Chris Gardner

There are undoubtedly greater stories of overcoming adversity on the way to business success – but not all that many. Gardner’s tale: How a poor black kid from a single parent household in the Milwaukee ghetto, raised during the tumultuous period of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, became a successful financial advisor to large institutions and the rich and famous, was first told in his book, The Pursuit of HappyNess, and later made into a movie of the same name. The unusual spelling of the book and film’s title comes from a sign Gardner saw when he was homeless.

Born in 1954, Chris Gardner never met his father until he was an adult. His mother, Bettye Jean, was kind, good, and supportive, but for reasons never made clear, chose to live with an illiterate drunk and bully. Freddie Triplett regularly and savagely beat Gardner’s mother, and everyone else within range, and often forced the family, at the point of a shotgun, to leave his house. Tripplett usually referred to Gardner as “that big eared motherfucker”, and frequently informed him that “I ain’t your Goddamm Daddy!” Tripplett almost killed Gardner’s mother, but she always took him back. To make matters even more inexplicable, Tripplet was responsible for Bettye Jean serving two jail terms; once when he reported her for working while taking welfare, and once when she tried to burn down the house with him inside. Gardner spent much of his time fantasizing about ways to kill his stepfather, but only his mother actually made the attempt.

As a result of the chaos at home, Gardner spent much of his youth in foster care or living with relatives. While attempting to sell stolen goods as an adolescent, Gardner was raped by one of the men who robbed him; years later, he confronted this assailant and beat him over the head with a cinder block to even the score. Other than this completely justified attack, and some petty larceny, Gardner managed to lead a relatively crime free life, considering his circumstances and environment. With encouragement from his mother, when she was around, he also got good grades in school.

Inspired by stories he heard from his uncle about romantic adventures in the Navy, Gardner enlisted shortly after graduating from high school. While in the Navy, he became a skilled, sensitive, and sought after medic, and was recruited by one of the nation’s top heart surgeons for an important, but low paying, job on a research project based in San Francisco, where he moved upon his discharge in 1974. By 1976 he was co-authoring journal articles with Dr. Ellis, and giving instruction on clinical techniques to bright and ambitious young doctors. He planned to go to medical school and become a doctor, but for someone who had never attended college, this meant many years in school, plus residency, and the challenge of finding a way to pay for all that formal education.

In 1977 he married Sherry Dyson, an expert in mathematics education from an established middle class family in Richmond, Virginia. They appeared well positioned on the path to become a successful, black professional couple, until Gardner decided to abandon his dream of becoming a doctor. Their marriage was further jeopardized when Gardner met a woman at a party with whom he immediately felt a compelling sexual attraction. This woman would become the mother of both his children.

In search of a decent income, Gardner became a medical equipment salesman. While calling at a local hospital, he had a chance encounter with a very well dressed man driving a red Ferrari, Bob Bridges. Gardner asked him what he did for a living, and Bridges responded that he was a stockbroker. It was this chance encounter that launched Gardner on the path to a financial career. Bridges set up meetings between Gardner and branch managers at the major stock brokerage firms that offered training programs, including Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber, E.F. Hutton, Dean Witter, and Smith Barney. It appeared that Gardner had gotten his big break when he was accepted into a training program at E.F. Hutton. After having quit his sales job, he appeared at the E.F. Hutton office ready to go to work, only to discover that the man who had hired him had been fired the week before.

Meanwhile, he was sentenced to serve ten days in jail because he could not pay $1,200 in parking tickets that he had accumulated while scrambling from his appointments as a medical supply salesman to his meetings at the brokerage offices. He had to make a call from jail to reschedule one such appointment. When he got out of jail he returned to his apartment to find that his girlfriend had left, taking their son with her, as well as Gardner’s car, and all their possessions, including all his clothes. It was at this point that he began the Dean Wittier training program – with no college degree, no money, no clothes, no financial experience, and no real connections. But he did have a burning desire to find his son, and an equally intense desire to find a way to support the both of them.

  • Dean Witter Reynolds

Gardner worked hard at Dean Witter Reynolds, cold calling 200 prospects a day, arriving early and staying late. But the trainee salary was low, and San Francisco has always been an expensive city. Gardner was able to afford only cheap flophouse style lodging. After four months the mother of his son, unable to deal with life as a single mother, returned their son to Gardner. He was delighted to be reunited with his son, but his cheap motel did not allow children. Thus began an odyssey of how, on a trainee’s modest salary and with no savings, Gardner would feed and house himself and his child, as well as provide for the child’s care during the day.

They often took refuge in a shelter for homeless women, but this required that they remove all their belongings, including all of the baby’s diapers and other supplies, and carry it all on public transport as they moved from daycare, to work, to the office. The women’s shelter had strict closing times, and sometimes, between picking up Chris Jr. from daycare and working late, Gardner could not get there before it closed. Sometimes they slept under his desk at the office; other times they spent the entire night in a men’s room at an Oakland subway station – that was the low point. But from that point forward, having found his niche, Gardner’s star would steadily rise. His first big client was a Texas oilman who told racist jokes over the phone, and had quite a surprise when he finally met Gardner in person.

Over the next few years Gardner became a successful financial advisor, and his standard of living gradually rose. In 1985, four years after the birth of his son, he had a daughter, Jacintha, by the same woman, and raised her along with his son. San Francisco had plenty of rich potential clients, but the Big Game in finance has always been in Manhattan, and he moved there to advance his career. In 1987, with $10,000 in startup capital, he moved to Chicago to start his own financial advisory firm, Gardner Rich, which is an institutional brokerage focusing on work with unions and public pension plans. In 2006, with a reported net worth of $65 million, he sold his stake in Gardner Rich and founded Christopher Gardner International Holdings, with offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.[ He is also an active philanthropist, involved in helping the homeless and in encouraging the well-being of children through paternal involvement. He personally is involved with career counseling and job placement for the disadvantaged in Chicago, and also sponsors two education awards. Both of his children work for his company.

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