‘Happyness’ author shares experiences at talk at N.C. Mutual
The story of how Chris Gardner raised his young son while homeless and working through the training program of a stock brokerage firm isn’t about money.
It’s a love story about a father and his son, Gardner said Monday in a talk held at the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. headquarters in Durham.
An entrepreneur and author, Gardner’s memoir “The Pursuit of Happyness” was the inspiration for the 2006 film starring Will Smith.
In addition to describing about sacrifices he made as a single father working to pursue his goals, the obstacles he overcame in his upbringing, and successes he’s experienced, Gardner also spoke about positive influences in his life.
And on the list was a former N.C. Mutual executive, W.J. Kennedy III, who became his mentor. Gardner was invited to speak as part of a series of events held to mark the company’s 115-year anniversary. The company was founded by a group of black leaders during the Jim Crow era.
“And 115 years from today, when anybody on earth knows that any one of us ever existed, there will still be N.C. Mutual,” Gardner said, asking how many presidents have been elected and how many wars fought in that period. “I don’t know, but there was still N.C. Mutual,” he said.
Gardner said he believes that people can choose who you want to be. He said that if he were a product of his environment, he would be like his stepfather, whom he described as an alcoholic and abusive. He said he saw a light in his mother and in others with whom he “didn’t share a drop of blood.”
“I chose to go the other way,” he said.
Gardner’s mother was a source of inspiration for him, he said. She would tell him he could do anything he wanted to do.
“I have often wondered, ‘how did she know to say that to me?’” he said. “I can hear my mama say, ‘I’ve had to do so much with so little for so long, I can do anything with nothing,’” he said.
Initially, Gardner said he wanted to be a musician like American jazz artist Miles Davis, but found his passion in stock trading. He completed the training program, and worked at Bear Stearns & Co., which was a New York-based global investment firm, starting in 1983. Several years later, he founded his own brokerage firm from his home in Chicago.
While working at Bear Stearns, he said he made a call to try to reach W.J. Kennedy III, then then-CEO of C. Mutual Life Insurance Co.
Gardner said he was trying to get the company to make an investment in exchange for a payout for the company. But he said he couldn’t get through to Kennedy. When he finally did, he said Kennedy told him, “Son, you need to come down here and see me.”
Gardner said he came to Durham from New York City and sat with Kennedy on the 12th floor of the building for an hour.
Gardner said he saw what the “future could look like” and that he maybe he didn’t need to be working for somebody else. He said he knew there was opportunity to serve under-represented communities.
“I knew for a fact that there was wealth in the African-American (community) not being acknowledged by major firms,” he said.
In addition to the talk, the company also as part of its anniversary celebration is sponsoring the grand opening of the Durham History Hub, which will house an exhibit featuring the company. There will be a parade to the museum at 10 a.m. Saturday that will begin at 100 E. Main St., according to a news release.