How Former 'Real Housewife' Bethenny Frankel Turned Business Savvy into a $100 Million Disaster Relief Initiative

·8 min read
Bethenny Frankel
Bethenny Frankel

Bethenny Frankel Credit - Celeste Sloman

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From reality television icon to business mogul to podcast host, Bethenny Frankel wears many hats. But in recent months, one of Frankel’s roles has stood out among the rest: providing emergency assistance to Ukraine through her BStrong disaster relief initiative.

What began as a commitment to distributing 100,000 crisis kits to Ukrainian refugees in the wake of Russia’s invasion has turned into raising over $100 million in aid and donations for those in need. In partnership with Global Empowerment Mission, BStrong is known for delivering cash cards and critical supplies directly to people who have been impacted by hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters. As seen on The Real Housewives of New York City (RHONY), Frankel herself traveled to Puerto Rico in 2017 to help communities affected by Hurricane Maria.

Frankel rose to fame as one of the original cast members of RHONY and—despite twice exiting the Bravo reality show (seemingly for good in 2019)—is widely considered one of the Housewives franchise’s most beloved stars. During RHONY‘s second season in 2009, Frankel launched her Skinnygirl brand with her first product, Skinnygirl Margarita. She went on to sell her line of low-calorie Skinnygirl Cocktails to Beam Global (now a part of liquor conglomerate Suntory) in 2011 for a reported $100 million, while retaining the rights to use the Skinnygirl name for non-alcoholic commodities. As Skinnygirl CEO, Frankel has created a global lifestyle empire, offering female-centric products that range from jeans to popcorn to salad dressing.

Frankel is also a five-time bestselling author. Her latest book, Business is Personal: The Truth About What it Takes to Be Successful While Staying True to Yourself, was released on May 17.

TIME spoke with Frankel about diving headfirst into philanthropy, what she learned from reality TV, and trusting her business gut.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why is philanthropy work important to you?

It’s something that I can touch and something I can make a massive difference in. Disaster relief, in particular, utilizes my very specific skill set. I’m very organized, I’m immediate, and I’m good in a crisis. So it’s been something that I didn’t really know I could participate in and have such a great impact. I mean, we have overshot the mark by an astronomical amount. And now that I know what this style of philanthropy entails, I’ve realized why I’m good at it. If you’re a good entrepreneur, you’re effectively just using your business skills. Most people are not operating a fiscally sound philanthropic effort because most people aren’t great business people. So I’m trying to shift the way that people think about philanthropy and the way they invest when they help.

What differentiates BStrong from other disaster relief initiatives?

My partner at Global Empowerment Mission, Michael [Capponi], is a very good operations logistics person. I’m a very good messenger, I’m very strategic, I’m very organized, and I’m good at being transparent. Overseeing a whole mission and understanding strategy is critical. That’s why [BStrong] is so successful. People love the ‘no frills’ of it all. They don’t want the rubber chicken dinner where only a portion of the proceeds go [to the cause]. They just want to give the money to the people. It’s basically what’s happened with business. This is not a retail strategy. It’s a direct-to-consumer strategy. It’s basically saying, we don’t have to have all these events and make all these shiny pamphlets that cost money. It’s money straight to people.

What’s been the biggest logistical challenge of getting BStrong’s Ukraine relief effort off the ground?

This is a horrible crisis. But it’s just required tactical organization and strategy. It’s been exhausting, but it hasn’t been challenging, if that makes sense.

How do you manage your own mental health during these times of uncertainty?

I’ve gotten better at it. It’s like anything else. It’s like learning how to snowboard. I’ve been snowboarding for 25 years. The first time, you fall. But then after you’ve done it for years, the bruises are less. The first time you do a relief effort, you’re immersed and it’s four o’clock in the morning and you’re listening to every single message and every person who has a trunk of clothes and you’re not controlling yourself because you don’t yet know what you would know after years of experience. The circumstances change every time, but the execution has a similar style. It becomes a well-oiled machine.

Real Housewives fans know you weren’t afraid to ‘mention it all’ during your time on RHONY. What did you learn about the intersection of personal and professional from navigating reality TV fame?

You need to establish some boundaries for yourself because it becomes addictive to talk about everything all the time. So you really have to have some personal, non-work time. Just because I say business is personal doesn’t mean that, you know, I’m talking about the numbers my salad dressing is doing when I’m in bed with my fiancé. Reality television is a very self-involved genre. Everyone thinks that everything that’s going on is so relevant to everyone else, but it’s just not what’s going on in the real world—ironically, because it’s reality television.

You became a trailblazer in the male-dominated spirits industry when you launched Skinnygirl. What made you confident you could succeed in that space?

I wasn’t confident. I didn’t know anything about anything. I just leapt. I wanted to somehow be involved in a liquor business or have my own line or even have a company do a line that would partially have my name on it. I overshot the mark. When I do something, I go all the way. So I launched and just kept going.

You’ve since broken into a number of other industries—from food to fashion to podcasting. Has your approach to entering a new market evolved over the years?

I always just do what I like and what I’m passionate about. Opportunities present themselves and if I like them, I go forward. If I don’t, I don’t. It’s not that deep, to be honest. I love this part of my career because I’m not overly hungry. I don’t have the voracious appetite that other celebrities and moguls have. They just want to keep going and getting it and that’s not me. I do what makes me happy and what I think is a good idea and execute on that. And it’s been nice to get to the point where I feel comfortable in what I want to do and what I don’t. Now, don’t get me wrong, that encompasses a lot of spaces. It encompasses books and podcasts and a new TV show that I’m doing and a lot of different stuff. But it it’s all very organic.

You’ve said that you “don’t see gender” in business. What do you say to people who might be critical of that kind of remark since your brand is geared so strongly toward women?

I just want women to be confident and to know that they’re good enough and strong enough without having to be graded on a curve. Obviously women face struggles and women of color face greater struggles. But I want everyone to walk out and be like ‘”I’m woman and I’m proud.” I’m going to go get it and I’m not going to think about the fact that I might not get it because I’m a woman because that’s not even on my mind.

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Why did you want to write Business Is Personal now?

I just heard too many people say, “It’s business, it’s not personal.” What the hell does that even mean? If it’s business, and it’s your business, then it’s personal. Because of the pandemic, people have really shaken it up. Everything’s changed—the way we eat, the way we shop, the way we live, the way we socialize—and non-traditional business is so on the forefront. I am a non-traditional entrepreneur and the people I interview on my podcast, Just B, are non-traditional entrepreneurs. This book is a toolkit for anyone, at any stage in their career, who wants to be a non-traditional entrepreneur. You could be a mogul and you’ll learn a lot or you could be a housewife who has a passion for something that you want to turn into a business and you’ll learn a lot. It’s just a relatable book.

You’re known for your “Bethenny-isms.” If you had to summarize your ultimate business philosophy in one sentence, what would it be?

Find the things that you love and are passionate about, and back them with hard work, drive, and determination. Then you can be successful at pretty much anything.