Bethenny Frankel’s Ukrainian relief effort, through her BStrong initiative, began as a commitment to distributing 100,000 relief kits (equaling $10 million in aid) when she first heard of Russian troops invading Ukraine on Feb. 24. The entrepreneur and philanthropist likens her operation, in collaboration with nonprofit partner Global Empowerment Mission, to an Amazon fulfillment center: a warehouse full of necessities coming in and going out, in large and rapid numbers.
“We’re dealing in very large-scale donations from major companies,” Frankel tells The Hollywood Reporter in a phone interview. “But the majority of the $15 [million] to probably $20 million now in cash is from $5 and $10 donations from individuals. There’s one person who made a seven-figure donation, and one person who made a couple thousand dollar donation, but the rest is really just [enough for] a meal and it’s changing lives.”
Frankel also has recently been in contact with Dancing With the Stars alum Maksim Chmerkovskiy, who was born in Odessa when it was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This week, he went on Good Morning America to share his experience being stuck in Ukraine, and how he is now returning to Poland to help refugees escaping the war and managing his survivor’s guilt. Frankel says Chmerkovskiy, who via his humanitarian aid effort Baranova 27 has shipped nearly 280,000 pounds of emergency goods, has visited her operation to meet with her team.
Below, Frankel speaks to THR about how she organizes and distributes millions of dollars in aid during disasters, both natural and man-made.
When did you start your BStrong initiative and what is its core mission? How does this Ukraine relief effort serve those goals?
When I started it, it was for crisis situations. I always wanted to do something that could be immediate: immediate impact, immediate relief for people who are at phase zero, where it’s life or death. So that was for Hurricane Harvey relief; moving into Guatemala after a volcano erupted, moving into Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Australia, Haiti, New Orleans, Tennessee, North Carolina, Surfside and the Bronx fires’ the PPE crisis, and now this.
It’s usually disaster relief. This is a unique evolution and outlier because it is a disaster, but it’s not a natural disaster like a hurricane or a volcano or an earthquake. But it differs greatly in that it hasn’t stopped. Those natural disasters usually have stopped and then you’re dealing with the aftermath and picking up the pieces, and rebuilding. But in this case, it’s a treadmill; you are dealing with certain people’s aftermath and helping them pick up the pieces and relocate and rebuild. You’re going back in. You’re extracting people out.
We have a warehouse in Poland and one in Hungary to distribute aid throughout this crisis and throughout different parts of Romania, Hungary and Poland. And then there’s another tier that is the relocation of refugees, which is very detailed. The entire effort will exceed $100 million so that’s extraordinary, because we’re only two weeks into this.
How are you coordinating donations and shipping from your warehouse? Where does the aid come from and how is it distributed?
We have a warehouse in Miami — in Doral, Florida — that is yearround. So that is how we started the first commitment of $10 million dollars in aid to ship containers to Poland. But as this thing got exponentially greater, it’s not economically sound to be shipping aid from the U.S. when we’re so credible and immediate that we have so many European contacts. We have people like Levi’s and Goya and all these different brands that have European factions and they have all been sending us aid. So that’s how we’ll have these two stocked warehouses that will mimic what we have in Miami.
Now we’ve literally built like a mini FEMA out in Hungary and Poland to distribute aid to different hospitals and churches and groups. We do everything from food, to kid supplies, to operating tables and wheelchairs. We are a place where many of the other organizations that you hear of are donating to. They will come to us to get aid; we’re sort of like the not for profit, Costco/Amazon model there. That’s how you get to $100 million in aid, because of all of this aid that is constantly coming into us which is something that we started in Hurricane Maria — we amassed aid from all over the nation. People raise money and aid really quickly, and then they don’t know what to do with it. They get excited. They want to say the big numbers, but then they don’t know exactly how to distribute it. That’s what we excel at. We are taking people’s aid and we’re distributing it.
How did you build credibility doing this work? What’s your relationship with BStrong’s nonprofit partner Global Empowerment Mission?
No two relief efforts are the same, but you can piece together a puzzle of how to handle it. You become like a relief general contractor where you know exactly who to trust, you know exactly who to call to do military extractions and take people out that are in sensitive situations and get them out of gnarly circumstances, and then you partner with somebody in travel to help you in an organized manner execute the relocation and exit of refugees.
My logistical partner Michael from GEM knew how to do the logistics and operations, but he didn’t have the money or the awareness. So I got that for him. And that’s how it happens. He knows about the trucking and the shipping and the forklifts and the logistics in the warehouse and I came in and said, “This needs to be immaculate and organized, to look like the most organized Amazon fulfillment center you’ve ever seen,” really to build crisis kits so you can give a box to a family so they have everything they need. So I came in and just like became the chairman and CEO of this effort and initiative to make it streamlined, and know exactly how each effort gets executed.
Why did this situation in Ukraine resonate with you and inspire you to help, especially so quickly?
Well, when you hear about refugee relocation, that sounds like a natural disaster. When people are out of their homes and helpless and devastated and traumatized, that’s a model we understand. I just always start with one small thing, just like a business. You do one thing well, and then you keep going.
Speaking of refugees and people escaping from Ukraine, what has your relationship with Maksim Chmerkovskiy [who is Ukranian] of Dancing With the Stars been like?
Maks met with my partner last night for a four-hour dinner and he’s come to see our facilities and our operation. It’s pretty extraordinary. Basically what he’s doing is helping us raise awareness. He’s very motivated. And very curious. And he’s got the bug to help his people.