The Real Housewives of New York City’s Bethenny Frankel is using her business instinct, organizational savvy, wealthy connections — and her never-say-never attitude — to provide relief to the victims of the recent natural disasters. So far, she's chartered seven planes, which she’s packed with aid including supplies from nonprofit partners like City Harvest, and brought on-the-ground relief efforts to the hardest hit areas of Houston, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Just back from the island, Bethenny explained how and why she got involved by phone to Jet Set’s Alesandra Dubin.
I don't watch the news [constantly] but you had to be under a rock not to [realize] how bad it was when [the hurricane] hit Houston.
I'm always very aware of my [ongoing] mission for [Dress for Success partnership] B Strong, which I created initially for women in crisis. And all of a sudden, I said [to myself], "Wait — this is a crisis." So I [arranged] white letters on this felt board, and put a little plea on Instagram [about] how women need to be helping women.
I put it on social media, and I called up Dress for Success and my partners, and I said, "This is a crisis — I'm going to start raising money." I [mobilized] my whole office and shifted my business to accommodate the effort. I just shot everybody out of a canon, like I do. Everybody was answering emails, on the phone with people donating: rain boots, underwear, and money.
In the beginning, it's like a startup. You try to get people to donate and [they're like], "Who are you?"
I called very famous and very rich people who I know who blew me off — just like when I was beginning a business. It's a hustle.
With a charity, especially in relief — and now I've become a person specializing in relief — there are different levels of what people need. So it becomes the who, what, when, where, and how [to get those needs to them]. You have money, but you can’t just take it and throw it in the street — you have to be organized. You have to know exactly what to donate because it needs to be lightweight, efficient, exactly what they need. Water and baby food should be in pouches.
Dress for Success luckily had a location in Houston that was still in tact. So we had an infrastructure, and we were able to distribute about $300,000 in in-kind and monetary donations, cash, gift cards to these women who had lost everything and were totally destitute.
I thought that was the bottom.
Then Mexico hit. And I thought, well, I've got momentum, I'm learning how to do this.
So I go to Mexico City, and took a helicopter into a town of 7,000 where 73 people who hadn't even been dug out yet were dead under rubble. We beat their own governor there. It was the most insane squalor. And I don't want to disrespect Houston because it was a disaster — but this was like people sleeping on rubble, in their own feces, the worst thing you've ever seen. I was distributing cash on the street; they can't use cash cards where they are.
We got out before the governor got in right when we were leaving. He shut the town down and wouldn’t let anybody else in. I don’t think they wanted people like us there.
In Mexico, people said that if you don't hand donations directly to those [who need them], the government takes it and puts it in warehouses. It's a political year and they want to be big heroes and distribute it themselves.
People were talking about that in Puerto Rico too, so I don't know — I'm not political, charity is bipartisan. I'm just telling you what I heard.
And then Puerto Rico [faced disaster]. I said, let's start all over again. Different celebrities and wealthy people who shall remain nameless — they were blowing me off.
They were saying, "You can't get in there. Nothing's going to be able to happen. I can't help you.” And like in business, those same people are now chasing me down to try to help after [my efforts were] legitimized.
Like anything else, [no one wants to be] the first person to bet on you. So I bet on myself. I chartered the first plane myself, and then found the right partner in Global Empowerment Mission and Michael Capponi [on its board of directors] to fill that first plane with what I needed. This woman, Nicole, from Dallas helped me on the ground with escorts and where to go and mayors and villages and refugee camps and towns that no one had seen.
By that time, a friend said “OK, I see what you're doing — I'll give you my plane for tomorrow.” That was the second plane in play.
Then I had to figure out how to buy everything — I knew the list of needs by heart. I had people who had warehouses on the ground who could help me with the infrastructure and distribution. That was part B.
And then part C was how we could bring people back. I named a chat [thread with collaborators] “Underground PR 911.” It was like an underground movement of five people making all this happen.
We were finding: This woman is separated from her family, or this woman has an autistic kid, or this one's 75 and has nothing and needs to get home. And then we started putting people on planes home.
And then a third person gave [the] $18,000 needed to sponsor a plane. And so I started calling friends, other rich people that I know, like [billionaire] Nancy Rogers from Mary Kay Cosmetics. [I said], “This is what we’re doing — I have supplies and we’re bringing people home." She said, “OK, I'll send my plane.”
And then people are seeing this on Twitter, [through which platform] a nurse who works at a pediatric hospital reached out and I asked her to send me her list. We went ourselves to Costco to get it, and then she met us at the airport to pick it up. When we got there, I was worried it was going to be so disorganized. But this group of people who are on this chat, who are working 24 hours a day including myself — it's seamless.
And now, people are jumping on. My website's crashed, because people are donating.
I’m not being narcissistic, but I enjoy this because I’m good at it.
I used to produce events: movie premieres, the Grammys. That’s all this is.
I’m not a genius — I'm just good at pulling people together, executing, getting things done. It's all about delegation. Timing. You do that, this one does that, talk to that one, that's off my plate, I can trust you, you're doing that. And it’s about going rogue.
I started B Strong out with donations, I pay for everyone's meals, everyone's hotels, everyone to fly everywhere — not me personally [but this whole effort] is up to $1 million for all the relief efforts. I could tally it up, but that would be a side project that I don't have time for!
We are up to seven planes now. [I’m encouraging big potential donors to just give me their credit cards.] Right now it's easier to just put it in my account, and it's me buying $18,000 in gift cards, distributing it to people.
And just like that, people just pull together. And then you're like, “I gotta fill this damn plane [and not waste any space or fuel]!” So Feeding America and City Harvest came with meals. Guardians of Rescue came with stuff for dogs. Someone came with insulin. I went to Costco for pediatric stuff. My friend, Warren, got us a satellite phone.
You're just hustling. But it's organized.
That’s what's weird: It's rogue, but it's organized. You can’t wait for someone to tell you what you're allowed to do [when people are dying] — you gotta just go.
Below, Bethenny reveals what's next for her relief efforts.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Want to help? Donate through Bethenny's B Strong platform here.
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