Keira Peng’s online dating story starts out like many you’ve heard before.
Woman goes on Match.com. Makes a profile. Gets barraged by messages from creeps. Nary a dateable guy in sight. The whole exercise feels futile, frustrating, demoralizing.
Peng, a native of Southeast China who got her masters at Dartmouth and worked in the corporate healthcare world, found herself questioning her worth.
What’s wrong with me? She wondered. Why can’t I get any messages from nice, cute, normal guys?
Here’s the first twist in her story. After struggling for a few months, she made up her mind. She wasn’t going to quit. She was going to get help.
Keira Peng wants to upend what she describes as the cultural practices that hold Asian women back from dating successfully.
She hired a prominent Los Angeles-based dating coach, an ex-JDate.com staffer named Evan Marc Katz who helped her craft her profile, choose better photos, but above all, change her dating philosophy. Don’t approach online dating from a place of insecurity, he taught her. It worked. Shortly thereafter, she started dating a guy she met on Match.com. (It was short-lived, but we’ll get to that.)
Now, here’s the second twist in Peng’s story: She came out on the other end feeling like such a pro that she thought, hey, I could do this for a living. So she quit her job and started an online dating consultancy of her own, joining an industry that’s been alive and well, if under the radar, since online dating became a thing.
(Katz told us that this type of thing has happened before with clients of his and that it bothers him, especially if people just parrot what he taught them. But Katz couldn’t comment specifically on Peng’s business, since he didn’t know much about it. He did say she was a great student, describing her as “a sponge.”)
Peng decided she’d focus on Asian and Asian-American women. She called it WeLove.
I meet Peng one afternoon in the kitchen at Benjamin’s Desk, the Rittenhouse coworking space where she’s a member.
It’s lunch time and she’s unabashedly eating pig intestines from a local Szechuan restaurant when she tells me that her full-time gig is helping Asian women with their online dating profiles. As an Asian-American woman myself, I’m so intrigued that I ask to meet with her the very next day.
When we meet at the bar at a trendy Rittenhouse restaurant for happy hour, it quickly becomes clear that Peng isn’t just an online dating consultant. Her six-month-old business has evolved beyond that. She’s not simply helping women choose better photos and craft more charming messages.
She’s become a guru.
A sounding board.
A cultural therapist.
The first clue? She’s choosy about her clients.
“It takes a special kind of person,” she says, over her glass of pinot gris, “to be able to work with [WeLove]. We don’t accept just anyone who walks in the door and says, ‘I need help with my profile.'”
I, for one, didn’t make the cut.
I had originally asked Peng if she’d make me a profile so I could write about it, but upon learning more about me, she told me I wasn’t her target customer and she didn’t want to make the profile just for the sake of the press.
Her target customer is a woman who really wants help and is willing to put in the work to change her life — and that goes far beyond the online dating profile itself. WeLove, Peng tells me, has a loftier goal than just getting Asian women dates. Peng wants to upend what she describes as the cultural practices that hold Asian women back from dating successfully.
In Peng’s view, Asian women, moreso than other ethnicities, struggle with the pressure to fulfill other people’s expectations of themselves. It’s due to cultural differences, but it’s also a matter of the stereotypes that Asian women face in the Western world. The effects of those stereotypes on online dating have been well documented.
She says this pressure can be debilitating. Especially in the dating world.
Peng speaks from her own personal experience and that of her more than 50 clients, who are Asian or Asian-American and have roots in countries all over the sprawling continent. I asked to speak to some of her clients, but Peng told me they preferred to remain anonymous.
Prices originally started at $300 for private coaching for dating profiles and topped out at $3,000 for the full-blown package, where she’ll coach you through the profile, the dates and the eventual relationship. But Peng is reworking those prices right now, she told me.
Much of her business stems from her own experience.
There was that time last year when she turned 25 and her parents, who had only ever expected the highest academic achievement and never so much as encouraged her to go on a date, called Peng to deliver this message: You’re going to get married this year. (A large part of Peng’s job is coaching Asian women on how to speak to their parents about their autonomy. The major question she seeks to answer early on with each of her clients is: “Are you able to make decisions for yourself?”)
Or the time that her boyfriend, the one she met on Match.com, said her mother should be ashamed of her because she didn’t know how to cook. But I stated that clearly in my profile, she said. I thought you were being humble because you’re Asian, he said. Suffice it to say, that relationship ended.
Peng said she realized: “You don’t get a break from anyone until you stand up for yourself and say, ‘I will not accept this.'”
With WeLove, she hopes to teach Asian women to take control of their lives. She wants them to see that they get to decide who they become. She says that once her clients understand that, they can accomplish anything.
Even though the online dating coaching industry is nothing new, what makes Peng’s endeavor so interesting is its acknowledgment, its celebration of difference, in the face of technology.
Let’s be real, Peng is saying, Match.com isn’t a level playing field, despite what the site might want you to believe. Her business feels like a step toward a more nuanced view of the internet. It’s a rebellion against an idea borne of the digital age: that we’re all the same, that we’re all just faceless users.
No, she says, it’s more complicated than that. You don’t have to use Match.com like everyone else uses Match.com — and you probably shouldn’t. (In this way, she reminds us a lot of the guys who hacked Tinder to make it work for them.)
WeLove is also a testament to the power of technology as a jumping off point. Peng’s business isn’t really about online dating. That’s just the entry point, the medium through which she’s able to tackle these larger questions about identity and self. Peng says that if she had started this business pre-online dating, she’d focus her attention on events and gatherings, places that people could meet potential mates. But it’s hard to imagine a WeLove removed from online dating: There’s something about the act of creating a personal dating profile that forces you to re-assess who you are.
Speaking with her, it’s hard to believe Peng ever had trouble dating.
She exudes charm and confidence. I watch as she teases the bartender when he asks about my recorder (“We’re doing a live podcast,” she jokes. “So, if you wanna be famous…”) and chats with the couple next to us at the bar, who immediately take a shine to her and insist we share their Montreal short ribs and multiple desserts (Peng says this is the first time this has happened to her and it’s me who’s the lucky charm). She speaks with level of self-awareness and eloquence that I’m generally accustomed to seeing in older women. I’m surprised to learn that she’s my age, 26.
But she’ll be the first to admit she didn’t start out as a dating pro.
So I had to ask: Did your new dating philosophy work? Are you dating someone right now?
At this point, she smiles and answers, but sorry — this part is off the record. We wouldn’t want to cramp her style.