Having found 'happyness,' he remembers harder times

Rags-to-riches stockbroker Chris Gardner wants to change the lives of America's poor.

Published March 29, 2007


Chris Gardner is still pursuing happiness.

Despite being a bestselling author and sought-after motivational speaker, with a bank account as big as his beaming smile, Gardner says he's unhappy - fed up, actually - with how the poor, homeless and veterans are treated in America.

Gardner, whose struggles as a homeless single parent and rags-to-riches journey was depicted by Will Smith in the film The Pursuit of Happyness, said he wants to use his "15 minutes of fame" to bring change. The movie came out on DVD earlier this month.

"These folks are just folks," he said. "Everybody that's poor or homeless are not all alcoholics or drug addicts. These are poor people, and in many cases, working people."

The film has brought attention to a problem that affects every community and possibly offered hope to those who need it most. It also introduced Gardner to millions of people.

Gardner, who did some homeless advocacy while in Hawaii on vacation recently, said he just finished a proposal for a second book.

While in Honolulu, he met with Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, social workers, public housing officials and a few homeless people. He also addressed a national convention on homelessness in Washington by videoconference this month.

The same, just richer

Sharply dressed and sporting a well-trimmed, graying goatee, Gardner said wealth hasn't changed who he is, even though he went from being driven out of filthy restrooms to driving a Ferrari.

"When you have an experience like this, not just being homeless, but homeless with a 2-year-old baby tied on your back - that becomes part of who you are forever," he said.

Gardner is a millionaire who says "we" and "us" when referring to poor folks.

"You know what we've got to do with poor folks and working folks? We've got to market ourselves maybe a little better," he said. "It might come down to something as simple as that."

The most important survival skill Gardner says he learned when he was homeless in the early 1980s was to keep going forward.

"Baby steps count too," he said. "You add them all up, one day you're living next door to Donald Trump."

He speaks from experience.

The 53-year-old Milwaukee native now owns multiple homes, including a condo in New York's Trump Tower. He is the CEO of the Chicago brokerage firm Gardner Rich LLC.

'Spiritual genetics'

Few could have predicted such a future for Gardner as a child. He grew up with an abusive stepfather and never went to college but said his mother provided him with "spiritual genetics."

"The spirit of who you're going to become as a person, I believe you can make a conscious decision," he said. "I could've embraced the spirit of my stepdad and I could've become another alcoholic, wife-beating, illiterate, child-abusing loser."

He said the younger generation doesn't truly appreciate their parents and the lives they have, including his own children.

"My kids are like the chocolate Kennedys," he said. "They've got a highly evolved sense of entitlement. We're working to adjust that."

Gardner has a 21-year-old daughter, Jacintha. Christopher Jr., whose character was played in the film by Smith's son, Jaden, is 26 and pursuing a music career.

It wasn't Smith who was robbed of an Academy Award, but the actor's son, Gardner said.

"Jaden Smith kicked Will Smith's butt every day," Gardner said. "Will's a funny guy. . . . Think about it: No. 1 movie star in the world. Two-time Oscar nominee. Third best actor in his own house."

Gardner had doubts when he learned he would be played by Smith. "We all think of Will as big, blockbuster, science fiction, outer space extravaganza," he said. "This movie is about inner space, not outer space."

But Jacintha set Gardner straight.

"She looked at me and said, 'Pop. Don't worry about it. If he can play Muhammad Ali, he can play you.' "