Chris Gardner had just gotten off the phone with friend, and veteran Hollywood actor, Sidney Poitier,prior to our interview.
It’s clear that Gardner has touched so many lives from across the spectrum: the entrepreneur, author, philanthropist, and parent has left an indelible impression on people around the world, rubbing elbows with every day people, executives -- as well as renowned celebrities. They take in Gardner’s wisdom and advice, to overcome adversity.
Chris Gardner’s story is a pull-up- the-bootstraps tale of success, for a man who at one time had neither proverbial straps nor boots.
His bestselling autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, was followed by a 2006 film of the same name. Gardner was played by actor Will Smith, who received Academy Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for his performance.
His inspirational story has made him the subject of countless newspaper and television coverage.
In his second bestselling book, Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, in 2009, Gardner spelled out how to overcome the worst of times using positive outlooks, courage and discipline.
He comes from this advice honestly, having seen first hand a childhood of poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, and abuse.
Gardner never knew his father, and lived with his mother, Bettye Jean, when not in foster homes.
After high school he joined the navy, and after discharge, planted roots in San Francisco, there working as a medical research associate and for a scientific supply distributor.
In 1981, as a new father to Christopher Gardner Jr., he was determined to find a fulfilling career. With just a high school education, Gardner applied for training programs at brokerages, and earned a spot at Dean Witter Reynolds.
But he could not make ends meet.
By day, Gardner would don his one suit, drop Chris Jr. at daycare and take stockbroker courses. By night, he and two year old Chris Jr. slept in the bathroom of a subway station.
Despite it all, with determination and gumption, Gardner rose to the top of his firm and became a multi-millionaire. He worked at Bear Stearns and Company from 1983 to 1987, becoming a top earner. He soon founded his own brokerage firm Gardner Rich from his home in Chicago.
Two years ago, he took a career turn, initiating Chris Gardner Media, spending about 200 days a year travelling as a motivational speaker.
He has never lost touch from his humble beginnings, however, maintaining involvement with homelessness initiatives, the National Fatherhood Initiative, the National Education Association Foundation, and organizations that combat violence against women.
My Business Magazine : caught up with Gardner to tap the life wisdom he so eagerly wishes to impart:
MBM: Why the career shift from broker to speaker?
CHRIS: I lost the love of my life. Some of the last conversations we had were her saying to me, ‘now that we see how truly short life can be, what will you do with the rest of your life?’
When you have that conversation, that changes everything. Holly passed away on July 1. On July 2. I walked away from Wall Street.
I have written books about it, I have talked about it, I’ve said it many times, that if you are doing something that you are not truly passionate about, you are compromising yourself every single day.
I worked on Wall Street, loved it for 30 years, 25 years of which I ran my own firm.
I am not one of these guys that walked away from the firm saying ‘oh my God, those horrible people; what a toxic experience that was.’ No. I loved the business.
But I just didn't want to do it anymore. I always refer to it as – there is a click, in business and life.
MBM: How many people have you given talks to?
Chris: Millions. I just left Taiwan, where I saw 5,000 people. In the last two years I’ve spoke in over fifty countries. The coolest thing in the world – if I came into Canada right now they would have to search real hard to find a spot to stamp my passport.
MBM: What values from your mother were you able to apply to business success?
Chris: Wow, everything. I have one of those old fashioned mothers who told me every single day, ‘son, you can do or be anything that you want to do or be.’ And I believed it.
I bought into it 100 percent.
There was a time I was watching a college basketball game on TV, amazed by the talent these guys had.
I commented that one day, a particular player would make a million dollars because they can run, jump and catch a ball. My mom said ‘son, one day it will be you who’ll make a million dollars.’
Until she said those words, the thought had never entered my mind. She went on to say, ‘Son, if you want to make the team, go to the gym. If you want to own the team, go to the library.’
MBM: The Bible tells us of the story of the spies in the desert, who feared going settling Canaan, because they saw themselves as grasshoppers compared to the giants they saw. You’re saying our self-perception determines our fortune?
Chris: Yes. That’s a big part of my forthcoming book, on spiritual genetics. I look at the power of choice. We’re born with the spirit to become what God wants you to be. That has nothing to do with anatomy, biology, chemistry or physics. The part of you that cannot be analyzed, quantified or measured.
The part of you that is not composed of blood type, DNA or pigmentation.
The part of you which is beyond the scope or understanding of science, medicine, or technology. Just totally spiritual.
There is no technology to measure that. The whole idea that a scientist can take a strand of hair, drop of blood and so on, put it under microscope and will tell things about you highly accurately – age, sex, color of eyes, sickness or disease.
But there’s nothing found under a microscope that will say why you became who you are as man or woman.
We make choices. I chose light, from my mother, and from others with whom I don't share a single drop of blood, and I embraced it.
MBM: Did everything fall into place for a reason?
Chris: Everything fell into place for a reason and I wouldn't change anything.
The day I came out of that hospital that you saw in the film, and I saw that guy driving that red Ferrari, had I come out of another set of doors I would have never met that guy.
How many different doors are there in a hospital?
There’s a school of thought that we are all products of our environment. According to that school of thought, I should have become another alcoholic, wife-beating child abusing illiterate loser.
But I saw the light in my mother and in others, and I embraced the light.
The reason I wouldn't change anything? I went through that pain as a child, so my children wouldn't have to.
I made a decision as five year old boy: my kids will know who my father is. The rest of my destiny came forward because I made the right choices.
MBM: What about work/family balance?
Chris: I’m asked how to balance everything in life, business, being an entrepreneur, being a parent. I have been a single parent for 28 years. The lesson I learned is that work / life balance is a myth. You must constantly make choices.
The biggest lesson in that scenario is that family rules. Your daughter will have one first dance recital. You've got to be there.
As a single parent it's even more difficult. In the US it’s estimated that 39 per cent of households are headed by single parents.
MBM: What would you want to say to single parents?
Chris: We need to address the issue; the issue of men who are not there for their children.
Lack of male role models impacts gang violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy. It could close the economic and educational gaps, all if we could address that one issue.
I will never forget about 24 years ago, visiting my mom in Milwaukee. I was still riding the bus in those days, 90 miles up from Chicago.
I'm on the bus with all these women with all these babies, and what I learned is that Wisconsin, at that time, paid $200 more a month in welfare than Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.
And all these people were moving to Wisconsin.
You fast forward from that point, 16 or 18 years. Not long ago, Milwaukee was murder capital of the United States. A significant number of the [ those convicted ] were youth.
I remember thinking to myself: ‘I was probably on the bus with some of those little boys and girls.’
All these women and children on these buses; there were no men.
Men, let’s learn to be men, and be there for our children.
Dave Gordon has penned more than a thousand articles, and more than five hundred editorials, on every topic imaginable. He writes regularly on domestic and international politics, current events, culture, relationship issues, and much more.
He has spent time in the newsrooms of the Toronto Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, National Post and eye Weekly.