Chris Gardner is the owner and CEO of brokerage firm Gardner Rich LLC with offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Enduring poverty, abuse and family alcoholism as a child, and a period of homelessness in his late twenties while raising his infant son as a single father, Gardner’s hard work and tenacity helped him become a successful entrepreneur. Gardner is the international bestselling author of the 2006 autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, upon which the film starring Will Smith was based, and the 2009 book Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Gardner is also an aspirational speaker addressing the keys to overcoming obstacles and breaking cycles. His aim, through all of his projects, is to help others discover their passion and achieve their full potential. He is philanthropist committed to organizations combating violence against women, homelessness, and financial illiteracy.
Interview by Deborah Thomas
What was the determining factor that made you want to be a Stock Broker and what was your biggest challenge?
Ever since I was a young boy I knew that I wanted to be “world-class” at something. At first I thought it would be music. I loved Jazz – I still do – and was a pretty decent horn player. I wanted to be Miles Davis. But my momma said, “Son, there’s only one Miles Davis and he already has that job.”
For a while, in my early twenties, I was a bit adrift. I wasn’t sure where I would make my mark. It was a stranger in a Ferrari who actually inspired me to become a stockbroker. In 1981 I was a struggling medical salesman in San Francisco, trying to support a young family. I’m leaving an unsuccessful sales call at San Francisco General Hospital and heading to my car in the parking lot. I notice a guy in a hot red Ferrari looking for a space. I walk over to him and say “I’ll let you have my space if you answer two questions: What do you do and how do you do it?” Turns out he’s a stockbroker earning over $80,000 a month. That was more than I could have made in two years! His name was Bob Bridges. He saw how inquisitive and committed I was, and was kind enough to have lunch with me a week later and set up a few introductions.
The moment I stepped onto a trading floor I felt something electric. What might have seemed like chaos and noise to most people, actually sounded like music, like improvisational Jazz, to me. I became passionate about learning all I could about the financial industry and working hard to becoming a key player.
My biggest challenge when I was starting out at Dean Witter Reynolds was finding time to make more cold calls during the day and study more at night than all of my colleagues. And that was very tough because I was homeless at the time and taking care of my infant son, Chris Jr. Every day I didn’t know where we would sleep that night, and if I would have enough money for food, milk and diapers. But I knew with every call I made, and every hour I studied, I was digging us out of a hole and towards a better future.
At what stage did you decide that you were going to build your company, Gardner Rich LLC?
I started my own business with no college degree, no MBA, and after less than ten years working at Dean Witter Reynolds and Bear Stearns. Why? Hunger. Ambition. The desire to own my own future. I moved to Chicago and with $10,000 and one phone, set up a business at my kitchen table.
I still enjoy knowing that whatever might happen, through the ups and downs, I am doing what I love surrounded by people I admire and respect. Knowing that I have built something from nothing based on my own vision and talents.
Will Smith’s portrayal of your life was very emotional, how difficult was it to work with him in the making of this film?
I firmly believe that Will Smith played Chris Gardner better than Chris Gardner ever could, and man, he got paid better, too! Will’s portrayal was amazing — he got me right down to how I hold my head, shake hands, and sign my name. But more than that, he got the soul and spirit of our story. I was on the set almost every day that they were shooting. Working with Will was easy. I trusted him right away. He was so open, so eager to get the tone and the emotional struggle of our journey right. He was less interested in the words on the pages of the script than he was in learning from my son and me about how we made that year of our life livable.
But watching the movie all the way through is still hard for me. In that period of my life, as I was living it, there was no pause or fast forward button. Each day could seem like a month. As I watch the movie now, I remember all the hours of the day that didn’t make it to the screen. So sometimes, I indulge in the luxury of pressing pause, or skipping ahead. Especially since I know the story has a happy ending – or, depending upon how you look at it, a new beginning.
Usually, great success comes with a lot of sacrifices, what was your biggest sacrifice?
You have to think about where I was coming from. I didn’t have much to lose on my way up the ladder! But yes, everyone on their journey to success – especially entrepreneurs who are following their own vision, and have to get others to buy into it – has to set priorities and make some sacrifices.
I think my greatest sacrifice has been a lack of free time or downtime. Often I can be working, speaking, on a plane to my next meeting or event, every day for months on end. Since I love what I do, I don’t feel the drain for a long time – and then it hits me and I need to get away. No cell phone, no blackberry, and a lounge chair with a good book somewhere sunny for a few days usually does the trick.
Only now am I starting to understand the value of time, and that it is life’s ultimate luxury. At a certain point there are more yesterdays than tomorrows so you’d better spend all your tomorrows very carefully, appreciating every one of them.
You have become a global role model and a sought after public speaker, do this put a lot of pressure on your life as a whole?
Ever since my book The Pursuit of Happyness came out, and the movie with Will and Jaden Smith was released, people from all over the world have contacted me — written me letters, e-mailed me, called my office, stopped me on the street and in airports. Most of them ask me “How were you able to succeed, and how can I do it, too?” I consider myself blessed that my story has resonated with them and they are looking to me to help get them on their own road to “happyness.” This is not added pressure – this is why I went through my struggles. I have to believe I found the power to succeed in part so that I could inspire others to be undaunted by the hurdles they face, motivated to break the cycles holding them back, and empowered to use the resources at their disposal to take on new challenges.
The global meltdown of the economy has affected a lot of lives and some businesses are beginning to see recovery, while many are struggling, what trends do you see?
I don’t believe that anything is going to get better soon. If you’ve been tightening your belt, keep it tightened. If you own a business, stay focused on what your business plan and goals have always been. Turn off your TV. Stop listening to the projections, the wild forecasts. This is a great time to be hiring talented personnel and to explore new opportunities. Remember 50% of all Fortune 500 companies were founded in a bear market or recession.
If you’ve been downsized, outsourced or laid off, first realize that your self-worth is not equal to your net worth. Your net worth is going to fluctuate; your self-worth should only appreciate. Now think about what you really want to do with your life. What do you love? How can you make that into a business? Create a plan, and accept that it’s going to take hard work. When you do that, you accept that your dreams really can come true.
Happiness is sometimes portrayed as ‘hard to find’, how did you find Happiness?
I found my “button.” The things that truly matter to me and get me so jazzed that I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning so I can get out there and do my thing. Everyone needs to find their “button.”
For me, it’s been creating a business that still excites me and reflects my values; finding a way to help others by sharing my struggles and my successes; and breaking the dangerous cycles in my family. I have broken the cycle of absentee fathers by teaching my son that being a man means being responsible for your choices and your actions. I have taught my daughter how she deserves to be treated, breaking the cycle of abused and degraded women in our family. Through these two kids I have positively influenced future generations of my family that I will never meet. Every adult should be able to stand up and say they have done the same for their families.