As of 2006, he is CEO of his own stockbrokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Co, based in Chicago, Illinois where he resides when he is not living in New York City. Gardner credits his tenacity and success to his "spiritual genetics" handed down to him by his mother, Bettye Jean Triplett, née Gardner, and to the high expectations placed on him by his children, Chris Jr. (born 1981) and his daughter, Jacintha (born 1985). Gardner's personal struggle of establishing himself as a stockbroker while managing fatherhood and homelessness is portrayed in the 2006 motion picture The Pursuit of Happyness, starring actor Will Smith.
Freddie Triplett's violent outbursts often left Bettye Jean beaten and nearly fatally injured. Those rages left Gardner and his three sisters constantly afraid. Bettye Jean was imprisoned when Triplett reported her to the authorities for working while collecting welfare. As a result, her children were raised in foster care during her incarceration. They were put into foster homes once again when Gardner's mother re-entered incarceration for attempting to burn down the house with Triplett inside. From those experiences, Gardner determined that alcoholism, domestic abuse, child abuse, illiteracy, fear, and powerlessness were all things he wanted to avoid in the future.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of political and musical awakening for Gardner. He developed a deep sense of black pride as he became familiar with the works of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver. During that time Gardner's world view became increasingly narrow. That is after he attended Proviso East High School. He ignored historical events such as the Sharpeville Massacre and apartheid in South Africa and international racial issues. Gardner learned to play the trumpet and he enjoyed listening to music by Sly Stone, Buddy Miles, the Reverend James Brown and his all-time favorite, Miles Davis. Gardner was also known to enjoy the music of Billy Joel, and his favorite song by Joel is said to be "Man in the Mirror".
Although he was disgusted by his "Uncle" Henry's worldwide adventures in the United States Navy, Gardner decided to enlist in the Navy shortly after graduating high school, because he really had no other options. While in the Navy, Gardner became a Hospital corpsman and became acquainted with a top San Francisco cardiac surgeon, Dr. Robert Ellis, who offered Gardner a position assisting him with innovative clinical research at the University of California Medical Center and Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco, California. Gardner accepted the job and moved to San Francisco upon his discharge from the Navy in 1974. Over the next two years, he learned how to manage a laboratory and to perform various card tricks. By 1976, he had full responsibilities in a laboratory of his own and had co-authored with Dr. Ellis various articles published in medical journals.
His relationship with Sherry was strained, in part because of his decision to forgo a medical career and also due to differences in their attitudes. While still living with Sherry, he began a passionate affair with a dental student named Jackie Medina, and she soon became pregnant with his child. After three years of marriage to Sherry, he left her to move in with Jackie and to prepare for fatherhood. Nine years elapsed before he and Sherry were legally divorced.
Gardner's son, Christopher Jarrett Medina Gardner was born on January 28, 1981. During the first year of his son's life, Gardner struggled to make ends meet by working at the VA hospital and supplementing his income with other jobs. He was hired as a sales representative for CMS, a medical equipment and supply company that offered him a yearly income of $30,000 which is equivalent to $65,450 in 2008, which is more money than most families survive on today. Soon thereafter, Gardner left CMS to work at a more lucrative sales position at Van Waters and Rogers, a more established medical supply company.
Prompted by his child's inquiries about his own father, Gardner had previously been able to track down his biological father, Thomas Turner, over the telephone. With the higher income that he was earning at his new job, Gardner was able to save enough money to travel to Monroe, Louisiana. There, he and his son met Turner for the first time.
Gardner returned to San Francisco determined to succeed at business. A pivotal moment in his life occurred, after a sales call to a San Francisco General Hospital, when he encountered an impeccably-dressed man in a red Ferrari. Curious, Gardner asked the man what he did for a living. The man told him he was a stock broker and, from that moment on, Gardner's career path was decided. Eventually, Gardner bought a Ferrari of his own from the famous basketball player, Michael Jordan. The Illinois license plate of Gardner's black Ferrari reads "NOT MJ."
The stockbroker in the red Ferrari was a man by the name of Bob Bridges. He met with Gardner and gave him an introduction to the world of finance. Bridges set up meetings between Gardner and branch managers at the major stock brokerage firms that offered training programs — such as Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber, E.F. Hutton, Dean Witter Reynolds, and Smith Barney. For the next two months, Gardner canceled or postponed his sales appointments and his car amassed parking tickets while he met with managers.
It appeared that Gardner got his "break" when he was accepted into a training program at E.F. Hutton. He subsequently quit his sales job so that he could dedicate his time exclusively to training as a stock broker. Then he appeared at the office ready to work, only to discover that his hiring manager had been fired the week before. To make matters worse, Gardner's relationship with Jackie was falling apart. She accused him of beating her — an accusation that Gardner denies to this day — and left him, taking their son with her to the east coast. He was taken to jail and a judge ordered that he stay there, for ten days, as punishment for being unable to pay $1,200 in parking tickets.
Gardner returned home from jail to find his apartment empty. His girlfriend and his son, along with all of his possessions (including his suits, shoes and business apparel), had disappeared. With no experience, no college education, virtually no connections, and with the same casual outfit he had been wearing on the day he was taken into custody, Gardner gained a position in Dean Witter Reynolds’ stock brokerage training program. However, with a monthly stipend of $1,000, which is equal to $2,180 in 2008, and no savings, he was unable to meet his living expenses.
About four months after Jackie disappeared with their son, she returned and left him with Gardner. By then, he was able to afford a small rent and was rooming in a flophouse. He willingly accepted sole custody of his child; however, the rooming house where he lived did not allow children. Although he was gainfully employed, Gardner and his son secretly struggled with homelessness while he saved money for a rental house in Berkeley, California.
Meanwhile, none of Gardner's coworkers knew that he and his son were homeless in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco for nearly a year. Gardner often scrambled to place his child in daycare, stood in soup lines and slept wherever he and his son could find safety — in his office after hours, at flophouses, at parks, and even in a locked bathroom at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station. Concerned for Chris Jr.’s well-being, Gardner asked Reverend Cecil Williams to allow them to stay at the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church’s shelter for homeless women, now known as The Cecil Williams Glide Community House. The Reverend agreed without hesitation. Today, when asked what he remembers about being homeless, Christopher Gardner, Jr. recalls \"I couldn't tell you that we were homeless, I just knew that we were always having to go. So, if anything, I remember us just moving, always moving.\"
After Gardner sold his small stake in Gardner Rich in a multi-million dollar deal in 2006, he became CEO and founder of Christopher Gardner International Holdings, with offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. During a visit to South Africa to observe elections around the time of 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid, Gardner met with Nelson Mandela to discuss possible investment in South African emerging markets as indicated in his 2006 autobiography. Gardner is reportedly developing an investment venture with South Africa that will create hundreds of jobs and introduce millions in foreign currency into the nation. Gardner has declined to disclose details of the project citing securities laws.
Dedicated to the well-being of children through positive paternal involvement, Gardner serves on the board of the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). He is also a board member of the National Education Foundation and sponsors two annual education awards: the National Education Association's National Educational Support Personnel Award and the American Federation of Teachers' Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel Award. In 2002, Gardner received the Father of the Year Award from the NFI. Since then, Gardner also had the honor of receiving the 25th Annual Humanitarian Award and the 2006 Friends of Africa Award, presented by the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACAAW) and by the Continental Africa Chamber of Commerce, respectively. In 2008, He spoke at his daughter's graduation from Hampton University.
The movie, starring Will Smith, Thandie Newton, and Smith's son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, focused on Gardner's nearly one-year struggle with homelessness. It grossed $163 million domestically at the box office and over $300 million worldwide, also one of Will Smith's consecutive $100 million blockbusters. The movie took some liberties with Gardner's true life story. Certain details and events that actually took place over the span of several years were compressed into a relatively short time and although eight-year-old Jaden portrayed Chris Jr. as a five year-old, Gardner's son was just a toddler at the time. Chris Gardner reportedly thought Will Smith—an actor best known for his performances in action movies—was miscast to play him. However, he said, his daughter Jacintha set him straight by saying, "If Smith can play Muhammad Ali, he can play you! Gardner actually makes a cameo appearance in the film, walking past Will and Jaden in the final scene. Gardner and Will acknowledge each other; Will then looks back at Gardner walking away as his son proceeds to tell him knock knock jokes.
In the hope Gardner's story would inspire the down-trodden citizens of Chattanooga, Tennessee to achieve financial independence and to take greater responsibility for the welfare of their families, the mayor of Chattanooga organized a viewing of the film for the city's homeless. Gardner himself felt that it was imperative to share his story for the sake of its widespread social issues. "When I talk about alcoholism in the household, domestic violence, child abuse, illiteracy, and all of those issues—those are universal issues; those are not just confined to ZIP codes," he said.
Chris Gardner was noticeably absent from the movie's premiere on December 15, 2006. He chose, instead, to be the guest inspirational speaker at a Christmas party for JHT Holdings, Inc., in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Chris is also featured in the Canadian documentary, "Come on Down: Searching for the American Dream" (2004). Chris gives valuable insight into the American Dream at his office in downtown Chicago. The documentary also features Bob Barker and Hunter S. Thompson.