87. Pursuit Of Happyness
This is short recap of what my compnay's CIO shared with us after attending the CIO Magazine CIO 100 Conference and awards in Colorado Springs a few weeks back. It was a 2 day conference that had the usual line-up of highly credentialed speakers, speaking on topics such as leadership, innovation, IT-Business alignment, and preparing for the next big wave in IT. These speakers all had important things to say, but the best session had about nothing to do with IT. There was a talk given by Chris Gardner, whose story was made famous by the movie (based on his book) called “In Pursuit of Happyness”, starring Will Smith. This is the real-life story of a man who through a series of misfortunes ended up homeless, and how he came out of homelessness to get a career on Wall Street as a stock broker. Today Chris is CEO of his own institutional brokerage, Gardner Rich LLC.
Chris is a fabulous speaker and was very dynamic and entertaining. First, he told the story of how he became homeless. While he originally wanted to be a doctor, he met his wife and ended up having a child (the young boy in the movie). In order to support his family, he had to quit school and began selling medical devices to doctors. He drove all over San Francisco and in the process, amassed many parking tickets, which he was not able to pay for. He then got accepted into an unpaid internship with the brokerage firm Dean Witter, which he saw as his chance to break out of his current near-poverty levels. One night, he and his wife got in an argument over money and neighbors in the apartment called the police. When they came to investigate, they checked his name against police records, and finding all the parking tickets, put him in jail. As a result, his wife left him, and he eventually ended up caring for his son. He had no income, could not pay rent, and soon, they were evicted from their apartment and were homeless, the two of them living on the streets and in the shelters of San Francisco. He spoke about the fact that there are many millions of invisible homeless families in America that we don’t see out on the streets panhandling – they live in cars and move from shelter to shelter, and often work jobs for meager pay during the days. He explained that once you become homeless, it’s very hard to get break out of it, since nobody wants to rent to you. Many families impacted by the sub-prime loan tactics are finding themselves in this situation.
Chris grew up without a father, who he never knew. He says “I made up my mind as a young kid that when I had children they were going to know who their father is, and that he isn't going anywhere." He wanted to break the cycle that occurs in many poor families: boys who grow up without fathers have a tendency to leave their families as adults. He said one of the most anguishing things about the night he spent in prison was that he was worried that his son would think he had left him, and he could not tell him otherwise. In the movie, you see Chris caring for his son, getting him ready for day-care in the morning, picking him up in the afternoon, finding food and places to sleep, and protecting him at night on the streets and in homeless shelters. He said that in the movie, they chose a 4 year old boy to play his son so they could have dialogue, but in reality his son was only 18 months old when they were homeless. It’s hard to imagine living homeless in San Francisco with an 18 month old child. But Chris refused to give in, committed to keep his promise to himself to be there for his son.
It is so impressive as to how tenacious Chris was in pursuing his goal to become a stock broker, despite not having an MBA or even a college degree. While homeless, he studied long hours for the exam he needed to take to make it out of the internship and get a paid position. He told of the countless hours he would cold-call prospects, just hoping for a single break. He said he had to work harder than the others since he had to end sharply at 5 PM in order to get his son from daycare in time to find a spot in one of the homeless shelters, which filled up fast. If he was late, they might end up sleeping on the streets, or in a bathroom in the train station, a scene depicted in the movie.
He shared the story of how he got a break with a wealthy Texas oil-man, partly because Chris had a southern accent and when he called the oilman, they were able to understand each other, whereas his upscale, well-educated peers had trouble communicating to the Oilman with his thick Texas accent. The oilman used to tell Chris racial jokes over the phone, not realizing that Chris was African American. Chris simply laughed along with the jokes, since at the end of joke the oilman would always tell Chris he wanted to buy shares in whatever stock Chris was recommending that day. Chris told how when asked if he felt he was the victim of racism, he would say “no, but that he was a victim of place-ism”. He did not feel he was denied opportunities because of the color of his skin, but was treated differently since he did not have a college degree, had an accent, did not dress as others on Wall Street, etc. He said he was out of place in the business world, and that was a disadvantage he had to overcome.
The most lasting impression Chris made was in his closing comments. Chris has many accomplishments in his life: rising out of poverty and homelessness to become a stock broker, becoming one of Bear Stearns highest producing brokers, starting his own company, and authoring the book that lead to the blockbuster movie. He has involved himself in numerous philanthropies, focused around things such as improving the well-being of children through positive paternal involvement, reducing homelessness, and helping the poor in Africa. Yet he said the thing he was most proud of in his life was the fact that he honored his personal commitment to be a good father to his son and that he had broken the cycle of misfortune that is often passed through generations of children who grow up without fathers. He said this was his proudest accomplishment and said that he was sure there were others in the audience who had broken their own cycles of misfortune in their families.
At that moment, Chris made us realize this is probably one of the greatest accomplishments, one for which everyone should feel very proud. For that, I thank you, Chris Gardner. You are an inspiration.
A successful company is made up of high-performing individuals. It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in our careers, our business success, winning the next deal, or competing for that next promotion. It is important for all of us to pause once in a while and realize that our most important accomplishments are those which require us to break historic cycles of negative behavior, and carry forward only positive influences to the next generation.