Dealing in happiness: Chris Gardner talks Wall Street, Miles Davis and subway revelations

 
Harriet Green
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Chris Gardner lost a huge deal after being late to a meeting 20 years ago. He’s worn two watches ever since
If you love London, you’ll get on with Chris Gardner like a house on fire. “I absolutely love it. It’s a clean New York. London is cool.” But then you can’t help but feel that Gardner is one of those people who would get on with everybody. You might already know some of his story – if you watched the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith as Gardner. Based on the latter’s book of the same name, it documents the period of homelessness he suffered with his young son as he fought to become a stockbroker. He is now an entrepreneur, investor, author and speaker.
But Gardner’s quick to put the film into context. “The film was about one year of my life. I was 28 years old – there were 27 years before that.” Finding success, he tells me, is learning that you have choices. “If you read my first book, you’ll meet my step dad. There’s a school of thought that says you’re a product of your environment. That means I would’ve become an alcoholic, wife-beating, child-abusing, illiterate loser. A lot of people would’ve said, ‘well, look where he’s from. He didn’t have a choice.’ I did have a choice.” In 1982, he passed his licensing exam and became an employee of Bear Stearns. Five years later, armed with one piece of furniture – a desk – and just $10,000 of startup capital, he left and started Gardner Rich, a brokerage firm that made him a multi-millionaire. Now Gardner is a full-time philanthropist, funding, among numerous other things, the projects that helped him in his time of need.

CLOSE TO HOME

Much of Gardner’s tenacity and determination comes from his mum – a “light” during his childhood. He recalls announcing to her as a kid that, when he grew up, he was going to become the jazz musician Miles Davis. She replied, “Son, there’s only one Miles Davis, and he’s got that job. You’ve got to be you.” “I just had to find my button,” Gardner says. It took him until his late twenties to locate it, but he did. “The very first time I walked into a Wall Street trading room [he clicks his fingers], man, I could feel it. It was the 80s. The phones were ringing, the ticker tape was going. It was energy. And I knew that was where I was supposed to be.” Now that technology has silenced the trading floors, would he do the same today? “No,” he says simply. “I went to see a friend at Citibank the other day, and do you know what I wanted to do so badly? Walk into the middle of the trading floor and shout, ‘Hey, Vinny!’ In my time at Bear Stearns, you did that, six guys would look up.”

MAGIC OF THREE

While the highs and lows of the markets roused Gardner, they also gave him the opportunity to start sharing his way of thinking with others. “My second book was born on a subway train in New York City. I was still working the Street. Go down to Wall Street, do my business, then I’m heading back to Midtown. One o’clock in the afternoon. The train should have been empty, but it was jam-packed. Something wasn’t right. A guy recognises me. He says, ‘you Chris Gardner?’ He explains that I’m on the train with the first wave of people who had lost their jobs. This is September 2008. So I looked at this young man, and I raised my voice so those around could hear, and I said, ‘Wait a minute. You lost your job, but you haven’t lost your skills, talent or your expertise. Why not transfer those things into something you’re passionate about?’” His message on the importance of transferable skills is one he’s now repeated to thousands, insisting that mindset can mean there’s always another option. In mid-2009, he got an email from his subway interlocutor. Since the crash, he and some friends had put together what was left of their stock portfolios and started their own company. “We don’t get the perks we used to have, or the pay, but we own this,” they told him.
And ownership is what had felt vital to Gardner too. He remembers trying to explain the buzz of his firm taking off to his mum. “I’m a young entrepreneur. But she didn’t understand all this stuff. Her generation, you had a job working for the government. You were a preacher or a teacher. I told her, ‘Ma, we’re like a casino. We help the players place their bets, and we make a commission.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Son, is that legal?’” Gardner laughs. The fact is, he says, it didn’t matter that she didn’t understand the content of his business – it was she who “gave him permission to dream” as a child, and that is what made the difference.

GIVE IT AWAY

But Gardner’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs isn’t as airy fairy as some of his anecdotes might suggest. His answer to whether to follow passion or practicality isn’t, he tells me, always popular. “Sometimes, you’ve got to do both. That means doing what you’ve got to do before doing what you want to do.” And he understands from experience that a lot of people are going to need a leg up. These days, Gardner works through his firm Chris Gardner Inc, an umbrella organisation for his speaking and philanthropic ventures. His latest project is Happyness, a latent vehicle for angel investment. The plan is to run a Gardner-style Dragons’ Den TV programme, where would-be startup founders will pitch to him. There’s no launch date yet, but things are coming on, he tells me.
Despite his presence, Gardner retains a humility towards his situation in life. “You know, nobody lives a part of their life thinking, ‘this is going to make a remarkable movie’. But to have lived that kind of life, and have your memoirs printed in 44 languages... Man, that’s overwhelming.” Now, he says, despite global geopolitical challenges, he’s got his fingers crossed for a period of “peace and growth”. “I’m not going to mention where the Dow is, or where it could go – I couldn’t care less. I would like to know that we’re helping some children with nothing have just as good a shot as anybody else. That’s what matters.”

CV CHRIS GARDNER

Company name: Chris Gardner Inc
Founded: 2003
Turnover: Projected eight-figure sum for 2014
Job title: Chief executive of Happyness, my latest project
Age: 60
Born: Milwaukee, US
Lives: Chicago, US
Studied: Washington High School, Milwaukee
Drinking: Diet Pepsi
Eating: Grilled Chicken with Rice
Currently reading: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
Talents: Public speaking, Rubik’s Cube
First ambition: Speaking in every country
Motto: “I am the CEO of Happyness, and I love my job."
Heroes: Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Dr Maya Angelou
Most likely to say: “The Cavalry ain’t coming.”
Least likely to say: “You can’t do or be anything you want to do or be.”

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