Press Release

'Pursuit of Happyness' hero to address 2009 graduates

| 08 April 2009

Chris Gardner, the self-made entrepreneur and philanthropist whose homelessness-to-riches story inspired the 2006 autobiography and feature film, "The Pursuit of Happyness," will deliver the keynote address this spring at the University of California, Berkeley's Commencement Convocation, an annual event honoring all graduating seniors.

Chris GardenerChris Gardner (Photo courtesy Victor Rush)
Gardner's commitment to speak at the Greek Theatre on Friday, May 22, is a triumph for the Senior Class Council of the Californians, the student group that plans Commencement Convocation. At first, the group was told that Gardner, founder and CEO of the institutional brokerage firm Gardner Rich LLC, would be on tour in May to promote his new book, "Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be," and unavailable on the date of convocation. Moreover, Gardner usually charges to speak at events, and UC Berkeley does not pay its graduation speakers, according to Lila Blanco, associate director of University Events & Ceremonies.

However, once Gardner learned of the invitation, he called Blanco and agreed to speak at UC Berkeley and waive his fee, Blanco said. Although Gardner, 55, was raised in Milwaukee, Wisc., and has homes in Chicago and New York, he has deep roots in the Bay Area. He lived here as a young man and spent a year surviving homelessness while caring for his 2-year-old son, Christopher Jr. In 1981, Gardner landed a spot in the Dean Witter Reynolds training program in San Francisco and eventually rose out of poverty.

"I am honored that the graduating class of UC Berkeley has asked me to be their commencement speaker," Gardner said. "Returning to my roots in the Bay Area, where I struggled but ultimately learned to lay the groundwork for my future and succeed, is a thrill. And, hey, I can take BART to the convocation."

Gardner said students in the class of 2009 know the world is a different place now than when they entered college, and they might be feeling anxious or uninspired about their own futures. "Hopefully, I can impress upon them that this is a time of opportunity, if they follow their passions and are uncompromising in their commitment to hard work and what truly matters," he said.

Commencement Convocation will begin at 2 p.m. and include a procession of students and faculty in colorful regalia. Chancellor Robert Birgeneau will address the graduates and their families. Among the student speakers will be the University Medalist, the campus's top graduating senior, who has not yet been chosen.

This year, convocation will mark the end of UC Berkeley's graduation season, during which dozens of individual ceremonies are held by the campus's schools, colleges and departments. At least 10,000 students are expected to receive diplomas at their respective commencement ceremonies. Candyce Moore, vice president of commencement for the Californians' Senior Class Council, said the group began last November to narrow down potential commencement speakers. In addition to Gardner, the most popular individuals were talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Conan O'Brien, comedian Steven Colbert and author Toni Morrison. The Californians had asked seniors earlier in the fall through its Facebook page about their top picks for commencement speakers, and Gardner, whose New York Times #1 bestselling autobiography inspired the movie starring Will Smith and his son Jayden, clearly emerged as a leading candidate.

"We had all heard his story through reading the book or seeing the movie, and he seemed like a great pick," said Moore, who will graduate this May with a double major in mass communications and sociology.

Gardner, who was born in 1954, grew up in Milwaukee, served in the Navy and then moved to San Francisco in the 1970s. Hardworking and tenacious, he struggled while selling medical equipment. A series of setbacks left him homeless and the sole guardian of his toddler son. Unwilling to give up Chris Jr. or his dreams for success, and without a college or business school degree, Gardner climbed the financial industry ladder. He worked at Dean Witter Reynolds and Bear Stearns & Co. before founding the brokerage firm Gardner Rich in Chicago in 1987.

He is a passionate philanthropist committed to organizations that combat homelessness, financial illiteracy and violence against women. He serves on the boards of the National Education Foundation, the National Fatherhood Initiative and the International Rescue Committee. Gardner remains committed to Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, where he received assistance while homeless, and has helped fund a project that creates low-income housing and opportunities for employment in the Tenderloin area of the city.