It’s 6 pm on a bleak winter night in 2012, and the bar at Goose Island brewery in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood is quiet—except for the sobs coming from an attractive, well-put-together woman perched at the counter. Seated next to her is Bela Gandhi, founder and president of Smart Dating Academy, who listens intently as the woman, one of Gandhi’s clients, pours out her story. She’d been on eight dates with a wonderful man who seemed to adore her; he had taken her home for Christmas to meet his family. But after the holidays, the man suddenly stopped calling. “Why did I not see this coming?” she wails.
“Who does that!” exclaims Gandhi, her gold earrings jingling against her jet-black hair. “Most likely his behavior had more to do with him than with you. Thank goodness you found out now, after eight dates, not eight months.” She advises her client to go on a six-week “dating detox” regimen, which includes sending a daily email to Gandhi listing the things for which she’s grateful.
The practice, says Gandhi, helps to restore a positive outlook. Coaching clients through a breakup or the aftermath of a date gone sour is one of the services Gandhi offers at Smart Dating Academy. But her main mission is to help women and men find the love of their lives. “There’s nothing more important,” she says. Since starting her business in 2009, she’s guided hundreds of people through the minefields of modern dating, charging $850 (a single consultation) to $10,000 for her insights.
Since high school, Gandhi has loved setting up her friends on dates and giving relationship advice, but she never dreamed she could turn her passion into a business. “I grew up in a family where it was like, ‘You can be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or a business person,’ ” she says. After getting an undergraduate finance degree, she joined her family’s chemical company, which manufactured nonstick coatings for cookware. When a large corporation bought the business, she stayed on, rising to vice president. She headed a division with more than 100 employees and put in up to 30 weeks of business travel each year. She had to have supplemental pages added to her passport to fit all the stamps.
Every time she was in an airport, she scoured the magazines for love-related coverlines. She read every relationship book she could find (favorites include John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Helen Fisher’s Why Him? Why Her? and Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb). Whenever she met an interesting single guy, she immediately considered which of her girlfriends she could set him up with. In 1999, when two friends she’d introduced announced their engagement, she practically did a cartwheel in her living room. “Remember that old poster ‘Rules for Success?’ ” she says. “Number one is ‘Marry the right person.’ ” She followed her own advice when she married Andy Annacone, who had been just a friend through high school and college before she realized he would make the ideal husband. “Don’t wait six years like I did,” she now counsels women who are considering their male friends as potential partners.
After Gandhi left the chemical company in 2006 to raise her two children, she started thinking about other careers. She enjoyed painting and considered turning the hobby into a small business. But she found making art lonely. “This was the hardest period in my life,” she says. “I had the nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. It was haunting.”
In 2009 she applied for a job at a well-known dating service in Chicago but, despite sending her résumé again and again, never got a response.