Homeless But Not Hopeless: Millionaire Chris Gardner’s Early Years

Chris Gardner wears a $10,000 watch on each wrist. On the right hand is a Cartier set to Chicago time, and on the left is a Roger Dubuis set to South African time. “I was late once and it cost me $50,000,” explains Gardner. “I figure it was cheaper to wear two watches.” For a man who not too long ago had only two suits to his name and could not even afford to pay rent, Gardner has come a long way. From living on the streets and bathing in public restrooms to owning a successful multi-million dollar stock brokerage firm, Gardner is living out the American dream.

Born on February 9, 1954 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Christopher Gardner’s first few years were filled with nothing but difficulty and uncertainty. He was the only son in a family of twelve children. His single mother was trained as a schoolteacher, but wound up taking on numerous part-time jobs in order to provide for her family. “She was probably her happiest when she was teaching my sisters and me,” recalls Gardner. “She was our professor, our Socrates.” The absence of a father is something that would come to profoundly affect Gardner’s life.

Gardner and his siblings were transferred back and forth between relatives and foster homes. His mother had been imprisoned twice; once, for allegedly receiving welfare while working, and the second time for attempting to burn down the house of Gardner’s abusive stepfather. “I’m sorry she didn’t succeed,” says Gardner of the incident. “Until I went to the U.S. military, the worst violence I ever saw in my life was in my home.”

Gardner was a smart student, but had little interest in academics. He studied trumpet for nine years, wanting to be the next Miles Davis. Eventually, Gardner realized, “I had the attitude, but I didn’t have the talent. Besides, there was only one Miles Davis and he already had that job.”

After dropping out of high school, Gardner lied about his age and joined the U.S. Navy. He had hoped to become a medic and travel the world, but never got any farther than North Carolina. However, the experience did introduce Gardner to a cardiac surgeon, who would later hire Gardner as his clinical research assistant at the University of California Medical Centre in San Francisco after both were discharged. Gardner enjoyed the work, but was only making $7,400 a year and he wanted more.

Gardner toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor, but decided that years of paying off medical loans were not for him. Instead, he became a medical supply salesman, earning $16,000 a year. It was in loading equipment into his car one day that Gardner’s life would forever change. He caught sight of a bright red Ferrari and was immediately in love with it and all that it represented. “I asked the guy two questions,” Gardner recalls. “One was, ‘What do you do?’ The second was, ‘How do you do that?’”

As fate would have it, the driver of the Ferrari was a stockbroker. When Gardner heard that the man was earning over $80,000 a month, he decided that his future lied in investment. He had no education, no experience, and no connections, but that was not about to stop Gardner from achieving his new dream.

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