From The Streets To Corporate Suites: How Homeless Man Made Millions

Scotty Ballard
July 31, 2006

No test. No testimony. Meeting affable multimillionaire Chris Gardner is like spending time with a favorite uncle eager to share the secrets of his steely business acumen that made him one of the most successful Black men on Wall Street and allowed him to build a prosperous brokerage firm in the financial district of Chicago.

But this CEO of Gardner Rich & Co. is also the boy who endured a difficult upbringing in 1950s Milwaukee with his siblings and mother, Bettye Jean Gardner.

The 52-year-old author unabashedly cherishes the memories of his late mother whom he believed when she told him, “If you want to, one day you could make a million dollars.” He followed that beacon of belief even when circumstances left him homeless and sleeping in public parks with his son tied to his back.

His memoir, The Pursuit of Happyness (Amistad/HarperCollins $ 25.95) unblinkingly focuses on universal topics like domestic abuse, illiteracy, mental illness, child molestation, alcoholism, poverty and homelessness-while serving as roadside assistance for all the “baby daddies” in need of help on the path of fatherhood.

Actor/rapper/producer Will Smith was so taken by the book he bought the rights to it and is set to star in its movie adaptation this December.

Gardner migrated to San Francisco following a stint in the Navy. There he became a medical supplies salesman, barely making enough money to support his girlfriend and infant son. In 1981 he had a life-changing moment when he spotted a man in a red Ferrari looking for a place to park.

“I said to him, ‘You can have my parking place, but I’ve got to ask you two questions: What do you do? And how do you do that?’”

The man said he was a stockbroker who made $ 80,000 a month, $ 50,000 more than Gardner made in a year.

Gardner, although a gifted learner in the medical field, hadn’t graduated from high school and had never even met a stockbroker except for the one in the red Ferrari.

“If you want to, one day you could make a million dollars.”

“I got this idea I wanted to be on Wall Street, so I started pursuing that. [My girl] wasn’t particularly supportive of it, I think her words were that I was ‘delusional and unrealistic.’ She had a point. A major wall street firm required an MBA to get in the training program. I had never gone to college; it didn’t mean I wasn’t bright, I just didn’t have the papers. . . things got a little more tense economically. . . “

With no MBA or experience, he found a brokerage firm willing to take him. Gardner quit his job, but when he showed up for work he discovered the person who hired him had been fired and Gardner’s opportunity was gone.

Days before a critical interview with another brokerage firm, with money getting tight and tempers flaring, Gardner says that he and his girlfriend got into an argument that sent the police to their residence and set off what he describes in his book “a series of events that spiral meteorically out of control.”

While looking for work, Gardner had amassed over a thousand dollars in unpaid parking tickets, something the police discovered when they ran his fingerprints.

“Mr. Gardner, you owe the state of California $ 1,200. How do you want to settle this?” he was asked during his court appearance.

He didn’t have the money and was thrown in jail for 10 days.

Although Gardner managed to reschedule his interview and get the job, he was unable to return home and had to live in a boarding house. No one knew he spent some nights sleeping under his desk.

Months later when he was reunited with his son, he realized the boarding house didn’t allow children.

“That’s how we became homeless,” he states.

Some days when Gardner couldn’t afford day care, he’d take his son to work with him. Some nights when he didn’t sleep with his son under his desk, they slept in a park near San Francisco’s Union Square “real close to my old neighborhood-which was like a ghetto on steroids.”

“I wasn’t just homeless, but homeless with a baby tied to my back. The fear of where you gonna go? You’re going to some place, you don’t know where, but you got to go. It’s the not knowing, you don’t know what to be afraid of.”

As Gardner reflects on the moment he says that anytime he goes back to San Francisco, as part of his growing process, “I always go to the same hotel that overlooks that park, and I stay there for this reason: I want to be able to look down there and say, ‘Boy, you’ve come a long way.’ I gotta tell you, when you’re up there in the presidential suite and you look outside to see where you slept in the park with you’re baby tied on your back. . . you don’t sleep, you pray a lot,” he says sighing heavily. “You pray a lot, baby!”

Finally, they moved into a homeless hotel run by the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.

“There were no keys, so every day you take everything with you,” says Gardner.

A large part of his stockbroker trainee salary went to day care, but after a year he eventually managed to squirrel away enough to rent a place to stay.

“I realized I wasn’t homeless when I put my bags down and didn’t have to carry everything.”

But the next morning as they went to leave, his son hadn’t yet understood poppa’s stone had stopped rolling.

“He didn’t want to leave our things. He started picking up stuff saying, ‘Poppa we need this,’ and was trying to pick up whatever he could, saying, ‘Poppa we have to bring this. You forgot this. We need our stuff. . . ‘

“You don’t know how good it felt to be able to explain to your child, ‘No son, we don’t have to carry everything anymore. We have a key. We’re home.’

“Were things still rough? Sure they were. But they were manageable. . . our worries weren’t all behind us,” Gardner declared in his book. “Early on when I missed a couple of electric bill payments. . . [and had to give my son] a bath by candlelight. . . where I wanted to be seem so far in the distance. . . then my son looked at me, with his face illuminated by the light of the candle, ‘Poppa, you know what? You’re a good poppa.’ Aw, man, I forgot the worries.”

From that point his career bloomed.

“If you want to, one day you could make a million dollars.”

Mementos of Gardner’s humble beginnings and world-class travels decorate his stylish Chicago office; a little desk, the first piece of furniture in his office. And his prized possession: a crystal vase filled with soil from South Africa.

“This is dirt from [former South African president Nelson] Mandela’s backyard. He knew the house was bugged. . . so the times he had to talk to someone they’d go out into the yard and walk around. . . they cried their tears in there. . . if I had to grab one thing and leave because of an emergency, that would be it.”

Gardner admits that he cried when he met Mandela because the former jailed freedom fighter greeted him with words no man had ever said to him before. “He said, ‘Welcome home, son.’”

Gardner says he got a revelation about South Africa after his cathartic meeting with Mandela.

“No test, no testimony,” says Gardner adding that “God was getting me ready. . . I had to go to boot camp. I didn’t know it at the time.

“The good Lord has something He wants me to do in South Africa. That can’t nobody on Wall Street do. I believe that. And had I not had the experiences that I did have, had I not had the life I have had, I could be just another cat writing tickets and making money.

“There’s a little piece of work we all can do called God’s work, and I’m trying to do my little piece and ain’t nobody got to say it’s OK but me and Him.”

Posted by Nuttshell on 08/11 at 03:07 PM in Celebrity

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