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I Am American Business

Chris Gardner

Producer Notes

Chris Gardner pays attention to the smallest details. What do the letters on our water bottle caps mean? (Just our initials so we don't get our bottles mixed up.) Why do we need a hair person for a bald man? (You might need an eyebrow trim.) He is one of those people that seem to miss nothing. And he gets a kick out of most everything. When he signed my copy of "The Pursuit of Happyness" he wrote in big bold letters, always pursue happyness". He spoke the words out loud, "Always, always pursue happiness." He meant every word. It seemed novel to think of happiness as a goal in itself. You can go after money, or a new job, but happiness? It has to come to you, doesn't it? Chris Gardner believes in making happiness your aim every single day. His office door in Chicago was open, and while we were there fans wandered in off the street. He is approached on the sidewalk. He seems to relish it all. He says he made a choice about the direction he wanted his life to take. And his message is that we all can choose. It seems too simple. But spend time with Chris Gardner and simple happiness doesn't seem like an unworthy idea.

Video Interview

The "I Am" Q&A


What kind of car do you drive?
I drive the world’s dirtiest Bentley.

What is your favorite place to go?
Home.

What was your worst moment in business?
Some of the best investments you could ever make are in people. Some of the worst investments you can ever make are in people. The worst moments I ever had in business were some bad investments in people that went wrong.

What is your favorite drink?
Gatorade.

What is your favorite food?
Oatmeal.

What is your idea of fun?
Not flying.

And at work?
Seeing my people grow.

What personal weaknesses do you forgive in someone?
I forgive failure, if I know you really tried. If you gave it your best shot and you failed, that’s okay. As long as you gave it your best. And the one thing I have a hard time forgiving is, don’t ever let me think you don’t care. If you don’t care, that’s it. We’re done.

What movie star do you like?
Jaden Smith. I am president of the Jaden Smith fan club, that’s my boy.

Who is a business hero of yours?
Reginald Lewis.

What personal qualities do you admire in business?
Integrity. And loyalty.

What personal qualities do you admire in life?
People that are honest-to-God happy.

What was your greatest moment in business?
It’s coming.

And in life?
Watching my children become young people.

What is your dream?
To honest to God become everything that I believe I can. To keep growing. That’s it.

Do you have a motto?
“The cavalry is not coming.”

And what is your present state of mind?
I am ecstatic. I am cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

Transcript


CNBC:
Your life has become a symbol. What does this mean?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Maya Angelou told me that “The success of a movie, the success of a book is not even about you.” What she said to me was, “this is the story of every father who ever had to be a mother, every mother who ever had to be a father, and everybody whoever had a dream that wouldn’t quit.” That’s a lot of folks. And when Maya Angelou puts something to you like that, you get it real clear.

CNBC:
Coming from a man, that emotion that you felt at your separation from your son has a whole different resonance.

CHRIS GARDNER:
I’ve learned on this part of the journey in life that men are in so much pain and we don’t express it. We don’t show it. We can say “I’m going to get you” you know “I’m ticked off” you know. We can do that but to say “whoa that hurt me” that’s the hardest thing in the world for a man to say. And when I did that I think I said it for a lot of men. I know for a fact I did.

CNBC:
Let’s talk about your connection to the business. What was that feeling you had about trading?

CHRIS GARDNER:
The first time I walked into a trading room of a major Wall Street firm I knew this is where I was supposed to be. There was no doubt in my mind. What looked like chaos to anybody else, I could see the natural rhythm and the order. And I’ll never forget the ticker tape was rolling, the phones were ringing, tickets were getting stamped, people were screaming and shouting, bodies were flying all over the place and I knew.

CNBC:
What is that beauty of that energy?

CHRIS GARDNER:
It was a blessing. That feeling that you get when you just know this is where I’m supposed to be and pursue it. Maybe a lot of people get the feeling but they don’t go after it.

CNBC:
Have you had that feeling about other business decisions you’ve made? Do you get that feeling about trades or about other things?

CHRIS GARDNER:
I got that feeling the very first time I met Nelson Mandela. And I had that same feeling of “there’s something for me to do here. This is where I’m supposed to be.” That’s one of those change-your-life experiences. That time I met him, he stuck out his hand and he said to me “Welcome home, son.” That was it for me.

CNBC:
Did you really cry?

CHRIS GARDNER:
I could start crying right now just to think about that. I mean put that in perspective, when that happened I was forty-four years old. I had never in my life heard a man say, “Welcome home, son.” And for the first man to ever say that to be Nelson Mandela.

CNBC:
When you first walked into that trading room, there was a conflict between what your daytime life was, your daytime reality and your evening reality. Where were you at that time?

CHRIS GARDNER:
At this point in my life I had two majors challenges everyday. And one of them honestly, was to be in a business I absolutely love. To be surrounded by wealth, capital, and investment opportunities. But the second that market closed, I had to figure out if I had enough money for my son and I to eat and get a room in a hotel. And I had to do that everyday for a year. I was living two lives. It was never really about the money for me. It was about becoming world class at something. Becoming one of the best at something. That’s still more important to me than money.

CNBC:
Did you consider yourself homeless?

CHRIS GARDNER:
If I didn’t I was delusional. Yes I was. But that’s not the point. We were homeless but we were not hopeless. I had just started my career on Wall Street. I had started working at one of the finest investment banks on the street, Dean Whitter, which is now Morgan Stanley. We had nothing but upside. Couldn’t have gotten any worse.

CNBC:
Could you tell us about the South Africa project?

CHRIS GARDNER:
We’re doing a private transaction and rules are you can’t say a lot in public. What I can say about this opportunity in South Africa is it’s an opportunity for me to use everything I’ve ever learned on Wall Street in the last 25 years. To do a transaction that actually makes a difference in the lives of people. And we all make money. We call it conscious capitalism. And for me this is as good as it’s going to get.

CNBC:
What is conscious capitalism?

CHRIS GARDNER:
In my opinion, conscious capitalism is putting people first and money second. And there’s a way that this can be done that clearly shows it will work. And the work that we’re doing in South Africa again, next to raising my children it’s probably the most important thing I’ll ever have a chance to do in my life. It’s that important.

CNBC:
What does ‘wealth’ really mean to you?

CHRIS GARDNER:
What ‘wealth’ really means for me: I’m healthy. As a single parent with a lot of help, I’ve raised two children that have become special young people. And I’m in a position to do work that reflects my values. That’s my definition. On my last meeting with Mr. Mandela, we sat and talked forty-five minutes and he shared with me how I had an opportunity to be a part of what we calls the great generation. And the generation that had the will and the means to use their skills beyond just their personal enrichment, but to help make the world a better place. That’s part of conscious capitalism.

CNBC:
Let’s imagine that you are addressing the CEOs of America. What real wealth really means to you in terms of how you can do work better to help others. To do work that supports your values.

CHRIS GARDNER:
That’s difficult to say to an American CEO because his job is solely to make money for his shareholders. And if he doesn’t he doesn’t have a job. So what I think I can say I see from some of the CEOs that I’ve gotten to know is that there is a focus on the core job, which is, create the value for shareholders. But at the same time is there something that we can do to help create value in the world beyond money? Is there something that we can do in our own corporation that makes a little bit of difference in communities where we do business? I’m encouraged by some of the things that I see from the few CEOs that I’ve gotten know. But again, that’s a tough job. You sit in the big seat, your job is to do nothing but make money. And that’s unfortunate but that’s a reflection of the realities of the world. And that’s also a reflection on American business. We see the next quarters’ results. We see ourselves getting hammered by shareholders, and the hedge-fund guys when you come in two cents under what they thought you should’ve. People in different parts of the world can think, and do think longer-term. And I think that’s reflected in the way that they do business.

CNBC:
In Pursuit of Happyness most of the people and corporations you met were not making things easy, but you had a very positive experience. Can you talk about how you feel about the system, about Wall Street and about capitalism?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Well in the movie Pursuit of Happyness was not about money. It was not about Wall Street, it was not about greed. It was about a guy who saw something, fell in love with it, and wanted to be there. That’s what this guy wanted to do. It was about becoming world-class at something. Maybe the film and the book have made a contribution to a discussion, a new definition of success. It’s not just money. It’s passion. It’s doing, finding that one thing that you really want to do, and being bold enough to go do it. No matter what anybody else thinks, not in a negative sense. But being bold enough to go do it. And you have to see yourself doing it. Even when nobody else can. My mother used to call it seeing ghost. She used to say to me, boy, you’re seeing ghost again, aren’t you, yes ma’am. And I have to tell you, I see ghost all the time. Some of my best friends are ghosts.

CNBC:
In your book, there was one thing you said, which I thought was very simple and very beautiful about going forward?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Reverend Cecil Williams, used to always share with us as part of his sermons, he would talk about “we can all talk the talk. But now we must walk the walk.” And he would always share and I would always hear in my mind that, baby steps count too, as long as you’re going forward. A lot of times honestly, baby steps are more important than giant strides. You’re taking those strides when you’re sure, you’re confident, you’re certain. You have to take those baby steps when you’re not so sure. When you’re not so confident. Dr. Martin Luther King put it best for me, when he said “though you may not see the entire staircase, it’s important that you take the first step.”

CNBC:
I loved the story about, when you were involved in a bond issue for the San Francisco subway system?

CHRIS GARDNER:
I am the BART poster boy, BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit. And the first time we went in to present to BART, to attempt to be a part of this $400 million bond deal they had all these guys from the biggest firms on the street. And they all had their feasibility studies, they had their analytics from the engineers and they had all these great big books of stuff. I was the one person that could stand before that board of directors at BART and say, “that won’t work.” And here’s why. That train takes this long to get from this station to this station. That train doesn’t go this way, it goes that way. And I could tell them all of these things because I used to live on that train. See? And that came in handy; we got the deal by the way.

CNBC:
Is that why you like this office?

CHRIS GARDNER:
This office is remarkably close to the office I started at, at Dean Whitter in San Francisco. Single story, stand-alone, all glass. There are only two buildings like this in Chicago, and I love it here.

CNBC:
Does the proximity of the train remind you sometimes?

CHRIS GARDNER:
No, it doesn’t, because I’m not a guy that gets reminded of a lot of stuff. I spend a lot of time going this way with my thoughts; I don’t go that way too much.

CNBC:
You have said that you like to get out and walk the city sometimes?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Absolutely, I love it. I’m a city boy, I have to be someplace I can walk, I have to be someplace where I can interact with people, and, not too much. Chicago is perfect for that. Chicago is New York but less. Now you can do one thing in Chicago you can’t do in New York City. Walk in a straight line. You cannot do that in New York, you’re always weaving and bobbing and ducking and detouring.

CNBC:
There are a lot of street scenes in the movie. Do you feel like you’re a creature of the street still?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Yeah, and still running too. All that running you saw in that movie, I’m running now to different destinations. Went to the bank a lot.

CNBC:
You said you had a different perspective on volatility…

CHRIS GARDNER:
The markets, every day, can be volatile, and can go crazy. But, the truth of the matter is, that shouldn’t be your whole day. At the end of the day the reality is it’s going to be volatile and crazy again tomorrow. But for me because of some of the experiences I’ve had in my life, I think I’m a little less affected by the volatility and madness in marketplaces. My focus is a lot broader. And I know tomorrow the same thing could happen again. But once that bell rings there’s a calmness, a peace that I’m fortunate and blessed to have.

CNBC:
You wrote that you found something reassuring about the fact that the market’s going to open and it’s either gonna go up or down and it’s gonna close. Could you talk about this?

CHRIS GARDNER:
It’s going to happen every single day. One of the nice things about this business, and one of the crazy things about our business, is you never know what’s going to happen today. The only thing that’s certain is the same thing could happen again tomorrow. And the day after that. Volatility is what creates opportunities for us sometimes in markets. But I don’t want to live my life having that kind of volatility when I walk out the door. It’s still a beautiful day. And that’s the space that I’m in right now.

CNBC:
How do you want to make economic freedom available?

CHRIS GARDNER:
The truth of the facts is that political freedom did come to South Africa. That’s a great thing. One man, one vote. That’s a great thing. But, economic participation, and political freedom, is probably better. And our work in South Africa right now is all about the economic participation specifically of regular people, working people. Sustainability, broad-based empowerment and inclusion, in wealth creation. So political freedom is a great thing. But political freedom combined with economic freedom and participation is better. And our view, says that South Africa is poised to become the Hong Kong of Africa. And it’s all about economic opportunity. We’re not looking to do do-good, feel-good, we-are-the-world deals. It’s all about economics. But, if we can do some things to help make a difference in the world at the same time, that’s even better.

CNBC:
How were you received when you first went to South Africa?

CHRIS GARDNER:
I went over with a guy that’s been like a father figure to me. Bill Lucie, who was one of the most powerful men in the American labor movement. So when I went with him it was automatically assumed that I was okay. And I was overwhelmed. But even more so the second time. By my second visit I was asked to be one of the 100 people to be invited from around the world to be observers in the elections that celebrated 10 years of democracy in South Africa. I bought a camera; I’m not a big take-a-picture guy. But this trip I bought a camera, I wanted to capture 10 years of democracy in South Africa with all these pictures. But when you saw those people, standing in those lines, or as they call them queues, with such dignity, humility, and patience I did not take one picture. It would’ve been like taking pictures in church, I mean it felt that holy. And I’ll never forget that. I took one picture with that camera while I was in South Africa. That was a picture I took with Nelson Mandela. That was it.

CNBC:
Did you have contact with people, how did they respond to you?

CHRIS GARDNER:
I always ask my friends in South Africa, everyone knows I’m not from here, how do they know. And then my friends will say, it’s the way you walk. I had this one friend, John Michango, he says, “It must be all of that time walking on Wall Street. You walk in like you own the place. “ Which is an American thing, that’s how we walk, we’re going someplace, we got a purpose, right? But received, and even today the piece we did with Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith just ran in South Africa last night. I could go into South Africa; I could run for office right now. And who knows.

CNBC:
You’ve talked about becoming Chris Gardner the brand and building on what you’ve created now which is so much bigger than anyone could’ve dreamed. What would Chris Gardner the brand represent?

CHRIS GARDNER:
One of the things that I’m looking forward to is being a lot more involved with a couple of things. Very honestly, folks don’t realize, but 12 percent of all the homeless people in this country have jobs and go to work every day. In some communities that number’s as high as 30 percent. I’m talking about working, families, homeless, I’m not talking about the guys out with the cups. 23 percent of the homeless population in this country, are veterans. And I’m not talking about Vietnam-era veterans like myself. I’m talking about some of the young guys who went to Kuwait the first time, and Afghanistan. Tonight, in our country, 300,000 men and women who served this country in times of war, are going sleep on the streets, or in somebody’s shelter. You hear folks talk all the time about supporting our troops and that’s a beautiful thing. What about when they come home? Tonight in our country, half a million children, under the age of four, are going to sleep on the streets or in somebody’s shelter. You can look at all the other homeless people and just say it’s their fault. They’re lazy. Get a job. What about those babies? What did they do? There are 80 million people in this country who do not have traditional banking relationships. We call them financially under-served. That’s why some of the work that we’re doing right now with the folks from Visa, and some of their prepaid, reloadable products, is kind of important. Some of these products can be used as tools, in the financial toolbox to help you manage your cash. I remember being in the situation where, I didn’t have a banking relationship. But I had a job. On Wall Street. Trying to save money, to get someplace to live. And had to carry around these great big gobs of cash. Had I lost that money, had it been stolen, I don’t know where we would’ve been. The last thing I want to say on that, it’s very important. Some of the housing authorities in our states, their charge is to build housing for low- and middle-income families. You know the biggest challenge they face? A lot of folks don’t want those houses built in their communities. Not in my back yard. These poor people, these working people. It’s going to affect the property value. These people are all alcoholics and, and drug addicts. That’s not true. Those people are just working Americans like a whole lot of us. So to help change that perception, of who’s homeless and why, that’s a big part of what I’m looking to do. And to be involved with companies that are concerned about that.

CNBC:
I remember the scene in the movie where Will Smith had to cash a check at a liquor store and I know there are people who do that.

CHRIS GARDNER:
30 million people have to do that today. Go to that cash or checking place, go to that liquor store and pay 1 to 3 percent of the value of the check. Those 80 million people that I talked about earlier generate a couple billion dollars a year in fees. A big portion of that is going to places where, maybe they shouldn’t go. Check-cashing services. There are alternatives, and that’s one of the things, we’re looking forward to working with the people at Visa about. There are alternatives.

CNBC:
What is the definition of financial literacy to you?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Financial literacy to me, means simply knowing all of the tools in the financial toolbox, that are applicable to you, and the ones that you could ratchet up to. How do you use all of these tools. It’s that simple.

CNBC:
Why do you wear two watches?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Because I have to be on time. I’m paranoid. I was late once for a very, very important meeting, looking to raise capital to start this business. And I showed up 20 minutes late. And the gentleman explained to me, son, if I cannot expect you to be on time for a meeting, I cannot expect you to make timely decisions with my money. No thank you. That was 20 years ago. I’ve worn two watches ever since.

CNBC:
Do you think most traders are all about the money?

CHRIS GARDNER:
It shouldn’t be all about the money. There’s so much more. I have to put it this way, I’m sorry to put it this way. But a lot of people are probably going to die today for whatever reason. None of them is going to say, I wish I had more money. They’re all going to say the same thing. I wish I had more time. Time is the ultimate luxury, not money. Money’s a tool. Is it important? You know, it’s a tool. I don’t want to be one of those people

CNBC:
What are the greatest luxuries that your wealth provides you?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Time. The greatest luxury, that any of us can ever afford, is time. You can make more money, you can lose more money. You cannot make more time, once it’s gone, that’s it. Whatever it is that makes you happy. The reason we left the Y in “happyness,” in the title of the book, and the film, is that Y is there to talk about you, and your happiness. And what makes you happy. And for some people it is going to be nothing more than more money. God bless you. If that’s what it is, have at it. But for some people it’s going to be a lot more than that. It’s gonna be time, with your children, time with people you love…and time to do the things that are important to you.

CNBC:
And your wealth has enabled you to start this mean of doing more?

CHRIS GARDNER:
We’re doing more work on things that are important to me. But do all of them really have an economic opportunity embedded? Absolutely, that’s the business I’m in. That’s the business we’re all in. But at the same time again, going back to my work in South Africa to do something that first and foremost I have to make money for my clients. We’ve got to. That’s the business we’re in. But number 1-A, if we can help create jobs, if we could help the continued growth and stability, and we can help sustain the magnificent beginning of the new South Africa. That is huge. That’s going to be more important than any amount of money anybody ever made. In my opinion, and probably in the opinion of the 50 million people that live in South Africa.

CNBC:
When you talk about the Chris Gardner legacy, 100 years from now, what do you want that legacy to be?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Somebody asked me that same question differently. You mentioned legacy. Guy asked me once in an interview…what do you want it to say on your tombstone. I’ve given a lot of thought to it but I know what I think and I feel in my heart. “He won some, he lost some, but he never quit.” And I think that part of it, that never-quitting part, quitting is not an option. It’s okay to fail. That means you tried. And that goes back to that little thing Maya Angelou shared with me about, it’s about everybody who ever had a dream and wouldn’t quit. And I have to tell you, we’ve heard from millions of people around the world, who are now saying “If you can do what you did, I have no excuse.” So that has be part of the legacy. That’s going to be enduring. And that will outlive me and everybody in this room.

CNBC:
Is it your business success that has created this?

CHRIS GARDNER:
No, it’s the life success. The business success is a small part of it because I broke this cycle. I did not allow something to become generational, and passed on to my children. I’m going to have an influence on generations of my offspring that I probably will never meet. That’s success.

CNBC:
Talk about your definition of success.

CHRIS GARDNER:
Business success is going to be the smaller component for me. It’s about life success. And I think, that the most important thing that I’ve ever done in my life and I know it for a fact, is that I created a different world for my children. And, far as issues for me, as a young guy, and as a young adult, as a young man, are not going to become generational, or will not be passed on to my children. And, the most important thing I’ve ever done, is break this cycle of men who are not there for their children.

CNBC:
You talked about making a conscious decision not to become your stepfather?

CHRIS GARDNER:
Absolutely. I made a decision not to become my stepfather, which I could have. I could have become another alcoholic, wife-beating, child-abusing, illiterate loser, and everybody would’ve said, well look where he’s from. He didn’t have a choice. I say that’s B.S. I had a choice. In my new book we’re working on now, we’re developing this concept that we’re calling spiritual genetics. And we all understand genetics, you’re going to get your mom’s eyes, your dad’s nose, nothing you can do about it. But the spirit of who you’re going to become as a person, the soul of who you will be as a man or a woman, I believe you can choose. And I chose to embrace the light that I saw in my mom, I chose to embrace the light that I saw in others all around me. And not embrace the darkness. Let me tell you a funny story. There’s this woman. She and I, we’re the same age, same zodiac sign, went to the same elementary school, and used to live four doors away from each other in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as kids. We both made choices to go the other way, not to become everything that was in our faces. And you know that woman’s name. Oprah. There was nothing in our worlds, our little worlds, that said she was going to go on to do that, or I was going to go on to do this. Everybody in that same neighborhood is pretty much still there. But two people said, no, I’m going this way. That’s choice. In that same neighborhood, there’s this corner store, that’s still there after all these years, it’s still there. And this kid, we used to call him Bulldog. Because he looked like a bulldog! But the funny thing is the last time I walked in that store, the first thing he said to me, how many kids you got. The hell did that mean. I got two! How many you got? I mean it’s that mentality. He chose to stay right there. And to become what was right there in his face. It’s a choice.

CNBC:
What else are you working on with Will Smith?

CHRIS GARDNER:
We’re talking about writing and developing our television show. Based on the principles of The Pursuit of Happyness, and what we’re hoping to do, is bring back the whole team that was involved in creating the film. The guys from Escape Artist, Steve Tisch, Todd Bligh, Jason Blumenthal, Mark Klamen. And, Will and James Lassiter. So we’re talking right now.

CNBC:
Anything specific?

CHRIS GARDNER:
What we wanna do, honestly, is we wanna take a look at people around the country and around the world who are pursuing their own vision, their own dreams of happiness, what makes you happy. Okay? And we’re developing that right now. I’m tremendously excited about it. We’ve got some sponsors that are interested, we’ve talked to at least one network that’s very interested. And we’re excited about it, should be fun.

CNBC:
I’ve heard South Africa is very beautiful.

CHRIS GARDNER:
Physically stunning. Absolutely physically stunning. And if you think of it as a place where…until…12 years ago… 80 percent of the population…were slaves. But now they’re not, they’re free. And that creates a—there’s, there’s this feeling of…what’s possible, in all of these things, what is possible, what used to be impossible is now possible. And you get that sense walking up and down the streets. I mean are there challenges, yeah. Are there problems and issues, yeah. But I always like to say to people, God. 10 years, 12 years into its democracy…the United States of America had some challenges, some issues and some problems too. You know. It’s just an exciting place. And when you are in some space where you wanna think without a cap on…right…and to be in a space where no one’s wearing a cap, it could be…wow. That’s exciting.