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Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar Profile

Jim Berk invests a lifetime of success into Participant Media

From ‘Wunderkind’ music teacher to leading big business to growing a social action media conglomerate, CEO Jim Berk continues to hit all the right notes.

By James Rainey
March 14, 2014, 12:00 p.m. (Will run in March 16 print edition)

At just 21, a kid from the San Fernando Valley named Jim Berk began work as a music teacher at Carson High School. Within a couple of years, the teacher, not much older than some of his students, had turned a woebegone marching band into one of the best in Southern California. Then Berk moved to struggling Hamilton High School to launch a music magnet program. It gained national acclaim and so many new students that officials reversed their threat to close the Westside campus.

“The Wunderkind of education” the Times dubbed him in 1992. But after a little more than a decade in education, Berk craved new challenges. The man who once dreamed of being superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District moved to a string of jobs in business, including as chief of the Hard Rock Cafe chain.

But education, at least after a fashion, was not entirely in the rear-view mirror. As chief executive of Beverly Hills-based Participant Media for the past seven years, Berk has built a company known for message movies like “Food Inc.,” “The Kite Runner” and “The Help” and for attendant education campaigns that seek to turn audiences into social activists. Acolytes don’t just watch a movie, they follow up by signing on to Participant’s TakePart.com website, where they might pledge to limit food waste, support literacy in Afghanistan or petition to protect farmworkers from pesticides.

In 2014, as Participant marks its 10-year anniversary, the company and its leaders have laid out big plans for more growth with a new television network, Pivot, and several international divisions. A company that now employs 250, mostly at its headquarters near Beverly Hills City Hall, projects a worldwide workforce of thousands in another 10 years.

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