It’s Chanukah and toys are on the minds of many parents for the holiday. One of the most popular girls’ toys for the past several years have been the “Bratz” dolls. They are cultural diversity with disproportionately large heads, large lips, and wearing trendy fashions—all unique traits that set them apart from every other doll on the market. Recently I had a rare opportunity to chat with Issac Larian, the Iranian Jewish businessman and brainchild behind Bratz and other popular toys made by his company MGA Entertainment that is the third largest toymaking company in the world. His rags to riches story could be straight out of a Hollywood movie, but Larian has not forgotten his humble beginnings in Iran. He has been generous in his giving to a number of Jewish and non-Jewish charities.
While his competitors have tried to paint a negative image about Bratz and Larian, I found him to be an extremely down to earth and kind gentleman. He also set the record straight about the controversy brewing in the media about the live-action Bratz’s film released on DVD last month. The following is an excerpt of my interview with him published in the Iranian Jewish Chronicle Magazine online:
Can you share a little about you background and how you ended up in the toy business?
I came here in 1971 and I was 17 years old then. I had $750 in my pocket, a one way ticket, and a big American dream. My first job was washing dishes in a coffee shop in Lawndale and I was getting $1.65 an hour working from11 at night to seven in the morning. Then I went to school during the day and I worked through out college until I obtained a civil engineering degree. I was planning on going back to Iran and become a civil engineer but we had a little thing called the revolution (in 1979). I did go back to Iran briefly, but returned and started a company selling brass giftware from the back of my car. In 1987 we went into the toy business and became distributors for Nintendo Game and Watch. In 1993 we became a licensee for “Power Rangers” which was one of the hottest toys then and that basically put us on the map as a toy company. We grew that business through ups and downs and in 2001 we launched the “Bratz” dolls. I did not expect it to be as successful as it became. That grew the company to the point where we are now the third largest toy company in the world and largest privately held toy company.
The director of the “Bratz” movie, Sean McNamara was quoted in an L.A. Times article earlier this year as saying that your dolls looked like “sluts”. What was your reaction to this controversy?
He was misquoted, he never said that and we have proof that he never said that. It was a misquote that has generate negative publicity for us.
Well then, how do you respond to some of your critics that have accused the Bratz dolls of supposedly promoting sex and sending a negative message to young girls?
These are just plastic dolls and they do not promote anything. It is up to parents to promote their values to their children and not plastic toys or a TV series or actors and actress. These statements made about Bratz are nonsense. We are proud of these dolls, they are the first dolls ever to promote diversity, they promote sports and they promote education. If you go to the Bratz website for example, there’s information for kids saying that it’s good to do homework in a fun way. One of our best selling products is the Bratz educational laptop. I think the negative publicity we have received has been circulated by our competitors because they cannot compete with us in the marketplace.
I have three children myself and as an Iranian Jew—between them they have 23 cousins and we get together every Friday night. So I value children and their mental health more than anything else. A hundred years from now what’s more important to me is that the difference I make in the life of a child—not how much money I have or how many cars I own. I am very involved with many children’s causes. I have proudly coached my kids through soccer and basketball. So the accusation that Bratz promotes sex is negative publicity that has been put out by people who have a different agenda.
So what’s next for the Bratz dolls?
MGA has other brands as well such as “Little Tikes” which are perhaps one of the most respected in the country. But as far as Bratz are concerned, if Bratz stay true to their nature and change like a chameleon changes with the times, it’s going to be a brand that will continue to grow worldwide. We have also gone to the internet and we have a site called “bebratz.com” that let’s kids create their own virtual doll, they can play games and chat.
How important is Judaism in your life and what involvement do you have with the Jewish philanthropic causes?
I am a proponent of Judaism. I am not a religious Jew but I am involved in different Israel and Jewish causes that are important to me. I was fortunate last year to be honored by the JNF (Jewish National Fund) for their “Tree of Life” award. I’m proud that we were able to raise more than a $1 million for JNF at that event which I am told was a record for the west coast. But I am involved in other Jewish charities dealing with children’s disabilities, poverty and education that I would not like to mention.
What other philanthropic causes are you involved with or do you support?
For me the children’s charities are the most important in this day and age. We as a country need to spend more time and money on education because that is the foundation for future generation. I am proud to be involved with environmental causes and seeing children involved with this issue as well. My own son, decided to give all of his bar mitzvah money to environmental causes that promote alternative energy. I am also involved with Jewish causes dealing with poverty in Israel and jobs to help them. Poverty in the world and in the Jewish community is not solved by just giving money to people but teaching them to survive. You can feed a man by giving him a fish, but if you teach him how to fish then he can feed himself everyday for the rest of his life.
What reaction have you received from Iranian Jews who come to learn of your line of work?
Iranians are one of the most educated group of minorities in this country and very ambitious and it’s not only in toys. For example, if you look at Pierre Omidyar, a Persian who is not Jewish—he’s the chairman of the board and founder of eBay, one of the biggest corporations in the world. We need to be proud of the Iranian community, whether they are Jewish or not Jewish. Of course the Iranian Jews have had many major accomplishments. But the reaction I have received from the community has been from people who are proud that someone from their community has been able to been have this kind of achievement. I am humbled and I hope I can serve as an example to young people. I came from very humble beginning, so I am down to earth and connect well with the younger generation. I’d like to help them in anyway I can.
Why do you think Iranian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. have been so successful in business and other professions in the last 30 years?
I think that human beings in general are very resilient and when they are put in challenging situations, they usually rise to the occasion. And that has been the case for our community. We have been under attack and control, unable to express ourselves in the past. But now we are in America, the land of opportunity and we can do anything we want, so we have blossomed. Iranian Jews are no different than other immigrants like the Korean Americans or Chinese Americans. There are so many opportunities here and perhaps local Americans who were born here do not see that—with just a little hard work you can accomplish a lot.
What advice do you have for young Iranian Jews who are just starting their own businesses and entering the workforce?
First of all, I would say that life is not all about money. Money is just an instrument to help you in life. You should really work on your spirituality. Also I think it’s important to have dreams, being able to believe in your dreams and listening to your intuition and imagination more than your knowledge you gained in school. Your sixth sense and subconscious mind are much more powerful than the theories you learn in school. Lastly I would say that you should not be afraid of failure. In order to succeed, you need to fail.
Thank you for chatting with us Mr. Larian and best of luck with your work.