 months.

Some of the services offered include weekly check-ins, online profile consultation and the comprehensive 360 feedback, where clients reach out to family and friends to provide a holistic overview on the individual.

Prices begin at $35 for an initial consultation, and range from $450 to $15,000 depending on the services provided.

Though the Smart Dating Academy is based in Chicago, most coaching is done remotely via phone and video calls and emails. This is because 50 to 60 percent of clients come from out-of-state, from places like Washington DC, New York and California. Gandhi credits the local and national media exposure for their diverse clientele.  

In 2012, Gandhi made her first appearance on the Steve Harvey show, after being approached by one of the show’s producers. She has since become a regular dating correspondent, offering tips and tricks to viewers. She has since gone on to other shows broadcasted nationwide like “Good Morning America” and “The Today Show.”

“She discovered this skill set she didn’t even know she had,” Annacone said.

Gandhi can see the future of the Smart Dating Academy moving toward interpersonal skills and life coaching. However, she sees online dating becoming even more embedded into modern culture.

Albi Guce, who graduated in December 2018, said he agreed. Guce co-founded the new dating app, Aloha, with Ethan Wisniewski, senior in Engineering. They sought to pinpoint what Tinder and Bumble do successfully and optimize the user’s experience to facilitate more meaningful connections.

During market and consumer research, he and his team concluded Tinder’s major flaw is they frontload the incentive: the natural human instinct to know who finds you attractive. By learning who finds you attractive immediately, there is less reason to connect with the other person on the other end and a lot of missed opportunity, Guce said.

They created an anonymity system where after swiping on someone’s photos, their photos then disappear and becomes a tropical animal icon instead.

“As you’re chatting with the person,” Guce said, “the picture becomes progressively less blurry. So it goes from an animal to a picture that reveals itself. Sort of a progression system that gives you feedback on how the conversation is going.”

The team begin with the name “Aloha” and started designing the app meticulously and strategically around it.

“Aloha means not only hello, so it’s hello, but a meaningful love, like a spiritual love between two people rather than a superficial love or physical love,” Guce said. “So we thought it’d be a hello to a new relationship.”

Color theory in user interface design was also important, Guce explained. That is why they selected teal over red (which could symbolize lust).

The app itself follows the nightclub model, meaning it was centered around what women want in hopes that men will follow. Guce said this is because more women know what they want than men do.

Guce graduated with a biology degree and is considering medical school, but for now is spending his time working on the app’s launch with the help of Wisniewski and new team member and Purdue student Stephen Binstock.

The app has to be completely ready before its launch because users aren’t likely to return if they have a bad first experience. However, Guce said a college campus is the perfect place to jumpstart Aloha, even if it’s not their target audience.

“This is really the only environment where you can get that bulk growth very quickly and very easily and inexpensively,” he said. “People are much more willing to try things on a college campus than when they don’t have time.”

Guce and Gandhi agree that online dating is a viable, and more practical, way to meet significant others instead of waiting for fate or other Hollywood-esque meet cutes.

As online dating becomes more mainstream, Gandhi said, it will be used to connect people on a deeper level.

“Technology will become more and more important in connecting people because you know as we become more factionalized, there is not a huge sense of community,” she said “(It’s) just the way the world is going.”

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