ED GORDON, host:
You've undoubtedly heard stories of single mothers struggling to raise their kids against incredible odds, but you rarely hear of single fathers going through the same struggle. Well, today we have an inspiring story of a man who fought to raise his young son while homeless on the streets of San Francisco. This man didn't let hardship stand in his way. He not only raised his son, but he went on to become a millionaire stockbroker and business owner.
Chris Gardner is the author of The Pursuit of Happyness. He's also the man behind this extraordinary, real-life, rags-to-riches story.
Mr. Gardner, welcome.
Mr. CHRIS GARDNER (Author): Thank you, Ed. Thank you for having me.
GORDON: Let's talk a little bit about why you decided to put your life story on a page for others to read about?
Mr. GARDNER: I got an award once from the National Fatherhood Initiative. And there is the MC who wants to keep the program rolling and he keeps citing all these various statistics that says, if you were born in this neighborhood, if you were from this family, if you were surrounded by these things, this is who you're going to turn out to be - none of which was positive. The entire time I sat there saying to myself, Ed, that's BS.
So, naturally, when I stepped to the microphone to get my award, you know what came out of my mouth - that's BS! Afterwards, so many people came up to me, in a room full of a thousand people, and they all said the same thing: I'm so glad you said that because I'm from that neighborhood, I was raised in that family; I was surrounded by those things, but I decided to go the other way. That's how this book came to be.
GORDON: And, in fact, you were one of those children. You were raised by a single parent at parts of your life. Your mom remarried. Your stepfather was abusive at times to her. You had a hide road to hoe on many occasions, I would think, as a youngster, and you were able to make a way and make yourself a positive influence on so many others. What do you think was your guiding force?
Mr. GARDNER: My stepfather. I decided as a child that I was going to be everything that he was not. I was going to be literate. I was going to be confidant in who I am. I also decided that there were some things that he was that I would not be. I would not be an alcoholic. I would not be a wife beater. As for who he was, I decided to go the other way.
GORDON: What was it - the intestinal fortitude that you had - that allowed you to go from being homeless at one point in your life to becoming a multimillionaire?
Mr. GARDNER: I got that all from my mother, Ed. That all came from Moms. And she passed away about 12 years ago, but I still talk to her every day. And I can never thank her enough for just that: the intestinal fortitude and instilling in me the belief that whatever it is you want to do in life, you can do.
GORDON: Talk to me about how you started getting into the world of finance?
Mr. GARDNER: I ran into a guy one day who looked like everything that I'd imagined success would look like, in a parking lot in San Francisco, driving a gorgeous, red Ferrari. The guy was looking for a parking place. And I said, I'm coming out, you can have my parking place, but I got to ask you two questions: what do you do and how do you do that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GARDNER: Okay, it was that simple; it was that simple. But more important than that, Ed, the first time I walked into a trading room of a major Wall Street firm, the ticker tape was running, the phones are ringing, people are screaming and shouting out orders and I knew this was were I was supposed to be.
GORDON: At that time, this was not a world that opened its arms to African-Americans. So not only did you have to fight that and make a way, but as we noted earlier, the idea that you were doing this much of the time as a single father...
Mr. GARDNER: Mm-hmm.
GORDON: ...and you were, essentially given your son.
Mr. GARDNER: And you know what? That was the greatest thing in the world. And I'm so thankful for that. But back to your earlier comment about the business not necessarily being open to African-Americans, I don't know if that was really the issue in my case...
Mr. GARDNER: ...I think it was more placism than racism. I had never gone to college. I did not come from a politically connected family. I had no money of my own. That's a class thing as opposed to a race thing, but we were able to deal with that.
GORDON: You made your way through many of the large brokerage firms, EF Hutton, Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, and finally deciding to go out on your own and start your company. Was that something that was - something that you were building to all along?
Mr. GARDNER: Well, those firms you mentioned...
Mr. GARDNER: ...those were all the firms that told me no. I started in the business, Ed, at one of the oldest firms that no longer exists, Dean Witter. But more importantly, I really learned the business at Bear Stearns & Company. Sometimes you just got to be out on your own in order to pursue your dreams.
GORDON: Certainly, you've made your way, in terms of security from a financial standpoint; do you now see part of your life as the idea of being a conduit for change, if you will?
Mr. GARDNER: Absolutely. And I can't talk a great deal about it. We're doing some work now that, next to raising my children, is probably the most important thing I'll ever have the chance to do in my life. We're doing some work in South Africa. We're doing some things there to participate in the transformation of the ownership of the South African economy. And we're finally at a point in our career that we can do work that reflects our values...
Mr. GARDNER: So it's a good space.
GORDON: The book is The Pursuit of Happyness. The man is Chris Gardner. And if it hasn't struck you enough, a fascinating life, one told in this book and one soon to be told on the big screen by Big Willie himself, Will Smith. Chris Gardner, thanks so much, appreciate it.
Mr. GARDNER: Thank you.
GORDON: To read an excerpt from Chris Gardner's book, The Pursuit of Happyness, log on to our Web site at npr.org.
That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org.