Washington Post, July 10, 2011

Washington-area speed-dating business garners attention by targeting South Asians by Aruna Viswanatha

Oshmita Anwar was debating whether to attend a speed-dating event for South Asian Muslims earlier this month when her father, who is Bengali, called with a message: “Go!”

“My parents are always like, ‘you have to get married,’ ” said Anwar, a pretty 25-year old with big eyes and an easy laugh. “I want someone religious, yet social. A lot [of guys] are not social enough.”

The event was the brainstorm of a company called Professionals in the City, which has built a profitable business around organizing events for single men and women, including those whose families hail from the subcontinent that includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Anwar and about two dozen other Muslims gathered at a lounge on U Street on a warm Thursday night in June to meet each other through a series of five-minute “dates.”

In addition to South Asian Muslims, Pros in the City has offered speed-dating get-togethers for South Asian Hindus, Punjabis, Bengalis, vegetarians, and South Asians who are in their 30s and 40s. In April, it sponsored a South Asian gay event.

The specialized gatherings evolved from the general South Asian events the group has hosted for the past few years, according to Michael Karlan, who runs the company.

Karlan left a legal career to start Pros in the City in 1999, and began with social events at nightclubs and embassies. Over time, he added international trips and a New Year’s party that draws 3,000. All told, Pros in the City, with a staff of eight full-time people and 20 part-time, brings in about $1 million a year in revenue.

Once the downturn hit, demand waned for some events, but not those involving speed dating. Karlan said the company sells around a hundred tickets a day and hosts a thousand events a year in the D.C. area, many of them targeting young professionals without ethnic restrictions.

He saw an opportunity to go after more niche demographic groups when more than 100 people started regularly showing up at his South Asian dating events.

“They are not all going to succeed, but I’m trying to get a sense of what will be more popular and less popular,” Karlan said.

The total number of speed daters at the targeted events might be smaller — they usually attract a few dozen people — but they often present something of a more fruitful pool for a community that is segmented by religion and language.

“They like it because there are qualifiers already built in,” said Vipin Adhlakha. “If you said you only wanted a South Asian vegetarian or a Muslim, it gets you further in the process.”

“When you have your list of priorities, if race or religion is at the top, it’s great to be able to check off the first box,” said Erika Ettin.

At the Muslim event, as men rotated through intimate, two-person, candle-lit wood tables and women sat opposite them on the red velvet benches that lined the wall, the sexes appeared to be evenly matched.

Most said they weren’t particularly religious. They drank socially, and didn’t fast for Ramadan or visit a mosque regularly. “I try to represent,” said Anwar, the only woman wearing a loose hijab.

And most said they were looking not for someone to date but to marry. That search, they said, was complicated by parental pressure to marry someone from the same background.

Aziz Ahmed, a 34-year-old contractor, said that while he didn’t care if he married a Muslim woman, “higher forces” did.

Not everyone was pleased with the options. One woman’s ballot rejected candidates as “greasy!”, “too arrogant” or “FOB,” an acronym for Fresh-off-the-Boat, or a recent immigrant.

But others said they felt the price of the event — usually around $30 — was worth it.

“Some are pretty awkward, and some are pretty competent,” said Nadia Patel, 26, a law student at George Washington, in her assessment of the candidates. “I had very low expectations, but there were definitely a couple of guys I would talk to again.”