Growing up as the daughter of a mother with an alcohol problem and a father who left before childhood got started sounds like the plot of a pop teen romance novel instead of background for one of the world’s great business stories. But that’s exactly how Bethenny Frankel got her start in life.
After a childhood she herself described as “difficult,” Bethenny grew up to found Skinnygirl, appear on numerous reality shows, and launch an organization dedicated to helping people affected by natural disasters.
None of it came easy for her.
“You cannot show people only the petals and not the thorns,” Bethenny would later say. “It’s not fair to them.” Certainly, her entrepreneurial journey and background have included both petals and thorns. But for entrepreneurs, and female entrepreneurs especially, Bethenny’s approach to her life and business endeavors has a lot to teach about knowing what you want, dreaming big, and being strategic.
Bethenny Frankel’s Childhood: A Study in Dysfunction
Bethenny began life in November of 1970 as the only child of horse trainer Robert J. Frankel and interior designer Bernadette Birk. Frankel was Jewish, Birk Catholic. Religion wasn’t all that divided the couple, and by the time Bethenny was four years old, her parents had split for good. Just a year later, Bethenny’s mother remarried, this time choosing John Parisella, another horse trainer. Throughout her childhood, Bethenny accompanied her mother and stepfather as the couple made one move after another.
No matter where the family lived, things weren’t positive at home. Bernadette Birk drank heavily, battled bulimia, and frequently slipped out of control. Bethenny recalls violent fights between her mother and stepfather. “The house would be in shambles,” she later told interviewers. Her mother threw “dishes, pictures, the TV — anything she could see.”
Most of Birk’s rage was directed at her husband, but Bethenny herself caught plenty of her mother’s dysfunctional personality. Birk took her daughter to Vegas nightclubs when the girl was just 13 years old, for example, and Bethenny recalls cleaning up her mother’s vomit after the older woman had passed out from drinking.
In retaliation for her daughter’s frankness, Birk now tells reporters that Bethenny is a “liar” and a “moron” and attributes her success entirely to “luck.” The two women have been estranged for more than 15 years. “I was an adult as a child,” Frankel later said in a candid interview with Business Insider. “I saw so much as a very young child that I think it matured me in an unnatural and unusual way.”
Boarding school became a safe haven for the teenage Bethenny, and in 1988, she graduated from the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Bethenny went on to complete two years at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City and two years at Boston University before finally earning a degree in psychology and communications from New York University. After finishing college, Bethenny knew it was time to start following her dream.
Aspirations of Stardom
The young graduate packed up her things and headed to Southern California to pursue a career as an actress. She wasn’t alone, of course. Many young women leave home for Hollywood with dreams of hitting it big in the movies, but only a fraction achieve any success. Bethenny, however, had something most people don’t — a remarkable demand for perfection and a love of the hustle.
For a long time, Bethenny turned up only a few small acting roles and her dreams of celebrity on the set never really panned out, but her hustle gave her something much more valuable — a network. Thanks to a friendship with Kyle Richards, Bethenny landed a gig as a nanny for the Hilton family. She was the one who ushered Paris and Nicole to school each morning for part of their childhoods. Bethenny also did a stint as an assistant to Jerry and Linda Bruckheimer and one as a production assistant on the set of Saved by the Bell.
Over time, the young girl from the dysfunctional family at the horse track built herself a very big list of impressive personal friends, which she leveraged into her first business venture.
Bethenny Bakes + And Parties + And Sells Pashmina
Bethenny had to do something because she wasn’t making serious money, and what she was pulling in managed to get away from her before she could control it. Cash went to frivolous items, and credit card balances crept up each month. Today, Bethenny tells entrepreneurs to control their debt if they want to become wealthy, but it was a lesson learned the hard way.
At the time, she needed money badly so she started a party planning service called In Any Event. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” Bethenny later admitted. “I was broke, I was eating cartons of takeout rice two meals a day.” The business didn’t last long.
Bethenny tried again, this time with a pashmina scarf outfit. She bought the scarves wholesale from a manufacturer in Bombay and sold them to her glitzy Hollywood friends. Princess Pashminas, which is what she called this business, proved much more successful than the party planning enterprise had done. Still, a single scarf company wasn’t enough for Bethenny. For her next gig, she turned to her long-time talent: cooking.
BethennyBakes, the new company, focused on preparing and delivering healthy baked goods in New York City. Proving popular with NYC’s health-but-hungry population, BethennyBakes was Bethenny’s first idea that showed real promise. And things looked even rosier after Bethenny managed to snag a spot on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. Appearing on the show turned out to be a genius idea. With her acting background, Bethenny was a natural in front of the camera, and her presentation to Stewart’s audience boosted her business.
It wasn’t enough to keep the enterprise open, though, and in 2006, BethennyBakes folded. Before long, Bethenny had turned failure into fabulous, snagging an endorsement gig with Pepperidge Farms. Shortly thereafter, a friend told Bethenny about a new show that wanted her to come on board. The series would focus on the lives of Manhattan women. Everyone gave the same advice:
“Don’t do it, Bethenny!”
Finding Her Place on Reality TV
What if the show fails? Nothing like it has been done before. People might turn it off. You’ve worked too hard to risk it all on this.
Bethenny herself had serious doubts, too. After all, she had just secured a column with Health, was promoting Pepperidge Farms, and occasionally popping in on the Today show. If everyone hated Real Housewives of New York, which is what the new show would be called, Bethenny stood to lose a lot. She decided, however, to go for it.
“It’s really not that easy to get on TV” she later said, explaining her decision. “I decided just to make it what I wanted it to be. To keep the focus on my brand and to just be me. It was the best decision I’d ever made.”
It certainly was a lucrative decision. Cameras followed Bethenny everywhere she went. And her product ideas started appearing on screen with her. As her personality drew fans and then caused clashes with cast mates, Bethenny’s personal popularity with viewers soared. Soon, producers were offering Bethenny her own show, Bethenny Ever After, which gained 2.4 million viewers for her wedding and 2.7 million for the birth of her daughter Bryn in 2010.
Many people would consider such stunning success on TV the pinnacle of their careers. But Bethenny doesn’t follow the crowd’s advice. She knew that celebrity is fleeting. She would have to ground her life and work in something more permanent.
“I went on the show single-handedly and exclusively for business,” Bethenny says. So using her entrepreneurial background and skills, she turned her extraordinary personal brand into a new business gig. And her business acumen has proven as good as her talent for reality showbiz.
Finally, Skinnygirl Debuts
Bethenny appealed to viewers for her larger-than-life personality, her witticisms, and her style along with her iconic figure. The New Yorker described her looks by saying, “(She) has the skinny-but-busty figure more commonly associated with lingerie models and comic-book vamps than with middle-aged parents.” If tall, skinny, and busty was the look moms across America longed for, Bethenny would capitalize on it.
In the first season of Real Housewives of New York, Bethenny ordered a cocktail she’d created, a concoction of two ounces clear premium tequila (Bethenny prefers Patron Silver) mixed with the juice of half a lime and a splash of Grand Marnier. Bethenny referred to her drink as “a skinny girl’s margarita.” And the name stuck.
Soon, Bethenny had launched a line of low-calorie, pre-mixed cocktails called Skinnygirl. Featuring an average of 35 calories per cocktail, Skinnygirl soon rolled out a line of alcoholic drinks that included margaritas, cosmos, and a wine collection. Every drink came with a touch of Bethenny’s signature wit, and women across America lapped up the products. In 2011, Bethenny sold Skinnygirl Cocktails to Beam Suntory for $120 million. By anybody’s standards, that sale made Bethenny a wealthy woman, and for the first time, she felt like one. She had also learned a business approach that would let her flourish.
“It’s expensive to continue to grow a business after your one hit,” she later said. “You have a staff, offices, insurance, and trademark lawyers. It’s expensive to protect yourself. So you’ve got to rocket to the launch and stay on. Or, once you become really successful, you can cash out and not work anymore.”
Not working isn’t Bethenny’s style. Before long, Skinnygirl was a brand empire selling jeans, coffee, haircare, skincare, popcorn, dressings, and intimate apparel. Soon, Bethenny’s businesses were consuming so much of her time and energy that she left Housewives to focus on products and television production. Plus, Bethenny knew she wanted to do more with her life than sell products and have TV cameras follow her around.
She wanted to make a difference.
Bethenny Launches B Strong
Bethenny’s own difficult upbringing coupled with her divorce have given her a heart to help other women who need a hand up.
In 2016, Bethenny launched B Strong, an initiative designed to help women in crisis situations by providing real-time emergency assistance. Since its founding, B Strong has delivered more than 195,000 pounds of supplies to help victims of Hurricane Dorian, provided $25,000 in aid to Hurricane Florence victims in North Carolina, and assisted victims of natural disasters in California, Guatemala, Mexico, Hawaii, and other places around the world.
B Strong also partners with Dress for Success to help women who face abusive situations or those in dire financial crises. Through this partnership, women can access financial assistance, life coaching, and wraparound services. Bethenny’s friends and followers can donate to B Strong or buy B Strong apparel online to help support the organization’s mission.
Bethenny’s Advice for Other Entrepreneurs
Appearing on the AskGaryVee Show, Bethenny said she realized she was playing on the margins when she created a low-calorie, pre-mixed cocktail. Vodka wasn’t new, but her packaging and approach to it was. In addition, Bethenny told Gary the key to entrepreneurial success lies in execution, not in great ideas.
She told Forbes the same thing. “Don’t get caught and stuck in your own idea. Or what your friends think. An idea is nothing compared to the execution.“
Finally, she says go with your gut. With one caveat. Don’t listen to your gut about relationships. But business? Listen to your gut. In fact, the worst business advice Bethenny ever heard was to hold out for the perfect plan.
“When you wait for the perfect plan, you often end up procrastinating and getting stuck instead,” Bethenny said. “Besides, perfect doesn’t exist, and most of the things you write down won’t happen anyway. So just get in the car, get on the road, and start mapping your route while you drive.”
So according to Bethenny, if you want to build a business, pull on your Skinnygirl jeans and get going. Enjoy the trip.
Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.
Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.