Christopher Paul “Chris” Gardner (born February 9, 1954) is an American entrepreneur, investor, stockbroker, motivational speaker, author, and philanthropist who, during the early 1980s, struggled with homelessness while raising his toddler son, Christopher, Jr. Gardner’s book of memoirs,The Pursuit of Happyness, was published in May 2006. As of 2012, he is CEO of his own stockbrokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Co, based in Chicago, Illinois, where he resides when he is not living in Toronto.
Gardner credits his tenacity and success to the “spiritual genetics” handed down to him by his mother, Bettye Jean Triplett, née Gardner, and to the high expectations placed on him by his children, son Chris Jr. (born 1981) and daughter Jacintha (born 1985). Gardner’s personal struggle of establishing himself as a stockbroker while managing fatherhood and homelessness is portrayed in the 2006 motion picture The Pursuit of Happyness, directed by Gabriele Muccino, starring Will Smith.
Gardner was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 9, 1954 to Thomas Turner and Bettye Jean Gardner. Gardner did not have many positive male role models as a child, as his father was living in Louisiana during his birth, and his stepfather was physically abusive to his mother and his siblings. Despite her very unhappy marriage and her periods of absence, Bettye Jean was a source of inspiration and strength to her son Chris. She encouraged Gardner to believe in himself and sowed the seeds of self-reliance in him. Gardner quotes her as saying, “You can only depend on yourself. The cavalry ain’t coming.” Gardner also determined from his early experiences that alcoholism, domestic abuse, child abuse, illiteracy, fear and powerlessness were all things he wanted to avoid in the future.
Inspired by his Uncle Henry’s worldwide adventures in the U.S. Navy, Gardner decided to enlist when he finished secondary schooling. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for four years, where he was assigned as a corpsman. He became acquainted with a decorated San Francisco cardiac surgeon, Dr. Robert Ellis, who offered Gardner a position assisting him with innovative clinical research at the University of California Medical Center and Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco. Gardner accepted the position, and moved to San Francisco upon his discharge from the Navy in 1974. Over the course of two years, he learned how to manage a laboratory and to perform various surgical techniques. By 1976, he had been given full responsibility for a laboratory and had co-authored several articles with Dr. Ellis that were published in medical journals.
Gardner worked as a research lab assistant at UCSF and at the Veterans’ Hospital after leaving the service. His position as a research lab assistant paid only about $8,000 a year, which was not enough for him to support a live-in girlfriend and a child. After four years, he quit these jobs and doubled his salary by taking a job as a medical equipment salesman.
Gardner returned to San Francisco determined to succeed at business. A pivotal moment in his life occurred, after a sales call to a San Francisco General Hospital, when he encountered an impeccably-dressed man(Bob Bridges) in a red Ferrari. Curious, Gardner asked the man about his career. The man told him he was a stockbroker and, from that moment on, Gardner’s career path was decided. Bob met with Gardner and gave him an introduction to the world of finance. Bridges organized meetings between Gardner and branch managers at the major stock brokerage firms that offered training programs—such as Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber, E.F. Hutton, Dean Witter Reynolds and Smith Barney.
For the following two months, Gardner cancelled or postponed his sales appointments and his car amassed parking tickets while he met with managers. It appeared that Gardner got his “break” when he was accepted into a training program at E.F. Hutton. He subsequently quit his sales job so that he could dedicate his time exclusively to training as a stockbroker. Then he appeared at the office ready to work, only to discover that his hiring manager had been fired the week before.
To make matters worse, Gardner’s relationship with Jackie was falling apart. She accused him of beating her—an accusation that Gardner denies to this day—and left him, taking their son with her to the East Coast. He was taken to jail and a judge ordered that he stay there, for ten days, as punishment for being unable to pay $1,200 in parking tickets. Gardner returned home from jail to find his apartment empty. With no experience, no college education, virtually no connections, and with the same casual outfit he had been wearing on the day he was taken into custody, Gardner gained a position in Dean Witter Reynolds’ stock brokerage training program. However, this offered no salary; apart from selling medical equipment that brought in 300-400 dollars a month in the early 1980s, and with no savings, he was unable to meet his living expenses.
Gardner worked to become a top trainee at Dean Witter Reynolds. He arrived at the office early and stayed late each day, persistently making calls to prospective clients with his goal being 200 calls per day. His perseverance paid off when, in 1982, Gardner passed his licensing exam on the first try and became a full employee of the firm. Eventually, Gardner was recruited by Bear Stearns & Company in San Francisco.
About four months after Jackie disappeared with their son, she returned and left him with Gardner. By then, he was earning a small salary and was able to afford rooming in a flophouse. He willingly accepted sole custody of his child; however, the rooming house where he lived did not allow children. Although he was gainfully employed, Gardner and his son secretly struggled with homelessness while he saved money for a rental house in Berkeley.
Meanwhile, none of Gardner’s co-workers knew that he and his son were homeless in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco for nearly a year. Gardner often scrambled to place his child in daycare, stood in soup kitchens and slept wherever he and his son could find safety—in his office after hours, at flophouses, motels, parks, airports, on public transport and even in a locked bathroom at a BART station.
Concerned for Chris Jr.’s well-being, Gardner asked Reverend Cecil Williams to allow them to stay at the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church’s shelter for homeless women, now known as The Cecil Williams Glide Community House. Williams agreed without hesitation. Today, when asked what he remembers about being homeless, Christopher Gardner, Jr. recalls “I couldn’t tell you that we were homeless, I just knew that we were always having to go. So, if anything, I remember us just moving, always moving.”
In 1987, Gardner established the brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Co, in Chicago, Illinois, an “institutional brokerage firm specializing in the execution of debt, equity and derivative products transactions for some of the nation’s largest institutions, public pension plans and unions.” His new company was started in his small Presidential Towers apartment, with start-up capital of $10,000 and a single piece of furniture: a wooden desk that doubled as the family dinner table.
Gardner is reportedly developing an investment venture with South Africa that will create hundreds of jobs and introduce millions in foreign currency into the nation. Gardner has declined to disclose details of the project citing securities laws. Gardner is a philanthropist who sponsors many charitable organizations, primarily the Cara Program and the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, where he and his son received desperately needed shelter. He has helped fund a $50 million project in San Francisco that creates low-income housing and opportunities for employment in the area of the city where he was once homeless. As well as offering monetary support, Gardner donates clothing and shoes. He makes himself available for permanent job placement assistance, career counselling and comprehensive job training for the homeless population and at-risk communities in Chicago.