Dorota Applebaum (MBA ’04) Shares What Led Her to Start Her Own Real Estate Investment Bank and How She is Helping Refugees of the Ukrainian War, One at a Time

Dorota Applebaum
A native of Poland, Dorota Applebaum (MBA ’04) is an entrepreneur and owner of Gemma Capital Group, who is currently based in Italy after moving from Manhattan with her family during the COVID-19 pandemic. She shares what led her to start her own company and how her real estate background helped her find temporary housing so she could offer assistance to women and their children fleeing Ukraine.

What led you to start your own real estate investment company?

When I came to Stern I thought I was going to do what everyone at the time was doing with their MBA … go into finance. But after a short stint on Wall Street, I realized that my entrepreneurial nature was calling. I had always loved real estate and found myself in a position to raise $20 million in capital for a project. I am a people person and this is a relationship-based business, so I felt like I had found my true calling by combining my interest in real estate with raising funds. And now, about 17 years later, I have a real estate investment banking platform and a network of both operators and investors.

What type of projects are you involved in?

We primarily work on value-add multi-family housing, but tend to be asset-agnostic and focus on projects offering significant upside with a moderate risk profile. We have projects across the U.S, and Europe, and we work with investors, both institutional and ultra-high net worth, based in the US, Israel, Europe and Asia. Last year we did about $900 million worth of transactions that were all multi-family. While I work in other markets, the majority of my projects have been in the U.S. But the market has changed a lot over the last decade, and now it is harder to find good projects.

How did you end up in a small village in Italy?

When the pandemic hit, my husband and two young children were living in Manhattan. We wanted more space and decided to test drive our retirement plan and rented a house in the countryside in Italy. It’s been great and my kids are now enrolled in school here. It’s amazing how kids can adapt.

What led you to start the Hummingbird Effort Foundation and to help refugees from Ukraine?

I grew up with a home in Gdańsk in Poland, and we immediately knew we could offer it to families fleeing Ukraine. I was recovering from a broken leg, so I was confined at home and had some extra time. As I was watching the news, I started getting ideas of how I could help. As of February 27, I decided I was going to do something. One thing led to another and I started connecting with owners of properties on Airbnb and helped secure places for more families to stay. The first mother and her children arrived on March 1. But in order to make owners comfortable with renting to refugees, the Foundation signs the contract and pays the rent. This gives comfort to the property owner and makes it easier to find new places. Now we have 70 women and children who are receiving help through Hummingbird.

We try to take an individualized approach to helping each family. We will help kids enroll in schools, provide food vouchers, social security numbers, and help mothers find jobs so they have a sustainable way of living and a road to independence. The goal is to help them get on their feet in about three months and then continue to provide some support through Hummingbird as needed.

Where did the name the Hummingbird Effort Foundation come from?

I read the Hummingbird story by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. It is a story about the small efforts of a hummingbird to help other animals affected by a wildfire. Even though the bird’s effort is small, it says it is ‘doing what it can’. That was my inspiration. I cannot help everyone, but I am doing what I can to help some: one family at a time.

How have you stayed connected to Stern over the years?

I have attended a few Reunions and I keep in touch with all my friends from Stern. Many Stern alumni have made generous contributions to the Hummingbird Foundation, and I’m very grateful for their support.