By: DAVID ZIVAN
A one-time Miami nightlife guru and a real estate developer, Michael Capponi has become an unlikely face of global altruism.
Speaking from a hotel room somewhere in Kyiv, Ukraine, Michael Capponi dismisses inquiries about his safety and focuses instead on overcoming the main threat to his ongoing humanitarian efforts in the war-raged country. “Bureaucracy doesn’t exist for me,” he says. “I don’t even pay attention to it. I just cut right through.” Earlier that week, for instance, he had met with a regional governor, who reports directly to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “This is very different from the typical paperwork channel. You come to the table and say, ‘This is what we’re willing to do, and this is what we need from you. We need your security. We need access to be able to repair this particular school. We don’t want to deal with the Ministry of Work. We don’t want to deal with the Ministry of Education. It’s too complicated. If you want the school repaired and you want kids back in school for September, give us the keys, sign the Memo of Understanding, and you’ll see, right?’ Then you call Home Depot, you get some materials, you hire local labor, and that’s it.”
To say that Capponi is proverbially miles away from the buzzy Miami scene he helped create (Privé, B.E.D., and Mansion come to mind) would be a huge understatement. These days, the multi-hyphenate has become a major good doer as the founding CEO of Global Empowerment Mission (GEM), a nonprofit organization based in Miami that, despite its compact footprint, has delivered two decades’ worth of enormous impact on nearly every disaster event known to mankind. Capponi has been to Haiti nearly 100 times. He in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit and in Surfside when the Champlain Tower collapsed. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he was one of the first humanitarian representatives on the Polish border handing out care packages. And he does not mince words about the relative efficacy of GEM’s hands-on, direct-aid approach.
“Sometimes I feel like the pot as a whole is much greater than what will actually be given to the people,” he says. “For Surfside, we only raised a million and a half dollars. But we put every single survivor in a new apartment. (We) paid first and last months’ rent plus security deposits. For some people, we paid an entire year’s rent. We gave every single survivor thousands of dollars on a Visa card and new home goods. What happens in many disasters is a number (of aid) is raised as a whole, and it goes in so many different pots that it gets diluted. Because every single pot has its own overhead. We’re disrupting the system, in a way. Our only goal is to get the most amount of aid in the shortest amount of time for the least amount of money to the most amount of people. It’s really all that we care about.”
Capponi will tell you that global problems were not always his top priority. At the age of 21, he was a Miami nightlife impresario turning that experience into a successful stint as a high-end home developer. The side effect of his success was a drug habit that led him onto the NY streets during a particularly brutal winter. Two decades ago, he got clean and, in gratitude, turned his efforts towards GEM.
“I tried to have a double life for a very long time,” he says. “And, eventually, I started understanding that wasn’t my destiny anymore. It was in my destiny to apply the skills from all the previous cycles — and put everything into GEM.”
Judging by the impact that rippled through the communities Capponi has had a hand in helping, it’s been well worth it.