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VOL. 122 | NO. 198 | Thursday, October 18, 2007

Local Venture Capitalist Makes Documentary

Warns that American students will be outstripped by more studious counterparts

By Andy Meek

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FORMATIVE YEARS: These photos are taken from a local venture capitalist's documentary comparing the academic systems in the U.S., China and India. -- Image Courtesy Of Robert Compton

Any way you add it up, four non-leap year calendar years always equate to 1,460 days – or 2 million minutes.

But follow the life of a typical American high school student during that same time span versus his or her academic counterparts in India and China, and the resulting contrast is about as vast as, well, the distance between Boston and Bangalore.

Few people know the difference better than Memphis entrepreneur and venture capitalist Bob Compton.

America in the lurch

Compton's travels to those Far East countries beginning in 2004 inspired him to create an hour-long documentary on what he found. The former Sofamor Danek executive was floored by the unrelenting demand among students there to excel in academics.

As the resulting project's executive producer, he enlisted a filmmaking team that included veterans of the "Frontline" series on PBS. The crew interviewed a panel of experts, among whom were former president Bill Clinton's labor secretary Robert Reich.

Compton spent half a million dollars on the project, which recently was entered in the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and distributed to other outlets around the country. The film's title, "Two Million Minutes," refers to the approximate amount of time that passes between the first day of high school and graduation day.

The documentary follows the experiences of six students who hail from the U.S., India and China. Over the past few days in Los Angeles, it's gone through one last major round of editing.

"Global education standards have passed us by, and we're not even aware of it," Compton said. "That's why I made this film."

Priorities, priorities

Suffice it to say Compton has a keen interest in the human capital now being molded by the education system in the U.S. Not even counting his business ventures in other cities and countries, he's been a prodigious entrepreneur and financier in Memphis alone.

To name but a few examples, his family recently made a $1 million donation to the InMotion Musculoskeletal Institute in Memphis. Compton has backed startups such as Gametime Athletics, a company that produces athletic apparel and which is part of the EmergeMemphis business incubator.

Compton came to Memphis in the 1990s as president and chief operating officer of the company formerly known as Sofamor Danek.

Far from merely inspiring a culture shock, his trips to India stirred him to write a book about his experiences - "Blogging through India" - and to create a blog about his travels, in addition to producing his new movie.

In one entry on his blog, Compton writes of his belief that India, over the next five years, will transform into "a combination of San Francisco during the Gold Rush, Texas during the Oil Boom, Silicon Valley in the early 1980s and America in the 1950s."

One thing he didn't find - Memphis stadium-boosters, take note - is a single instance where a city or township in any of the countries he visited spent money building a lavish sports stadium.

Arenas of the mind

On the other hand, Compton does recall children he encountered such as the 16-year-olds in India who were interested in chatting about the business models at various companies he's affiliated with.

"One of my programmers who works for me took me out one Saturday to his ancestral village (in India)," Compton said. "I was the first white man who'd been to their community, so they all came out to look at me. I sat and had tea and talked and eventually said I'd like to see the local high school.

"So we went, and at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon, 70 degrees and sunny, there they were - having a science fair. And the projects were every bit as good as those of seventh and eighth graders over here, but the difference is that these were children from families of rice and mango farmers."

Successful figures from the business and corporate worlds, like Compton, are beginning to bring some major influence to bear on U.S. education standards - Microsoft founder Bill Gates' charitable foundation serving as one of the most well-known examples.

The same thing is happening in Memphis. Earlier this week, for example, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., spoke to an assembly at East High School praising, among other things, the success of a private academic foundation there.

That foundation, which focuses on tutoring students at the school, was launched with the help of East High alumnus and Memphis businessman Charles McVean.

"The mentoring program at this school is a shining example of what happens when we give schools the flexibility to innovate," Alexander said.

That's partly the message of Compton's movie: that a fresh approach is needed in guiding U.S. students through those transformative 2 million minutes.

"Indians and Chinese (people) pursue academic and intellectual training the way Americans pursue sports - with passion, rigor and intensity," Compton said. "Unfortunately for the U.S., the global economic battle of the 21st century will not be fought in football stadiums or on basketball courts."

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