Being a parent is anything but easy, especially with the added pressure of finding a place to sleep every night. Chris Gardner spent years homeless and struggled to support his son, but a chance meeting on the street with a stockbroker changed his life. The odds were against him, but Gardner was determined to be successful.
Gardner’s story inspired Will Smith’s 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness. The true story behind the film is much more heartbreaking than anyone could imagine. From almost losing everything to becoming a millionaire, Gardner went through hell to get to where he is today.
Struggling From the Start
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chris Gardner’s life was far from a fairytale. During the first few years of his life, Gardner was in foster care because his father wasn’t around, and his mom was in prison twice. Her husband falsely reported her to authorities for welfare fraud, and then she tried to burn down his house.
When his mother got out of prison, Gardner lived with her, his stepfather, and two sisters. His stepdad, Freddie Triplett, was an abusive alcoholic who terrorized their family. He was the only male figure in Gardner’s life, but Gardner didn’t want to turn out like that awful man.
He Was Kicked Out
In one incident, Triplett burst into the bathroom while Gardner was in the shower and pointed a shotgun at him. Gardner was then kicked out of the house, soaking wet and naked. His mom had been kicked out earlier in the day, which is something he never forgot.
Despite her challenging life, Gardner’s mom was a source of strength and positivity. She encouraged him to believe in himself and be independent. Gardner said his mom would always say, “You can only depend on yourself. The cavalry isn’t coming.” His early years made him determined to have a better future.
A Tragic Loss
While Gardner was in foster care, he became acquainted with his mom’s brothers: Archibald, Willie, and Henry. They entered his life when he most needed a father figure. Henry had the most significant influence on Gardner. He tried to give Gardner hope that things would get better.
Unfortunately, Henry drowned in the Mississippi River when Gardner was nine. At the time, Gardner and his siblings didn’t know why their mom wasn’t around. However, they found out she had been in jail when a correctional officer escorted her to Henry’s funeral. She tried to shield them from her reality.
The Navy Gave Him Hope
Gardner’s Uncle Henry would tell him about his worldly adventures when he was in the Navy, so Gardner decided to enlist when he finished school. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for four years as a hospital corpsman. He became acquainted with a decorated cardiac surgeon, Dr. Robert Ellis.
Dr. Ellis offered Gardner a position assisting him with innovative clinical research at the University of California Medical Center and Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco. Gardner was excited about the opportunity and moved to San Francisco upon his discharge from the Navy in 1974. Things were looking up for him.
New Dreams and Goals
As a child, Gardner never imagined that he could be successful. He didn’t grow up around people who made something of themselves. However, when he started working with Dr. Ellis, Gardner decided he wanted to pursue a career in the medical field.
Over the course of two years, Gardner learned how to manage a laboratory and perform various surgical procedures. By 1976, he became fully responsible for the lab and co-authored many articles with Dr. Ellis that were published in medical journals. It made him excited for his future career.
Change of Plans
With his experience and contacts in the medical field, Gardner appeared to have his career path laid out for him. But he quickly realized that it would take years of schooling before he could practice medicine, and the medical profession would be vastly different by then.
Gardner was advised to consider more lucrative career options. A few days before his 26th birthday, he decided to abandon his dreams of becoming a physician. It was a tough decision, but he didn’t know if he would be able to afford the schooling.
A Detached Relationship
On June 18, 1977, Gardner married Sherry Dyson. She was an educational expert in mathematics. When he told her that he wouldn’t pursue a career as a physician, their relationship floundered. Gardner and Sherry were very different, and it showed as they grew apart.
While still living with Sherry, Gardner started an affair with a dental student named Jackie Medina. Unfortunately, she got pregnant with his child a few months into their secret relationship. He wanted to do the right thing, so Gardner left his wife of three years.
He Wanted to Provide for His Family
Gardner and Jackie moved in together as they prepared for the baby. Christopher Jarret Gardner Jr. was born on January 28, 1981. Gardner was still working as a research lab assistant, but he only made about $8,000 a year. It wasn’t enough to support his girlfriend and newborn son.
After four years, Gardner quit his research job and doubled his salary by taking a position as a medical equipment salesman. It still wasn’t a lot of money, but he was able to provide for his son. He wanted Chris Jr. to have a better childhood.
Meeting His Father His
Chris Jr. had many questions about Gardner’s family, especially his father. It encouraged Gardner to track down his biological dad, and they spoke on the phone. He hadn’t thought much about his dad until his son started asking questions. However, Gardner didn’t want to get his hopes up.
With his higher income, Gardner was able to save up enough money to travel to Monroe, Louisiana, where his father, Thomas Turner, lived. It was the first time he met his biological dad, and the visit was emotional, but it answered many of his questions.
A Life-Changing Moment
Gardner returned to San Francisco with new determination. He wanted to succeed in business to make a comfortable life for his son. After a sales call at San Francisco General Hospital, a pivotal moment occurred in Gardner’s life when he met a man in a red Ferrari.
Curious, Gardner approached the well-dressed man and asked about his career. The man with the red Ferrari was Bob Bridges, a successful stockbroker who made about $80,000 a month. Bridges had important connections and wanted to help Gardner get into the world of finance.
Welcome to Wall Street
Bridges set up a meeting with Gardner to give him an overview of finance and introduce him to influential people. Gardner decided to cancel all his sales appointments to interview with companies in hopes of landing a spot in a training program.
Gardner interviewed with companies like Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber, EF Hutton, Dean Witter Reynolds, and Smith Barney, and his car amassed parking tickets while he met with managers. However, he figured he would pay everything off when he got a job and had more money.
It seemed like Gardner had a breakthrough when he was accepted into the training program at EF Hutton. He quit his sales job to dedicate his time to training as a stockbroker. Gardner was ready to take on the financial world, but then EF Hutton’s hiring manager was fired.
Therefore, Gardner had to apply to other programs, and his relationship with Jackie was a mess. When she tried to run away with Chris Jr., Gardner attempted to stop her and accidentally pushed Jackie into the bushes. He was arrested and jailed for ten days for not paying his parking tickets.
Trying to Turn Things Around
Gardner returned home from jail to find an empty apartment. Jackie had left with Chris Jr. to live on the East Coast. With no experience or college education, and almost no connections, Gardner worried about his future. Luckily, he was then accepted into Dean Witter Reynolds’ training program.
Unfortunately, he only got a small salary, and Gardner didn’t have any savings. He couldn’t afford his living expenses, so he had to move into a boarding house. Although he struggled to make ends meet, Gardner worked hard to become the top trainee in the program.
Chris Jr. Returns
Four months after Jackie disappeared with their child, she returned to leave Chris Jr. with Gardner. His small salary afforded him a spot in a low-income lodging, but they didn’t allow children. He wanted to provide for his son, so he had to make more money.
Luckily, Gardner passed his Series 7 exam on the first try and was later recruited by Bear Stearns & Company. Although he was employed, Gardner struggled to keep a roof over his son’s head while saving money to rent a house.
Living a Double Life
Meanwhile, none of Gardner’s coworkers knew that he and his son were homeless for nearly a year. He appeared to have everything together when he was at the office, but Gardner often scrambled to get Chris into daycare, stood in soup kitchen lines, and slept wherever they could find safety.
Gardner and his son often slept in the office after hours, at boarding houses, motels, parks, airports, on public transportation, and even in a bathroom at a train station. He was concerned for Chris Jr.’s well-being and wanted to shield him from their reality.
Anything to Make Money
Money was tight for Gardner, so he had to get creative to earn a few extra bucks. On several occasions, he sold his blood. He never felt good about giving his blood for cash because it made him feel desperate. However, any money was better than nothing.
He also started a scam to scrape together funds. After seeing a man fighting with a vending machine and getting a refund from the hotel front desk, Gardner began going to the desk claiming the machine ate his money so they would have to give him a “refund.”
Protecting His Son
Gardner didn’t want Chris Jr. to suffer, so he asked Reverend Cecil Williams if they could stay at the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church’s shelter. Williams agreed without hesitation, which at least gave them a warm, safe place to sleep.
After saving up for months, Gardner found them a home. He started talking to Jackie again, and they had a second child in 1985. He didn’t want to restart their relationship, but arranged for Chris Jr. and their daughter to stay with Jackie during his long work hours.
The Reverend’s Words Stuck With Him
Gardner cherished the help that Reverend Williams gave him. Although the shelter was for women, Williams allowed Gardner and his son to stay there. Besides offering him shelter, Williams gave him some meaningful advice that stuck with Gardner and inspired him.
Reverend Williams constantly told Gardner that “baby steps count too.” Those simple words kept Gardner motivated and moving forward. He would repeat the phrase to himself as he went into the office every day and worked towards his goals. The “baby steps” paid off.
He Was a Hard Worker
Gardner would come into the office early and stay late to get ahead at his company. He persistently made calls to prospective clients with a goal of 200 calls per day. His perseverance paid off, and Gardner became one of the highest earners at Bear Stearns & Company.
His bosses were so impressed that they transferred Gardner to their Wall Street office in 1985. He spent two years busting his butt in New York. Gardner then decided to move to Chicago, and he wasn’t struggling financially anymore.
The move to Chicago was a turning point in Gardner’s life because he opened his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Company. After years of barely making enough money to survive, he was now hiring employees. His children also moved in with him.
He started the company in his apartment with a $10,000 investment and a single wooden desk that doubled as the family’s dinner table. Gardner spent the next 20 years growing the brokerage firm and created a glowing reputation in the financial world.
A Multi-Million-Dollar Sale
By 2006, Gardner sold his company in a multi-million-dollar deal. He then became the found and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings and opened offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. He also took a special visit to South Africa.
Gardner met with Nelson Mandela to discuss possible investments in South Africa’s emerging markets. He planned an investment venture that would create hundreds of jobs and introduce millions in foreign currency to the country’s economy.
He Bought His Own Ferrari
Gardner’s life changed when he met the man in the red Ferrari. Therefore, when he made his first million in 1988, Gardner rewarded himself by buying a Ferrari of his own. However, this wasn’t just any ordinary Ferrari because it belonged to someone special.
Gardner purchased Michael Jordan’s Ferrari. It might not have been the red one he first dreamed about, but it was a legendary car. He got a custom license plate that read, “NOT MJ.” He probably thought people would mistake him for the basketball legend.
Gaining National Attention
In 2002, Gardner did an interview with 20/20, which had an overwhelming national response. After selling his company, he published an autobiography in 2006. He realized his story had Hollywood potential, and shortly after the release of his book, it was adapted into a movie.
Gardner was an associate producer on the major motion picture The Pursuit of Happyness, directed by Gabriele Muccino. The unusual spelling of the book and film’s title came from a sign Gardner saw when he was homeless. One of the daycare facilities his son went to was called “Happyness.”
The Pursuit of Happyness
Starring Will and Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness was released in December 2013. It focused on Gardner’s one-year struggle with homelessness. The film earned Will Smith an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and grossed $300 million worldwide, making it a blockbuster success.
Gardner made a cameo in the film, walking past Will and Jaden in the final scene. Gardner and Will acknowledge each other; then Will looks back at Gardner, walking away as his son proceeds to tell him knock-knock jokes. The film moved many to tears.
Some Details Were Changed
The film took some liberties with Gardner’s actual story because the details and events had to be compressed into a short time frame. For example, Jaden played a five-year-old Chris Jr., but Gardner’s son was only two when the events occurred in real life.
They changed his age because the director wanted Will and Jaden to have more meaningful interactions in the film. Gardner approved the change because he realized it could tell his story better. Jaden was seven when he played Chris Jr., but he seemed like a veteran actor.
Taking Will on a Field Trip
To prepare for the film, Gardner took Will to see the actual bathroom where he and Chris Jr. had slept. He told Will that it made him uncomfortable to be in there for too long, so Will stayed behind to look around after Gardner left.
Gardner said, “We left him in there for a good five minutes, and when he came out, he was not Will Smith; he was Chris Gardner.” It was accurately depicted in the film, and Gardner revealed that they only stayed there for a couple of nights.
The Rubik’s Cube Scene
One of the scenes added for dramatic effect was when Will’s character uses a Rubik’s cube to impress a Dean Witter employee in the back of a cab. Gardner did have his first breakthrough while working at Dean Witter Reynolds, but he did not befriend an employee this way.
The addition to the story made the film more intriguing, but it became a common misconception in Gardner’s actual story. However, Gardner approved all the changes made in the movie because he knew that it would help tell his story.
It Inspired Everyone
In the hope that Gardner’s story would inspire the down-trodden community members of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to achieve financial independence and take responsibility for the welfare of their families, the town’s mayor organized a special viewing of the film. The mayor thought it would help the city’s homeless population.
Gardner himself felt that it was essential to share his story so that more people would understand these social issues. He said, “When I talk about alcoholism in the household, domestic violence, child abuse, illiteracy, and all of those issues — they are universal issues.”
Giving Back to Those Who Helped
Now that Gardner is more than comfortable financially, he tries to be as philanthropic as possible. He sponsors many charitable organizations, primarily the Cara Program and the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, where he and his son received shelter.
Gardner helped fund a $50 million project in San Francisco that created low-income housing and employment opportunities in an area of the city where he was homeless. Besides monetary support, Gardner also donates clothes and shoes and helps with career counseling and job training for at-risk communities in Chicago.
Father of the Year
After growing up with an abusive stepfather and an absent dad, Gardner vowed to be a better father for his children. In 2002, Gardner received the Father of the Year award from the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). He is dedicated to the well-being of children.
He is a board member of the NFI and promotes positive paternal involvement. Gardner is also on the board of the National Education Foundation and sponsors two annual education awards. His goal is to use his money and power to make the world better.
His Son Had No Idea
Although he was just a toddler, Chris Jr. had no idea that he and his father were ever homeless. Gardner did everything in his power to create a sense of normalcy for his son, so he wouldn’t know they were struggling and had to find a different place to sleep each night.
Chris Jr. was almost an adult when he found out that they had been homeless. He thought they just moved around a lot. He said, “I just know that when I looked up, he was there. I looked around; he was there.”
What Is Chris Gardner’s Net Worth?
As a successful businessman, motivational speaker, author, and investor, Gardner has amassed a net worth of $70 million. When he was a child, he dreamed of becoming a millionaire. He watched a basketball game and told his mom about the players’ million-dollar contracts.
Gardner’s mom said, “Son, you know what? If you want to, one day, you can make a million dollars.” That had never crossed his mind, and now he is worth several million. His mom said he had to find the right avenue, and the financial world was his place to shine.
Paying It Forward
Throughout his journey to success, Gardner has always been thankful for those who helped him. Besides working with charities, Gardner has paid it forward in a special way. A woman named Niyokie earned an internship with Gardner’s firm while she was a junior in high school.
Niyokie came from a community of substance abusers and teen pregnancy but wanted to change her life. After completing the internship, Gardner gave her a college scholarship. She became the first one in her family to graduate from a four-year university.
His Greatest Accomplishment
Although he has had many financial accomplishments, his greatest success isn’t business-related. Gardner said the best thing he achieved was breaking the cycle of child abandonment in his family. He explained, “I knew I wanted to break the cycle of men who were not there for their children.”
He was treated poorly, and it was critical for him to do things differently. Gardner made decisions about what kind of father he wanted to be from an early age, which he says will benefit generations of Gardners to come. Even in hard times, he was always there for his son.
Second Thoughts About Will Smith
When his book was turned into a movie, Gardner admits that he had doubts about Will playing him. He didn’t think the actor could do something dramatic like this. However, Gardner’s daughter said, “If he can play Muhammad Ali, he can play you.”
The reason the film was so spectacular was because of the trust between Gardner and Will. He explained, “When we met, my initial response to Will was ‘I’m going to be this open, and then I’ll trust you as an artist to cut, paste, slice, and dice.’ So, it’s a tribute to Will.”
As a motivational speaker, Gardner shares with audiences that prioritizing what’s important, staying persistent, and remaining hopeful in every situation will help them advance in life. These things helped him become successful, and he has the life he always dreamed about when he was struggling.
He travels 200 days a year and has spoken in over 50 countries. Gardner hopes that his advice will change the lives of those who are going through difficult situations like he experienced. He always tries to help and motivate people whenever possible.
Following in His Dad’s Footsteps
Like his father, Chris Jr. has become a successful businessman. He is the CEO of a fitness company called PursuFIT. He studied psychology in college and lives in Chicago. Chris Jr. wanted to make his father proud, and he definitely accomplished that goal.
Although he doesn’t remember much about their lives when they were homeless, Chris Jr. knew how hard his father worked to put a roof over his head and food on the table. Now knowing what Gardner did, he is even more appreciative of his dad.
A Moment He Will Never Forget
Many memories in Gardner’s life have stuck with him, but one moment that brought tears to his eyes was when he and his son moved into their first home. He had to explain to Chris Jr. that they didn’t have to carry their belongings around anymore.
Gardner said that he told his son, “We’re home now. We have a key.” It was a moving moment for him because his son was used to moving around and didn’t understand what having a place to call home meant. Luckily, his son never knew they were struggling.
Not Like Other Rich Guys
When people think of multimillionaires, they sometimes think of greedy, self-absorbed, or money-driven individuals. However, Gardner has avoided those stereotypes by expressing how much he wants to give back to those who helped him and pay it forward to those in need.
His kindness and generosity show what type of man he is and where his morals and priorities stand. Through determination, hopefulness, and perseverance, Gardner transformed himself from being homeless to a hero and role model for everyone. He has changed the lives of many.