Memphian Wages Battle to Save Youth

By Andy Meek

TAKING IT TO THE CONTENDERS: Memphis businessman Bob Compton, left, has taken the message of "Two Million Minutes," his new film about the high school education experience, to businesspeople, teachers - even presidential candidates such as U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. -- Photo Courtesy Of "Two Million" Minutes And Www.2Mminutes.Com

A Washington Post headline two weeks ago described Memphis businessman Bob Compton as waging his own personal campaign to save America.

And for the last several months, the venture capitalist and former Sofamor Danek executive arguably has worn that mantle in a very prominent way. Compton was scheduled to meet Friday, for example, with U.S. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to give a private screening of his new documentary film, "Two Million Minutes."

He flew to New York for a Wednesday morning interview with "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts about the film, which was created as a way to contrast how young people in India, China and the U.S. choose to spend their high school years. The four years of high school roughly equate to 2 million minutes, which is where the title came from.

Not wasting minutes

He made the film, spent half a million dollars of his own money and enlisted a filmmaking team that includes veterans of the "Frontline" series on PBS partly for this reason. A fresh approach, he argues, is needed in guiding U.S. students through those 2 million transformative minutes.

Like a 21st century Paul Revere - again, to borrow the Washington Post's description of his effort - Compton is sounding that alarm to just about anyone who will listen. He's made and still is making his pitch to educators, businesspeople, skeptics, reporters - even a few presidential candidates.

In addition to his encounter with McCain a few days ago, he caught up with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who is the Democratic presidential front-runner, back in November and showed him part of the film.

"He, you know, has traveled pretty widely, he's lived overseas - I mean, he got it right away," said Compton, who has financed countless business ventures in Memphis as well as around the world.

The film will get a one-night-only showing in Memphis Thursday at the Malco Paradiso theater from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Compton will preface the film with opening remarks and follow up at the end with a question-and-answer session.

Everyone who buys a $10 admission ticket that night also will get to choose whether to take home a copy of the "Two Million Minutes" DVD or the companion book Compton wrote about his experience, called "Blogging through India."

Different priorities

The idea behind "Two Million Minutes" came from Compton's travels to the Far East countries of India and China beginning in 2004. His encounters with school children there left him both fascinated and alarmed. The pursuit of academic achievement there, as far as Compton could see, rivaled the intensity usually given to athletics or other less serious pursuits here.

When he talked to students in a first-grade class in Bangalore in 2005, for example, Compton said he found himself surrounded by 5- and 6-year-old children who told him how they'd one day like to pursue careers in fields such as engineering, science, astronomy and medicine.

Armed with a video camera, Compton filmed some of the responses.

"May I ask you a question?" Compton inquires of a 6-year-old girl with pigtails, who has large, expressive eyes and is wearing a yellow backpack. "Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?"

She nods, eyeing the cameraman warily. "Doctor."

On the tape, the excitement in Compton's voice seems to grow with each answer. Engineer. Scientist. Cardiologist.

"I was so stunned that at ages 5 and 6 these Indian children had already set extraordinarily high career objectives," Compton said. "Now, they didn't wake up and they weren't born with those. Those ideas came from somewhere. And where they came from is the culture of both countries and from the families and from their peers."

Compton said he tried the same experiment in a first-grade classroom in the U.S. and got a different result.

"There was a wide range of career interests, but the two careers that were not mentioned at all by the Americans was engineering or science," he said. "And since I spent the last 20 years creating and building new technology companies, I happen to know that what creates companies and what creates jobs are products and technologies that are invented by scientists and engineers."

Many careers

Compton came to Memphis in the 1990s as president and chief operating officer of the company formerly known as Sofamor Danek. He has backed startups in Memphis that include Gametime Athletics, a company that produces athletic apparel and is
part of the EmergeMemphis business incubator.

Compton's friend and EmergeMemphis president Gwin Scott described the businessman as well into his sixth life.

"(He's gone from) venture capitalist to corporate leader to entrepreneur to angel investor to humanitarian and now filmmaker/executive producer," Scott said. "And in all of these lives he has enormously made an impact.

"Bob gets emotionally charged about how both his kids and others are educationally and socially prioritizing their high school years, and that is well illustrated with this documentary."