Chris Gardner: Homeless to Happyness

UPDATED: April 22, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 22, 2011

When Chris Gardner talks about homeless people, his words resonate; he has walked in their shoes. He knows what it’s like just trying to survive.

“Remember these are still people,” he says. “They are not invisible. They each have a story.”

In his lifetime, the successful against-all-odds stockbroker who inspired the Academy Award-nominated The Pursuit of Happyness has accomplished many things—overcoming a violent childhood, rising out of homelessness, being a single father who broke the cycle of abuse with his children. Yet his story is much more than one of accumulating wealth and overcoming adversity. And he never forgets his past or the people who’ve touched his life.

In San Francisco in the early 1980s, Gardner earned a meager living selling medical supplies. He got the idea to pursue a career as a stockbroker from a man in a red Ferrari he met one day. Gardner said he’d let the man have the parking spot he was vacating if he would tell him what kind of work he did to afford the car. The man was a stockbroker.

Although Gardner lacked a college degree, and the pedigree and social connections for any white-collar job, he knocked on doors for several months and finally landed a spot in the Dean Witter Reynolds training program. The trainee’s stipend barely paid for food, let alone rent. Meantime, his girlfriend left him and their toddler, Chris Jr. With determination, Gardner clung to his goal of financial independence, working hard during the day while spending his nights trying to arrange for child care, food and shelter. When they were lucky enough to find space, they slept at the Glide Memorial Church shelter; otherwise, they huddled in a locked bathroom at an Oakland subway station. At the conclusion of the training program, Gardner was the sole trainee chosen for a permanent position with Dean Witter Reynolds.

“Staying motivated isn’t a challenge for me,” he says today. “When I think about all I want to accomplish, despite all my successes, I haven’t even made a dent in what’s possible. Opportunity is as vast as the sky.”

After a couple years with Dean Witter Reynolds, he took a position with Bear Stearns & Co., where he became a top earner. In 1987, he founded his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Co., in Chicago, which he since transformed into Christopher Gardner International Holdings, an institutional brokerage firm that also directs projects overseas, primarily in South Africa.

With dreams as big as the sky, Gardner now looks to his children for inspiration, but walking the line between personal and professional obligations is sometimes a challenge. “I continually plead for understanding from my family and the people I love,” he says. “I am so passionate about what I do that personal time tends to get filled by business. It makes me happy, but can get exhausting. There are days when I just need to take off and check out. No calls, no e-mails. Just downtime.”

Always trying to make the most of every minute in business, Gardner developed one ironclad rule: “Always be on time,” he says. “And if possible, be aggressively early. Whatever meeting you have to cut short, even if you have to run those last five blocks, get there on time. Being late projects the wrong image and makes people lose faith in your ability to prioritize.”

Now, Gardner is more acutely aware that time is “the ultimate luxury,” he says. “At a certain point there are more yesterdays than tomorrows. So, I plan on spending all my tomorrows very carefully and appreciating every one of them.”

For the present, Gardner still basks in the afterglow of his 2006 best-selling autobiography and the movie it inspired starring Will Smith. He’s at work on a second book and in the process of forming a foundation to assist with such problems as homelessness and domestic abuse. He is actively involved in giving back on a local level, and still gives as much as he can to Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. “There wouldn’t be a Chris Gardner today if there wasn’t a Glide back then,” he says.

Some of his favorite projects include the Chicago-based CARA program, which offers comprehensive job training, permanent job placement and supportive services to homeless and at-risk populations. The Cara Program administers Cleanslate, a transitional jobs program in which participants learn critical work and life skills as they perform neighborhood beautification projects. In addition, Gardner is active in Peace Over Violence, a Los Angeles social-service agency working to prevent violence against women and children. “Giving back when you are successful should not be seen as an obligation; it’s a privilege,” he says. He also shares his story as a motivational speaker all over the world.

Over time, the many people who have touched Gardner’s life have helped bring his successes to fruition—from his aunts and uncles who helped raise him to the stockbroker with the red Ferrari who gave Gardner his first glimpse at his career dream to the business associates who taught him along the way. But the person he admires most is his mother. She endured hardships of her own, including a lifetime of domestic abuse and a prison term for trying to burn down the house with Gardner’s abusive step-father inside, he says.

Gardner says he inherited much from his mother—her ability to sit absolutely still when the world seems to be crumbling, her appreciation for public libraries, her devotion to her children, her innate ability to endure.

“I owe so much to my mom, Bettye Jean Gardner, including the moment that got me pointed in the right direction,” he says. “I was a kid, watching a college basketball game on TV, and one of the announcers said that someday one of the best players might make a million dollars. I whistled and said, under my breath, ‘Man, a million dollars!’ And my mother, who was in the next room, said, ‘Son, if you want to, one day you could make a million dollars.’ With that one sentence, she convinced me that in spite of where I came from, I could attain whatever goals I set for myself. That one day I, too, could be world-class at something.”

Gardner also has the same unshakable faith in Chris Jr. and a younger daughter, Jacintha, both in their 20s. The successes of his children have brought him the most joy. “No business success could rival the pride I have in my children,” he says.

Gardner says his greatest achievement is breaking the destructive cycles his children could have inherited. “I was there for my son, so I know he will be there for his children, breaking the cycle of absentee fathers in our family. I have taught him that being a man means being responsible. I have taught my daughter how she deserves to be treated, breaking the cycle of abused and degraded women in our family,” he says.

About the future, Gardner believes the best is yet to come. He knows that through his children he has positively influenced future generations of his family he will never meet. “Hopefully, my legacy and what I’ll be remembered for has not happened yet,” he says. “I don’t want to sit on my laurels. There’s still too much to achieve.”

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