“Frankly, I hate politics. There’s no time for politics when human beings are suffering. If I can get products into the hands of the people on the frontlines, the doctors and nurses and medical workers in Iran, and not the government, I will.”
So says Isaac Larian, the Iranian-born CEO of the world’s biggest toy company, MGA Entertainment. At the age of 66, the Los Angeles billionaire, a self-confessed recovered “workaholic,” has abruptly returned to working 18- to 20-hour days organizing a massive philanthropic response to the coronavirus outbreak.
In a matter of weeks, a significant part of MGA's day-to-day global operations have been re-routed into buying, developing, manufacturing and distributing life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE) to health centers around the world. So far more than 200,000 PPE items have been distributed to frontline workers treating COVID-19 patients in the United States, China and the United Kingdom under the auspices of a newly-created charitable arm, MGAE Cares – and the hope is to get it elsewhere.
The project, dubbed Operation Pac-Man, is consuming 50 to 60 percent of MGA’s resources during the pandemic. Donations are being sought from the public, but in the meantime, Larian has plowed $US 5million from one of MGA’s biggest toy brands – a doll called LOL Surprise – into the venture. The Ohio-based factory of its infant and toddler arm, Little Tikes, has been re-fitted to manufacture its own brand of PPE, while design teams have invented a new ventilator mask already being used at UCLA Medical Center in California.
Organizing such a rapid shift in the direction of a multi-national firm has been no small feat. Larian himself has also lost a relative to COVID-19, while his cousin is also in a critical condition in hospital.
Speaking to IranWire on what prompted him to launch the campaign, he said: “I’m a student of Rumi; I believe that no matter where we are, humankind belongs to the same DNA and the same people.
“When the pandemic started in China people were saying they couldn’t get masks, so we air-lifted a load of PPE material to China. Then when it came here, doctor friends called me and said ‘My God, the situation.’ They couldn’t get the protective masks and goggles they needed. They asked if we could do anything through the supply chain.
“When these kinds of things happen, the good and the bad people come out. My dad passed away in 2008 and he used to say, ‘A dollar is just a bit of colored paper.' Not everything in life is about dollars and we are going to continue to help as much as we can.”
A Company Forged in Uncertain Times Now Helping People in Crisis
MGA Entertainment itself emerged from a time of rapid upheaval and uncertainty. Born in Kashan in Isfahan province to a Jewish-Iranian family, Isaac Larian came to the US in 1971 at the age of 17 and took on a job washing dishes in a coffee shop for $1.65 an hour, later pursuing a civil engineering degree. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution he did not return home but instead co-founded an import-export business with his brother in the States.
The business has also weathered existential crises before. The main one Larian cites is MGA’s five-year legal showdown with Barbie creators Mattel in the early 2000s, which ended in a judgment awarding MGA hundreds of millions of dollars. “My whole life I’ve faced a lot of adversity,” he says. “These kinds of experiences set you up to ignore your fear and go on.”
Operation Pac-Man was launched on March 25. Teams from MGA have since been working around the clock to secure sought-after supplies and air freight and distribute them for free to frontline workers who are risking their own health to treat patients with COVID-19. In partnership with UCLA [University of California Los Angeles], whose hospital is 10 minutes from Larian’s home, the company has created a new “ventilator mask” – a potentially lifesaving device that assists patients with breathing difficulties, who do not yet need intubation – now being mass-produced at the Little Tikes Factory.
The firm is now also working with UCLA doctors to test a new ventilator prototype that could be mass-produced for hospitals free of charge. MGA has also made its 15 in-house 3D printers available to hospitals that need them and donated tens of thousands of toys to frontline health workers with young families, and to children who are sick in the hospital.
“This pandemic is not coming under control,” says Larian. “It’s going to spread to a lot of under-developed countries. In two weeks we’ve shipped to 70 hospitals worldwide and not only do we buy the product but we pay for the freight. I only hope some of it can get to my country of birth.”
Iran’s response to the outbreak has been blighted by an intermittent reluctance to accept overseas aid. Despite mounting expert appraisals to the contrary, President Hassan Rouhani and senior officials have repeatedly insisted the country has all the equipment and ICU bed capacity it needs. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, meanwhile, turned to conspiracy theories in March to justify a refusal of US aid, in the wake of repeated statements in Iranian state-sponsored media that coronavirus was a Zionist biological weapon. In March a delegation from Médecins Sans Frontièrs (Doctors Without Borders) was also briefly blocked from setting up a field hospital in Isfahan.
For this reason, Larian says, if any of MGA’s supplies find their way to Iran it is unlikely to be through a partnership with the Iranian government. Medical practitioners and hospitals anywhere in the world can request supplies on the new MGAE Cares website and members of the public are also being called on to donate where they can.
Larian has also called on the global super-rich to step up and play their part in combating the spread of coronavirus. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has so far committed $250 million toward research into a vaccine, and Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said that the company is donating 10 million face masks.
“But others seem to have gone on vacation,” Larian says. “Where are they? The beauty of entrepreneurship is you don’t have as much politics, bureaucracy or red tape to get through. I’m disappointed more of them haven’t stood up to this pandemic.”
In a time of relentless and crushing uncertainty, during which Larian’s own business has been dealt a financial blow, he says his and his company's response has been guided by lessons he learned on a 10-day meditation retreat in Mumbai, India. “We’re all part of something and we’ve got to help each other,” he says. “Nothing is permanent, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s wealth or life. Therefore, be happy.”