Chris Gardner Bio: A Rags-to-Riches Story That Keeps Inspiring Us

You may remember Chris Gardner as the main character in The Pursuit of Happyness, a 2006 movie starring Will Smith. But I believe that there’s much more to his real success story than you might know from the film.

The journey of a single homeless father turned self-made millionaire has inspired the whole world. It’s certainly a story of perseverance, resilience, and an uncompromising chase after one’s dream.

But in my opinion, it is also a story of how ambition combined with a bit of misfortune can sometimes turn out to be almost lethal. Luckily, this smart and tireless man eventually made it, providing us with his incredible experience through his books and speeches.

Let’s explore Chris Gardner’s early life, difficulties, motivations, and path to success to understand how this exceptional man achieved success.

Chris Gardner Bio Facts

Full Name: Christopher Paul Gardner  
Birth Date: February 9, 1954  
Birth Place: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S  
Nick Name: Chris  
Nationality: American  
Siblings: Ophelia, Sharon  
Children: Christopher Jarrett Gardner Jr. (b. 1981), Jacintha Darlene Gardner (b. 1985)  
Partner / Spouse: Sherry Dyson (1977-1986), Jackie Medina (1980-1982), Holly Ann Norwick (1992-2012)  
Profession: Businessman, motivational speaker, writer  
Salary: Unknown  
Net Worth: $70 million  
Social Media: Facebook: @Chris Gardner Twitter: @CEOofHappYness  
Companies Associated With: Dean Witter Reynolds, Gardner Rich & Co  
Last Updated: July 2022  

Chris Gardner’s Key Facts Summary

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  • Chris was born in Milwaukee but later moved to the San Francisco area. He currently lives in Chicago.
  • He comes from a low-income family. His stepfather was an abusive alcoholic, and his mother was jailed twice. Chris effectively grew up on the streets.
  • He had no formal education above secondary school, but he managed to work first as a medical researcher and later as a stockbroker.
  • After separating from his partner and losing his job, Chris ended up homeless for a year with his toddler son in sole custody.
  • After completing a stock brokerage training program, he finally made it into the world of finances and eventually became a millionaire.
  • In 2006, he released his memoir called Pursuit of Happyness. It became a bestseller and inspired the eponymous movie starring Will Smith as Chris Gardner.
  • Gardner wrote two more motivational books: ‘Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be’ (2009) and ‘Permission to Dream’ (2021).
  • He is also a philanthropist, investing in various low-income housing projects, non-profit programs, and charities.
  • His net worth is currently estimated at $70 million.

Chris Gardner’s Birthplace and Early Life

I’ve heard hundreds of inspirational zero-to-hero stories, and we have a fair share of them on our website, too (see, for example, our story of Howard Schultz or our Tomas Gorny Bio). Nevertheless, I believe that Chris Gardner’s story is unlike any other.

In my opinion, what makes this man special is his endless drive, which not only led him out of absolute poverty but also didn’t allow him to settle for anything less than victory. Sometimes, this drive made him risk probably even more than I consider healthy.

To understand where this diligence and determination came from, we should start with all the struggles Chris must have learned to overcome as a young boy.

Childhood on the Streets

Chris Gardner was born as Christopher Paul Gardner on February 9, 1954, in the city of Milwaukee to Thomas Turner and Bettye Jean Gardner.

Bettye came from a poor farming community in Louisiana. She wanted to become a teacher but couldn’t afford the studies. At 22, Bettye got pregnant with a married man who refused to leave his wife. Her family declined to help her too.

Bettye moved to Milwaukee and gave birth to Ophelia, Christopher’s older sister. Soon, she met another married man – Thomas Turner, who fathered her second child, Chris. Again, Thomas refused to divorce. Bettye soon married a man called Freddie Triplett.

Sadly, Freddie was an alcoholic and beat his wife and her kids frequently. Moreover, Bettye was jailed for welfare fraud and arson, which landed Ophelia and Chris in a foster home, while their youngest sister, Sharon, was taken care of by Freddie’s family.

Chris spent most of his childhood playing in the streets, which led to numerous risky situations. On one occasion, he was even raped by a child predator.

Nevertheless, following his mother’s advice (I believe she was, despite all the struggles, the most important role model in Chris’ life), he studied hard and excelled in school, determined to succeed.

After high school, Chris joined the Navy and served as a medic. This provided him with new possibilities, which he eagerly took advantage of.

Chris Gardner’s Early Career and Business Success

In 1974, while still in the Navy, Chris was offered a research position at the University of California Medical Center and Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco. He took the job, moved to California, and finally embarked on his journey to success.

In just two years, Chris was already managing an entire laboratory, performing various surgical procedures himself, and acquiring full responsibility for the workplace. He even co-authored numerous articles in medical journals.

However, I think it’s typical of Chris not to be satisfied with any success for long, and it soon showed in this case as well.

Career Change

Chris planned to go to medical school and continue his career in practical medicine. But then, after realizing how long it would take for him to achieve a complete medical education and how expensive it would be, he changed his mind.

He abandoned his dream of becoming a physician, and soon, he left his wife Sherry too (after just three years of marriage) for a young student who expected his child (I’ll get more into this later).

After becoming the only financial supporter of his young family, Chris swapped his poorly paid research job for a career as a salesman of medical supplies. Now he was earning significantly more and was on the right path to fulfilling his dreams of success.

But everything changed when Chris met a successful stockbroker in a shiny red Ferrari. His name was Bob Bridges, and he promised to share all his know-how and the fundamental business strategy frameworks with the eager young salesman.

Rise & Fall

Bob Bridges introduced Chris Gardner to the world of finance and presented him to the managers of important stock brokerage companies that organized training programs.

Eager to start a new life, Chris neglected his salesman duties and incurred numerous fines for parking while meeting with his potential new bosses. However, it was very difficult for Chris to land a job at any of the firms without an MBA.

Still confident that all he needed was practice and experience, Chris continued working as Bob’s apprentice, missing out on the opportunities in his everyday life and job as a salesman.

It took a year until Chris finally landed a job as an unpaid intern in a stock brokerage firm E. F. Hutton. Although it was the success he hoped for, it was also a colossal step back financially. But he was willing to risk it all despite being the sole provider for his family.

In my opinion, this part of Chris’ story is quite controversial regardless of the eventual positive outcome. Was taking such a dangerous leap his only option at the moment? Life was, unfortunately, going to hand this bold young father a tough lesson.

A new HR manager reviewed Chris Gardner’s contract only a week into his internship and decided to revoke it based on his poor CV. In a second, Chris lost everything (just like other, eventually successful entrepreneurs in their early days on the stock market – check our Chris Sacca’s Bio for another example).

Arrest and Homelessness

To make ends meet, Chris Gardner did various odd jobs and continued pursuing his dream of making it in brokerage. But his family situation deteriorated quickly: He and Jackie began fighting so much that their neighbors eventually called the police to assist.

When the police checked Chris Gardner’s record while attending to what they believed was a domestic violence situation, they found that Chris owed more than $1,000 on parking fines. Since he could not pay it on the site, he was jailed for ten days.

While being jailed, Chris Gardner had two major concerns: He was worried that his son could feel abandoned by him, and he was also about to miss the job interview he landed in yet another stock brokerage firm, Dean Witter Reynolds.

Luckily, he was able to reschedule the interview and got accepted into a training program. At the same time, however, he discovered his apartment and bank account empty: Jackie ran away and took everything with her, including their toddler son.

Chris could not pay the rent and was kicked out of his apartment. He moved to a boarding house and continued doing odd jobs besides his training program. But soon, Jackie contacted Chris and asked him to take care of their son while she tried to revive her medical career.

However, the two could not stay in a boarding house since it did not allow children. That’s how Chris and his son became homeless.

Although Chris did his best to hide the fact, walking the streets in his suit and bathing in public bathrooms, he and his son often slept in harsh conditions and had very little to eat.

They received help from the most unexpected places, such as the prostitutes who slipped money to his son while Chris pushed him in a stroller through the streets. Luckily, things were about to change for the better in the end.

New Beginning

Thanks to Reverend Cecil Williams, who noticed Chris Gardner in a queue for free food served by his charity program, Chris and his son finally found a roof above their heads in a local methodist church.

Then, when his unpaid internship at Dean Witter Reynolds was over after a year, Chris successfully passed his Series 7 exam and became a legal stockbroker. All the hard work finally paid out.

Shortly, he landed a job at the San Francisco firm Bear Stearns & Company (where some of America’s most remarkable business people started careers – check our Henry Kravis Bio). With a small yet reliable base salary, Chris could finally rent a studio.

Chris Gardner made sure not to waste his opportunity to become the best stockbroker he could, working longer and harder than his colleagues. Eventually, he became acclaimed, successful, and wealthy – just like he always wanted.

Gardner Rich & Co, Christopher Gardner International Holdings

In 1987, Chris Gardner opened his stock brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Co, first investing just about $10,000 of his own money in the venture.

Putting the same dedication, hard work, and patience into this project as into all those steps before, I believe he could only succeed. Eventually, he grew his firm into a multi-million dollar business and sold his stake in it in 2006 for a six-figure sum.

Later he established Christopher Gardner International Holdings, which he runs as a CEO until today. The company has offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.


Chris Gardner did not only succeed in finances. On May 23, 2006, he published his autobiography, and the book became an instant bestseller. Soon Chris also became an associate producer of the movie The Pursuit of Happyness based on his book.

The film was directed by Gabriele Muccino and released by Columbia Pictures in December 2006. Will Smith plays Chris Gardner in the movie, earning an Academy Award-Nomination for Best Actor for the role.

Thanks to the film, Chris became recognized and admired worldwide. He started touring various locations as a motivational speaker and inspired millions of people to pursue their happiness regardless of how humble or poor their origins were.

Chris Gardner regularly ranks high in lists of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs besides the likes of Oprah Winfrey or Rich Paul (read our Rich Paul’s Bio).

Chris Gardner’s YouTube Videos

In 2014, Chris Gardner appeared as a guest on The Saturday Night Show, where he explained some essential differences between his real-life story and the acclaimed movie based on his autobiographic book.

This motivational video contains Chris Gardner’s speech on how we all should allow ourselves to dream big and do whatever it takes to pursue even the boldest plans we might have.

This 2007 speech was shot shortly after the release of the Pursuit of Happyness movie. Chris Gardner was invited as a guest speaker to the IEA Summer Leadership Academy, where he spoke about his motivation and the origins of his drive to achieve all his goals.

Chris Gardner’s Business Failures

Chris Gardner overcame a fair share of failures during his lifetime, but once he finally got the chance to do what he always dreamt about, he hardly missed an opportunity to excel at his job. As of 2022, no major debacles are associated with his professional career.

Chris Gardner’s Family

On 18 June 1977, Chris Gardner married a Virginia math teacher called Sherry Dyson. Nevertheless, the pair became estranged just three years later due to Chris’ change of career plans and an affair with young dental student Jackie Medina.

After Chris left Sherry, Chris and Jackie’s son, Christopher Jarrett Gardner Jr., was born (January 28, 1981). However, it took another five years for Chris and Sherry to finalize their divorce.

Chris was determined to be an excellent father to his son – something he, as a kid, never knew. He was also dedicated to his relationship with Jackie.

However, when she failed her dentist exams, and the whole family had to live on Chris’s unimpressive research salary, the problems arose quickly.

The family had to move out of San Francisco to cut their housing expenses. But since Chris landed a well-paid job as a salesman, this first seemed to be a good move.

However, Jackie became frustrated when he started chasing a pipe dream of becoming a stockbroker. Then, when he completely gave up his regular job yet failed to make it as a broker, the two began fighting. Eventually, Chris ended up raising their son on his own.

Little is known about Chris Gardner’s second child, daughter Jacintha. Reportedly, she was born out of Chris and Jackie’s short reunion in 1985. Jacintha was raised by her mother but stayed in touch with Chris. The two have a good relationship today.

In the early 1990s, Chris Gardner met Holly Ann Norwick, a successful businesswoman and technical advisor. The two formed a harmonic partnership for the next 20 years until Holly died of brain cancer in 2012. As of 2022, Chris is believed to be single.

Chris Gardner’s Net Worth and Career Earnings

Chris Gardner’s timeline of earnings and salaries is a turbulent sinusoid of ups and downs. It perfectly illustrates his determination, which is, in my opinion, the most important ingredient in his recipe for success.

When he started working as a researcher in the 1970s, he earned just about $7,000 – 8,000 annually. Later, when selling medical devices, he earned $25,000 a year, which would today be more like $76,000 considering inflation.

However, Chris wanted more and was willing to settle for much less to achieve it. When Chris got into stock brokerage, he was first working completely for free as an intern. Later, he earned $1,000 ($2,354 today) monthly.

Today, Chris Gardner’s salary is not publicly known, but his net worth is around $70 million.

See also: 14 Most Influential Business Operators In The World To Inspire You

Chris Gardner’s Real Estate Holdings

Not much is known about Chris Gardner’s real estate holdings, as despite all the fame and recognition, he likes to keep his privacy. Still, he is known to own at least two lavish properties.


Since the death of his partner in 2012, Chris has lived on a houseboat near Chicago with his dog, Shadow. The exact location, size, or style of his houseboat is unknown, but it is believed to be in a peaceful and private area and tastefully decorated.

Trump Tower Penthouse

Chris Gardner is also known to own a luxurious penthouse on the 63rd floor of Chicago’s Trump Tower. It features a large patio with some greenery, and Gardner reportedly loves to spend his time here with his (now grown-up) children and grandchildren.

Chris Gardner Quotes

Below are some of Chris Gardner’s best-known quotes:

“Baby steps count, too, as long as you’re moving forward.”

“Claim ownership of your dreams.”

“I was homeless, but I wasn’t hopeless. I knew a better day was coming.”

“Don’t wait for the perfect time to start making changes to your life; the time is now.”

“As long as you have a plan for how you’ll live, don’t let jealous people turn their insecurities into yours.”

“Start where you are.”

“I am strong because I’ve been weak. I am fearless because I’ve been afraid. I am wise because I’ve been foolish.”

“Every finish line is the beginning of a new race.” 

“Always, always pursue happiness.” 

“Do something that makes you feel your work is significant and meaningful.”


Question: Is Chris Gardner a multi-millionaire?

Answer: In recent years, Chris Gardner has divided his time and energy between his stock brokerage company and touring with motivational speeches worldwide. His net worth is around $70 million as of 2022, so yes, he is a multi-millionaire.

Question: Does Chris Gardner own a Ferrari?

Answer: Yes! Ferrari became a symbol of Chris Gardner’s success since it was a vision of a red Ferrari that first got him dreaming about a career in stock brokerage. Eventually, he bought a black Ferarri Testarossa previously owned by Michael Jordan.

Question: Is Chris Gardner married?

Answer: No. Chris Gardner was in at least three serious relationships during his life, but he was married just once. He and his wife, Sherry Dyson, a math teacher, officially divorced in 1986.

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