From the moment he was born, Chris Gardner's childhood was anything but a fairy tale. Chris grew up on the north side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spent the first few years of his life in a foster home. His mother was in prison twice—once for alleged welfare fraud, another time for allegedly attempting to burn down her husband's house.
Chris says his stepfather was an abusive alcoholic who terrorized his family. One Christmas when Chris was about 16, he says he was taking a bath when his stepfather burst in with a 12-gauge shotgun. Chris says he was kicked out of the house into the cold Wisconsin night, dripping wet and naked. His mother had been kicked out earlier. "And that, unfortunately, has stayed with me 'til this day," Chris says.
Despite his challenges at home, Chris credits his mother's spirit for getting him through. "I chose to embrace the spirit of my mom—who despite the fact that she had too many of her own dreams denied, deferred and destroyed—still instilled in me that I could have dreams."
Chris remembers a time he was watching a basketball game with his mom and commented that one of the players would make a million dollars. "And my mom was on the other side of the room and she said, 'Son, you know what? If you want to, one day you can make a million dollars,'" Chris recalls. "That never entered my mind as a possibility. But after she said it, it was just a matter of finding the right venue."
Chris has come a long way since he was homeless and raising a young son on the streets. Chris landed his first brokerage job in 1981 and went on to work at several firms. He established his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Co., in 1987. "I found a business that I absolutely love," Chris says.
Chris is a business powerhouse with a multimillion dollar financial empire. He drives a Bentley and has a closet filled with custom-made suits and designer shoes. "I'm having fun with my life. I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing," Chris says. "And this vision I've had in my head? I get to see it become a reality. It's an absolute blessing."
One moment Chris will never forget is when he and his son moved into their first house. "To explain to your child that, 'No, son, we have a key now. We're home. We don't have to carry things anymore,'" Chris says. "There are no words to tell you what that felt like. The only way I can express it would be if I could levitate myself off of this chair."
Chris says his greatest accomplishment in life isn't financial—it's breaking the cycle of child abandonment in his family. "I knew that I wanted to break the cycle of men who were not there for their children," Chris says. "I knew how I was treated. That was so important to me."
Chris says the decisions he made at an early age about what kind of father he wanted to be will benefit generations of Gardners to come. "That's the beauty of the whole thing—it ended here," Chris says. "So his children, my grandchildren, great grandchildren, they're going to know all of this life that we have here today is different and better because of our great grandfather. And that's important to me."
Chris's son, Christopher, says he doesn't remember much about life on the street. "I didn't know we were homeless. I just remember that we were doing a whole lot of moving," says Christopher, who is now 25 years old. "I just know that when I looked up, he was there. I looked around, he was there."
Chris says he worked hard to create a sense of normalcy for Christopher. "We may not have known where we were going, where we were going to eat, or where we were going to sleep, but we were together every day," Chris says. "And there are probably a lot of folks whose children live in million-dollar houses who can't say that."
Christopher says he has seen the movie and thinks it's a wonderful homage to his father. "It's just a tribute to my dad," Christopher says. "My dad has a big heart and is kind-natured. So it was awesome."
Although he's enjoying success now, Chris says parts of his homeless days will be with him forever.
When he was homeless, Chris says he had to know where all of his possessions were and be ready to move at a moment's notice. In the movie, Will only has a suitcase and a bone-density scanner to worry about, but in real life, Chris carried many bags. "I still got a thing about bags to this day. I cannot throw bags away," he says. "I've got a room in my house with nothing but bags. ... If it doesn't have a hole in it or you can tie a knot in it, it's a good bag."
Chris also remembers how he couldn't work late for fear of missing a bus that would take them to a homeless hotel run by Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. Rooms were limited and if they were late, Chris and Christopher slept in subway stations, Union Park, or even under Chris's desk at work. Still, he remembers the dignity he saw in soup lines and the volunteers at Glide who always made him feel welcome.
Now that Chris is doing well, he uses the experiences of his past to do things for others.
Chris admits he had his doubts when he first heard Will Smith was going to play him in the movie. "His music, his movies, I've always loved him," Chris says. "But I thought, 'Oh man, Will Smith. He never did anything like this.'"
But Chris's daughter changed his mind. "She broke it down for me," Chris says. "She says, 'Pop, if he can play Muhammad Ali, he can play you.'"
The reason the movie is so good, Chris says, is because of the trust Chris and Will had in one another. "When we met, my initial response to Will [was] ... 'I'm going to be this open and then I'll trust you as an artist to cut, paste, slice, dice, do whatever artists do.' So it's a tribute to Will."
When Chris was living on the street and struggling to make ends meet, a man took a chance on him and gave him an internship at a brokerage firm. Fifteen years ago, Chris gave the same opportunity to a young woman from Chicago. Oprah tracked her down and she's here today to surprise her mentor!
The youngest of 12 siblings, Niyokie grew up on the West Side of Chicago. She says her community was drug-infested and there was a high rate of teen pregnancy, but she stayed in school, studied hard and landed an internship with Chris when she was a junior in high school. After completing a two-year internship, Chris surprised Niyokie with a college scholarship!
Niyokie enrolled at the University of Chicago and was the first—and only—one of her 12 siblings to graduate from a four-year university. "The most important thing that Christopher Gardner taught me: Education is a way out," she says.
Currently, Niyokie works at a global financial institution and is the mother of two little girls. She's here today to thank Chris for giving her the chance to pursue her dreams.
"You afforded me the opportunity to see an entirely different world," she tells Chris. "I thank you for giving this young African-American girl from the West Side of Chicago an opportunity. I'm not certain if I would have been able to graduate from college if it had not been for your emotional and financial support."
Printed from Oprah.com on
© 2014 OWN, LLC. All Rights Reserved.