In his autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner writes about selling his blood for money, sleeping under his desk at Dean Witter or in public restrooms, and accepting $5 bills from prostitutes to feed his toddler son, Chris Jr.
"Imagine yourself 28-years-old with a baby and nowhere to live and doing the job you're doing right now," says Gardner, who will be honored this month for his life accomplishments at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association's annual tribute dinner in New York City. "Handling that job is a piece of cake compared to figuring out: Where am I going to sleep tonight? Do I have enough money to get to a bus to get to my baby to feed him? It puts everything in perspective. It becomes part of who you are forever."
Gardner's rags-to-riches story generated huge buzz late last year with the release of the movie, "The Pursuit of Happyness," starring Will Smith. But on Wall Street, Gardner--owner and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings--was already an icon, known not only as a powerhouse player but a passionate philanthropist.
Now 53, Gardner is currently at work on a new project, Start Where You Are, a business/life lessons book. In it, Gardner explores what he calls "spiritual genetics." As he puts it: "I could have embraced the spiritual genetics of my stepfather, a wife-beating, child-beating, alcoholic loser. I chose to embrace the spiritual genetics of my mom. I chose to embrace the light. My point is we can make conscious choices about who we are going to become as a person."
Proceeds from the SIFMA tribute will benefit investor education and financial literacy programs of the Foundation for Investor Education and the Bond Market Foundation. As FIE chair Donna C. Peterman notes: "Like Chris, we at the foundation believe that education can take you where you want to go. His personal example underscores how financial knowledge, paired with hard work and unrelenting determination, can transform an individual's life. He believes his story can be anyone's story."
In a recent interview, Wealth Manager asked Gardner to tell that story in his own words:
Your story has inspired so many people. Who has most inspired you?
My mother, my mother; ain't no doubt about it, my mother. Also, Nelson Mandela, Mohammed Ali and Ace Greenberg. Hey, that's a nice crowd!
What does money mean to you?
Money is a means of exchange, but it is the least significant aspect of wealth or happiness. I've got one problem some of the wealthiest guys on Wall Street don't have. I often can't sleep at night because my face hurts from smiling all day. Some of the richest guys on the Street don't have that problem.
Generosity. Philanthropy. How important are they to you?
Remember the old saying: You can't take it with you? What you can do is make a difference that shows you were here. That's the ultimate use of money. One of my heroes on this thing is Oprah. Her school for girls in South Africa will be here forever. Young girls will come out of there that will change the world because somebody put money someplace. That will endure forever.
Are you still close to that homeless man with the toddler son?
Oh, man--I always will be. When you have an experience like that, it becomes part of who you are the rest of your life.
In your memoir, you talk about being homeless and pushing your son in his blue stroller. In your other hand, you're carrying a garment bag filled with all your earthly possessions including a couple of books you couldn't live without. What were the books?
The Bible and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. They're both about personal growth.
During that period in the early 1980s when you were homeless, how did you stay focused on going forward?
There was only one other option, and that was quitting. I was raised to believe it's okay to fail; it's not okay to quit.
Because people will want to know, how are Chris Jr. and your daughter, Jacintha?
They're the chocolate Kennedys. Christopher, 26, works for me part-time and is pursuing his dream of working in the music business, on the business side. Jacintha, 21, is a junior at Hampton University. I got to tell you, whoa, the good Lord came to me and said: "Look, you get to be a parent all over again, just for her."
When you were 16, your mother told you, "Son, if you want to, one day you could make a million dollars." And you believed her.
I believed everything my momma ever told me. Until she said those words, it had never entered my mind. After she said them, it was just a matter of finding the right venue.
You discovered the brokerage business when you met a man in a red Ferrari who happened to be a stockbroker. You've had a few Ferraris of your own. Do you still drive one?
No more Ferraris. I went to the Ferrari driver's school in Italy because they were going to teach me to drive fast. Anything I ever had in me that wanted to go fast in a car, I am now over. I'm into airbags now. Today, I drive the dirtiest Bentley in the world. The point I'm making is that when you finally get the toys, you don't have time for them.
In the book, you write about growing up in poverty, the abuse you suffered at the hand of your stepfather, your time working in medical facilities in the Navy. Certainly, that played a role in shaping you as well.
Next to my time at Bear Stearns, my time in the Navy was the greatest time of my life--the greatest time and the worst time at the same time. I learned. I grew. I was exposed. There were some doctors who taught me certain medical procedures so that they could go play golf. I got so good I could drain an abscess and eat lunch at the same time.
When you walked into your first brokerage house, you write: "It was all at once like visiting a foreign country and coming home." What do you mean by that?
I knew this was the place Momma was talking about when she told me that one day I was going to make a million dollars.
How long did it take?
Too long, but that's all right. I don't know which number we're workin' on now but we done moved on.
You talk about using stillness as a weapon--not as a self-defense mechanism, but a weapon.
It is a weapon. For me right now, honestly, the stillness, the sense of peace you can project when the world around you is going mad, when everybody else is ready to jump out the window and you don't respond in kind, you can bring them back to you. That's power.
Early on, you understood the importance of building relationships when it came to building your book. Is that still your credo?
Developing relationships is everything. We're in a business where everybody's good. Every line of business in our industry has become commoditized. Maybe there's a percentage point that separates you from your competitors, but who cares? It's relationships. You can't legislate those. You can't buy them. They must be built and created.
You've said money isn't a black or white thing, but a green thing.
Something I learned from the beginning, man, is that I didn't want to be in the minority business, in the special consideration business, in the throw-me-a-bone business. I want to be in business, period, because that's where the money is. It's about how much product can we move and how much value can we add. That's how I learned the business, and I'm not going to apologize for that.
When you started your firm, you called it Gardner Rich. There's no Rich, is there?
I needed a nice name: Kidder Peabody, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns-- Gardner Rich, right?
How did your experience with homelessness shape your entrepreneurial spirit?
It helped me appreciate and understand what it would take to start and build a business. I just told a bunch of business students to go out and live on the streets for a year with nothing, because starting a business from scratch is the same thing. You're starting with limited resources, and you're going up against Goliath.
Tell us about your project in South Africa.
I can't talk a lot about it yet, but I'm in the process right now of raising a private equity fund to invest solely in South Africa. Next to raising my children, this is the most important thing I'll ever do in my life: To use capital markets to do a transaction that's going to improve people's lives--and we all make money doing it.
Some people would ask, why not make that kind of investment in the U.S.?
How do you know I'm not? Let me tell you something. Here's my view. The world is just one community. All these places, countries, are villages. Where there's problems in one village there will soon be the same problems in another village. That's my view of the world.
I know you've also done a lot, financially and personally, to help Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, which took you in when you were homeless.
One of the coolest things in the world to happen as a result of the movie is that 300 million people around the world see Will Smith's movies. That also means 300 million people around the world are going to learn about Glide Memorial. They're going to Google Glide and find out what they do there. Contributions to Glide have increased significantly from around the world. We did the movie premiere in Hollywood on Dec. 7, and on Dec. 8 we did another premiere in San Francisco as a fundraiser for Glide. It was the biggest fundraiser in its history--the equivalent of $1 million. You know I could have this little 15 minutes of fame and let it play itself out, or maybe I could use it to help other people. I'm choosing to do the latter.
At Bear Stearns, you learned about the "sphere of influence."
I was making 200 cold calls a day when Marshall Geller told me that's not the way the big guys do it; they do it with a sphere of influence. I can tell you when I pick up the phone today, and I say Mr. Mandela told me to call, you'd be amazed at who you can get on the line. Speaking of sphere of influence, they're calling me now. I got to go.
Ellen Uzelac [email@example.com] is a financial writer and former national correspondent and West Coast bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun.