For Danny Grossman, CEO of San Francisco-based toyco Wild Planet, the Cold War isn’t just something he’s read about in history books. Grossman got a firsthand taste of the decades-long, high-stakes conflict in the 1980s while he served as a member of the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic corps in the Soviet Union. Caught in a ‘tit for tat’ bout of expulsions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., Grossman was falsely labeled as a spy and booted out of the country in 1986.
Fluent in Russian, Hebrew, Hindi, German, French and Spanish, Grossman says his love of languages (the understatement of the year!) and keen interest in foreign affairs led him to the State Department after he graduated from Yale. New Delhi was his first posting in 1983, and he worked there for two years in the U.S. consulate adjudicating visa applications. After landing in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1985, Grossman fell headlong into the tense diplomatic climate of the Cold War.
Before his expulsion, Grossman says he served largely as a human rights observer and reported on the treatment of Soviet activists and Refusniks (people forbidden to leave the country), who were often sentenced to prison terms or stays in psychiatric institutions.
In fact, he says one of his strongest memories stems from one activist’s trial. Heading to the courthouse entrance, Grossman found himself in a lineup roughly 50 people deep. ‘When I arrived, the crowd parted and pushed me forward so that they could get a U.S. representative inside,’ he says. ‘I was the last one in the door and observed the trial, which, unfortunately, was a sham.’
After leaving the U.S.S.R., Grossman was sent to Austria to sit in on human rights and arms control negotiations facilitated by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He returned to Washington, D.C. a year later and continued his work as a human rights officer on the Soviet desk in the Department until 1989, when the U.S.S.R.’s political system collapsed.
By that time, Grossman had grown tired of the nomadic life of a diplomat and began pursuing an MBA at Stanford University in California. After graduating and doing a quick stint with toyco Aviva Sports (which was subsequently sold to Mattel), Grossman founded Wild Planet in 1993. Ironically, the company’s Spy Gear line (featuring products like night-vision goggles and binoculars, an electronic listening device and a pair of sunglasses with a built-in mini-camera) is one of its top-sellers these days. But Grossman is stoked about Wild Planet’s new fall product too, particularly its licensed SpongeBob SquarePants Krabby Patty Station and chirpy Japanese import Aquapets.
As for the company’s 2005 plans, Grossman’s keeping mum. In his best 007 voice, he quips, ‘I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you.’ More seriously, Grossman says he’s looking to add to Wild Planet’s roster of licenses (Nickelodeon was its first) and is constantly scouting for new opportunities.