By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg Special to The Washington Post Sunday, February 25, 2007; K01
Chris Gardner's rise from homelessness to the top of the financial world is familiar to readers of his bestselling autobiography, "The Pursuit of Happyness," and the recent movie of the same name, which stars Will Smith as Gardner.
In the early 1980s, while Gardner was the sole guardian of his toddler son, he began his career as a stockbroker in the training program of the San Francisco office of what was then Dean Witter Reynolds. He was the only trainee offered a job there in 1981. He headed to Bear Stearns & Co. in 1983, where he became a top earner, and in 1987, he established Gardner Rich & Co., a Chicago institutional brokerage firm, according to his Web site.
Gardner also is a philanthropist and motivational speaker. During a recent interview, he shared insights about how to succeed in a new career field:
Q Did you always know that you wanted to be a broker?
A Since I was a kid I had wanted to be [jazz musician] Miles Davis, meaning world class at something. I just had to find the right venue. From the minute I walked into the doors of the trading room -- where activity was always buzzing, the ticker tape was running, there was a flow that to others looked like chaos -- I knew that was where I was supposed to be.
You learned about the training program at Dean Witter while you were working as a medical supply salesman. How did you get admitted into that highly competitive program?
Persistence! At first I kept hearing the same words: "No, no, no." But I kept coming back, showing up. Dean Witter was noncommittal. They were like, "Well, we don't know, not right now." But they allowed me to come back for informational interviews. Those are invaluable opportunities for both employee and employer to learn about each other. It took me a year until I got into the program.
Was racism partly to blame for your not getting hired sooner?
Not racism, placism. I had never gone to college, had no political connections or money of my own, no juice. So it was a fair question [by the hiring committee] to ask, "Who's gonna do business with you? You have no college buddies, no political juice, who are you?"
With no prior background in the brokerage field, how did you have the skills to succeed in the training program?
I had been in the Navy and had worked in medical research and found that many of the skills -- like researching and gathering data -- were transferable to Wall Street. You gain some transferable skills in every job.
How important was networking for you and how can others develop a network in a new career field?
Networking has been incredibly important. You've got to develop it where the players are in your field. There are always meetings and conventions of people with similar interests. Be there, invited or not.
What about mentors? How do you find them?
I had so many mentors. Sometimes you meet somebody and it just clicks. Other times you have to look hard to develop them. I had to pursue one of mine for years. Either way, mentors are crucial. Those people can make all the difference in the world in what you do.
During your training program, you never told your bosses about your difficult personal life that included some nights spent with your son in a homeless shelter or an Oakland subway station bathroom. Why not?
Nobody cares about your personal life and it's none of their business. You're there to work and nobody wants to see your sad [rear] dirty. Everybody's got their own problems.
The stipend during your training program (about $1,000 per month) was meager for a single dad. Did that bother you?
For me, it was never about the money. It was about the opportunity to have what eventually could be. It was about being involved with something I was absolutely passionate about. If you are doing a job just for the pay, then you are like a slave to the money. Better to do something that is so exciting that you can't wait for the sun to rise in the morning regardless of the money that you get for doing it.