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Bethenny Frankel raises $85 million for Ukraine, relief fund still growing

The entrepreneur has been taking proactive steps to help Ukrainians caught in the crossfire as Russia invades their country.

NEW YORK — Bethenny Frankel has a keen understanding that raising money is a dance, even in the biggest fundraising efforts.

As the entrepreneur and podcast host spearheads a massive campaign for Ukrainian relief with her BStrong initiative, in partnership with Global Empowerment Mission, she is balancing plenty — getting their message out and asking for donations, informing people without overwhelming them and turning them off.

“My partner, Michael Capponi, is knee-deep in it," Frankel said. “He's on the ground in Poland and wants to post all day long about what he’s doing and he’s seeing, I have to temper that and say, ‘We need to give them a break, a palate cleanser.'"

Even though Frankel sold Skinnygirl, the cocktail brand she created, for a reported $100 million in 2011, she still controls the brand, expanding it to include everything from popcorn to jeans to sunglasses. She says it's her understanding of business that helps BStrong, which has already raised $85 million of a $100 million goal for Ukrainian aid, succeed.

“I’m good at marketing, so I understand when to hold them, when to fold them, and that is a big part of the messaging," Frankel said, "Also, do not make people feel bad about their lives and what’s going on... You give them hope. You first tell them how bad it is. Then the next stage is to explain, ‘OK, we are helping' and then show results."

When Russia invaded Ukraine one month ago, representatives from BStrong and Global Empowerment Mission arrived in Medyka, Poland, within two days and began distributing crisis kits to refugees crossing the border, securing warehouses in Poland, Hungary and Ukraine to fill with supplies. They soon discovered many people needed help with travel so they began booking planes, trains and automobiles to take them where they wanted to go and helping them to find places to stay.

You can watch the interview with Frankel here: 

Over Zoom from her home in Connecticut, where Frankel says the dark circles under her eyes “are now tattoos," she elaborated on how her initiative's ability to pivot in Ukraine sets their efforts apart from others. The interview was edited for clarity and length.


Q: How is this effort with Ukraine different from past crises you've worked on?

A: It’s not a hurricane that ended, and now we’re cleaning up the aftermath. The issues change every day. I started out wanting to send crisis kits to people at the border because they would be refugees needing blankets and chargers, who want a snack and a water and to get somewhere. Now it's extracting people from Ukraine. Our partners Aerial Recovery Group, are former Green Berets, they're military who can help us go in with vans and extract people who are under siege.


Q: Is it rare to be able to pivot like that?

A: That’s the difference between us and the big orgs. People that I know who work on boards of major foundations, they say, “We can’t move as quickly as you,” because they have one model the way they do it. We are together. We have trucks. We have forklifts. We have warehouses. We have military. We have travel orgs. We have a lot going on and we’re very organized.


Q: Are the donations largely coming from celebrities and wealthy people or everyday people with smaller donations?

A: Each effort is different. When it was Hurricane Maria, I got money for planes from Ellen DeGeneres, money from Steve Harvey for a plane. It was celebrity donations. This time, it's been 90% donated by the average-salary American. This has been a $50 effort. And that’s beautiful because to get to $85 million dollars by $50 donations is insane. The only well-known people who've donated are Billy and Alexis Joel, Matthew and Camila McConaughey and Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper.


Q: How would you describe your role in this?

A: I'm like the CEO. I decide if we’re doing this. I’m approving what we’re saying is our goal because I don’t like to disappoint people and we’ve always exceeded our goal. I am the producer, the general contractor, the person who determines what is going to be done and then in real-time messaging and being totally transparent about what that is. I’m the one who’s speaking to all the big partners to get the big donations and allocating where that goes. I’m the head of the operation with a logistics and operations partner on the ground.


Q: Recently you were awake early to co-host “Live! With Kelly and Ryan” and up late for an HSN appearance for your brand Skinnygirl, plus you were working on BStrong. You have a podcast and a business book coming out this spring. How do you make time for it all?

A: I’m taking a lot of things off the board. I'm passionate about my podcast. I crave that place to rant about things that are important and not important. I actually need it because I’m not on television anymore being ridiculous about superficial things. My book I'm passionate about. But, I’m saying “no” more than I ever have. I don’t want to be a billionaire. I really don’t. I want to have a nice life and have some things in my life that are meaningful, but I don’t want to do it all. I don’t want to disappoint anybody or any partners, but I do not want to take over the world.

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