Homelessness was never a choice given to Chris Gardner, who is now a multimillionaire. The conditions that he was brought up in which include living in poverty, never having a real dad with him, being raised by an alcoholic stepdad who would often beat his wife, as well as abuse him and his siblings, caused him to have one of the most difficult lives I’ve seen in all the people that I’ve written about thus far.
It still feels pretty surreal now that I’m writing this story. I’ve heard of the stories of famous celebrities, but not so much about this man. And even after all of what has happened to him, I still can’t believe he was able to come out his turmoil as a successful stockbroker. His journey feels like the true American dream, a dream that if you persevere enough, you can get through anything. This is the story of Chris Gardner.
Chris’ journey starts out in San Francisco where he is working as a research lab assistant. Since he was making only $7,400 a year, it wasn’t enough for him to support living with his girlfriend and their child. After four years of hardship, he quit this job and later became a medical supply salesman, where he would go into hospitals trying to sell medical equipment to doctors. It was a better job since he got more money, but it was still barely enough to get by. Furthermore, he was often turned down.
For him, this was his life. He had no choice but to sell medical equipment in order to put food on the table for his girlfriend and his child, as well as pay the rent bills on time.
One day though, while trying to make sales in San Francisco, Chris notices a red Ferrari drive up to the curb of the street. A gentlemen dressed in a nice suit walks out of this Ferarri. Being in the financial situation that he was in, Chris decided that he would walk up to this gentleman and ask him two questions that he really wanted to know.
“What do you do? How do you do that?”
The gentleman replied to Chris that he was a stock broker. Chris had a positive attitude. He was also curious. And since the man had some time, he introduced Chris to the world of finance. After talking to each other for a brief moment in time, the gentleman left to go to work.
Chris decided that if he ever wanted to have a chance of this kind of lifestyle, he would have to change jobs. But was a difficult decision for him to do so, especially with no college degree. But he realized that he was sick and tired of trying so hard to make ends-meat as salesman. He knew of the risks coming ahead, but he took the challenge anyway. He decided that he would try out to become a stock broker.
With a new sense of determination, he spent the next two months knocking on the doors of investment firms hoping to find one that would give him an opportunity. He would even cancel or postpone his medical sales appointments just so he could get a chance to meet with the managers at the firms.
Hope was coming to him, but there was a price to pay as well. He was exchanging a chance at an opportunity with the job he had which was paying for his monthly rent. Even worse, his car was amassing parking tickets because he couldn’t afford to pay for the parking space of in the city. The city would eventually give him $1,200 in parking fines.
Back at home, things weren’t getting any better either. His relationship with his girlfriend, Jackie, was starting to fall apart. Because Chris was focusing most of his time on trying to get into the world of firms, and less time on his job selling equipment to hospitals, he was struggling to bring in enough money to pay the rent bills and support his family. His girlfriend didn’t like this and eventually left him, taking their son with her.
Chris had nothing left, not even his own son which he remembers holding in his arms. Soon, Chris would find himself in jail for 10 days because the judge ordered him to say there as punishment for not being able to pay his parking tickets. With nothing but the clothes on his back, he pondered what life was going to be like for him in the future. After spending time in jail, he returned to his apartment. It was completely empty.
He started to wonder why his ex-girlfriend would take all his stuff. He had an interview coming up with the Dean Witter firm, and he at least needed a suit to be interviewed. But he looked around and saw nothing, not even his suits, not even his shoes. He had no choice but to go into the stock broker interview dressed with what he was wearing in jail.
The next day, Chris went into the interview with a T-shirt and dirty jeans. He didn’t have the nice outfits that the rest of the people walking around or working in the company were wearing. But he went in there with confidence. He told the interviewer the truth of why he was dressed up that way. Luckily, the interviewer could sympathize with Chris and gave him a chance at the company’s training program.
In order to become a full-time employee in the firm, he would have to make a certain amount of calls per day, a certain amount of calls per day would equal a certain amount of prospects per day, a certain amount of prospects per day would equal a certain amount of customers per day, and a certain amount of customers would equal a certain amount of dollars in the company’s pocket. The trainee who brought in the most money after the period of training and with the highest score on the licensing exam was usually hired.
Everyday at work, he would arrive to the office early and stay late each day. He would persistent make calls to prospective clients with his goal being 200 calls per day. He kept working and working, giving it his all everyday, finding ways to save time at work so he could rise to the top.
“In order to not waste any time, I wasn’t hanging up the phone between calls. I realized by not hanging up the phone, I gained another eight minutes in a day. I also wasn’t drinking water so I didn’t waste any time in the bathroom.” –The Pursuit of Happyness
Chris would continue to work to become a top trainee at Dean Witter Reynolds. His perseverance eventually paid off. In 1982, Chris took the licensing exam and passed it on his first try. He was also one of the few employees who made the most sales to the firm. The managers noticed him and accepted him to become a full time employee of the firm. He tried to hold it in, but inside he knew that it was one of the happiest days of his life. It was the opportunity that he had a dreamed off, and he was going to do everything to hold onto it for as long as he could.
Then suddenly, something happened. Four months after his ex girlfriend Jackie disappeared with their son, she returned and left him with Chris. Chris had just been accepted into the firm. Not only did he have to take care of himself now, but he had to take care of a child as well. Chris decided that he wanted to be there for his son, unlike how his own dad abandoned him when he was younger and he didn’t actually get to see his dad for the first time until he was 28 years old. He would do his best to take care of himself and his son as well as work at the firm at the same time. One day he would be able to give his son an opportunity in life.
Because Chris had just started out as a full time employee, he wasn’t make that much money at the firm. He was able to afford small rent and rooming in flophouses or $10-a-night motels. Chris and his son secretly struggled with homelessness while he saved money for a rental house in Berkeley, California. None of Chris’ coworkers knew that he and his son were homeless in the city of San Francisco for nearly a year.
This was one of the most difficult parts of Chris life. He would himself scrambling to place his child in daycare while he went to work. They would stand together in soup lines in order to find a place to sleep overnight. They would sleep in his office after hours, find shelter in parks, in the subways stations, and in sleep public bathrooms where he could wash his son in the sink and lock the doors so nobody would come in when they needed peace and shelter.
“It was a choice. You eat or you stay in the hotel. We chose to eat.”
One day Chris was concerned about his son’s well-being. They were so desperate for a place to stay that they went to the Memorial United Methodist Church shelter for homeless women and asked The Reverend if they would allow them to stay at the church overnight. Without hesitation, The Reverend agreed. He remember saying in an interview, “I couldn’t tell you that we were homeless, I just knew that we were always having to go. So, if anything, I remember us just moving, always moving.”
For five years, he would be able to afford a place to stay in Berkeley, California, and work as a full time employee at his firm. He would allot one day out of the week to spend playing with his son. In 1987, Chris established the brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Co in Chicago, Illinois. Eventually, he was able to sell his small stake in Gardner Rich in a multi-million dollar deal in 2006. Today, Chris is a millionaire and a philanthropist that helps the homeless as well as fighting the apartheid in South Africa.
“It was a point in time, where honestly, I didn’t know whether I was going to quit, crack or cry. Some kind of way this child, this baby, picks up on it, and he stands up in the bathtub, and he says, ‘Papa, you know what? You’re a good papa.’ That was all I needed to go on.”