The French Entrepreneur Running for New York City’s Homeless

Alain Bernard, the former North America CEO for the Richemont luxury group, the parent company of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, has been supporting the Bowery Mission with the French expat community for the last few years. On November 5, they will be on the starting line of the New York City Marathon.
Alain Bernard. © Bryan Smith

Among the more than 50,000 people competing in the 52nd New York City Marathon, a small number will be running for a very specific cause. This group will be supporting the Bowery Mission, one of the oldest homeless non-profits in Manhattan. Their charitable, good-natured challenge is pitting two teams – one French, one Australian – against each other to achieve three objectives: to get the best time, to raise the most money, and to recruit the highest number of individual donors.

The person behind this initiative is Alain Bernard, a French entrepreneur far removed from the struggles of the homeless – at least on paper. After arriving in New York City ten years ago as CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels for the Americas, he went on to lead the Richemont luxury group in North America. The Swiss company is the world’s third-largest luxury giant, after LVMH and Estée Lauder, and boasts prestigious brands including jewelers Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, watchmakers Panerai, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Piaget, and fashion labels Chloé, Montblanc, and Alaïa. Alain Bernard stepped down in the spring of 2021, “after 23 years with the same group, a little weary, and excited to try something new.”

At the terrace of an Italian restaurant in the Flatiron District, the youthful fifty-something talks passionately about his commitment to the Bowery Mission – an endeavor that dates back to the start of his time in New York City after three years as head of Van Cleef & Arpels in Japan. “For our first American Christmas, my wife Anne-Laure and I wanted to show our children a different side of the United States,” he says. “I looked for a local charity, discovered the Bowery Mission, and we went to serve meals to the homeless.”

Founded in 1879, this mission was named after the Lower East Side street where its longstanding headquarters are located. As a Christian non-profit working throughout Manhattan and as far as the Bronx, it provides food, emergency shelter, and clothing to those in need, as well as a variety of support and employment programs. “They’re great people,” says the entrepreneur. “They take care of the people sleeping on the street downstairs while you’re enjoying a good meal in the warm a few floors above.”

After starting out as a volunteer, Alain Bernard quickly became an active supporter of the organization through fundraising campaigns with friends and professional contacts, partnerships with Richemont USA, and running under the charity’s banner. The 2023 edition will be his eighth marathon for this cause. “Alain is always happy to organize events and mobilize the local French community and luxury networks,” says Stephen Brooks, an Australian partner at a New York investment fund. Also a long-standing Bowery Mission volunteer, he suggested making the marathon fundraiser a French-Australian challenge for the first time last year.

The French runners of the Bowery Mission team, 2020. From left: Agathe Louvet, Marie de Foucaud, and Alain Bernard. © The Bowery Mission
In November 2020, with the New York City Marathon canceled due to the pandemic, Alain Bernard and his teammates organized their own race and raised 270,000 dollars for the Bowery Mission. © The Bowery Mission
Alain Bernard preparing meals with other Bowery Mission volunteers. © The Bowery Mission
Alain Bernard with the Bowery Mission president and CEO James Winans at the organization’s gala, 2020. © Albert Cheung

The French Community Steps Up

This year, “Team France” features both newcomers and marathon regulars, and will include an actress who splits her time between Paris and Los Angeles, a former artistic director of the French Institute Alliance Française, and several entrepreneurs. “When you live in New York City, the marathon is legendary; you have to do it at least once in your life,” says Marie de Foucaud, the founder and strategy director of Elovation Consulting, who will be taking part in the race for the third time. “And when you’re French and lucky enough to be here, you realize just how important it is to give back.”

After leaving Richemont, Alain Bernard also went into consulting, both through his own company, Abbey Road Advisory, and in partnership with Elovation. “I knew what I didn’t want to do, which was to work for a very large company,” he says. “I spent six months meeting all kinds of entrepreneurs and investors. One thing led to another, and I ended up working on very diverse projects.” While luxury is the main focus, his clients range from major jewelry brands to innovative start-ups such as Aether Diamonds, which produces synthetic diamonds from carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere, and Le Gramme, a French minimalist men’s jewelry designer.

“Part of our job is to help entrepreneurs develop branding strategies and establish themselves in the United States,” explains Alain Bernard. Meanwhile, Abbey Road and Elovation are also working on what the French entrepreneur calls “new luxury,” particularly in the space travel sector through The Exploration Company, whose first commercial mission will be launching in 2024. He and Marie de Foucaud have also been appointed by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture to lead a support program for 100 Saudi fashion brands, mainly created by women, culminating in the first Riyadh Fashion Week from October 20 through 23.

Two weeks later, Alain, Marie and six other French expats will run the New York City Marathon, hoping to both outdo their Australian friends and beat their collective donation record together. Ironically, the French team’s most successful fundraising campaign for the Bowery Mission was in 2020 – the year the marathon was canceled. “With Covid, there were so many people in need that we decided to run anyway on the usual race date,” says Alain Bernard. “We organized a half-marathon on our own with 25 participants, as this was the maximum number accepted by New York City at the time. The route went from the historic Bowery site, where we first provided a breakfast service, to the traditional marathon finish line in Central Park.”

The event was covered by local media, including NY1, prompting one viewer who worked for an investment fund to double the amount already raised. In the end, the operation raised 270,000 dollars for the Bowery Mission. This year, the 16 French and Australian runners are aiming to raise at least 300,000 dollars!

Article published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.