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Entrepreneur who inspired Will Smith film speaks at commencement

June 10, 2015

Christopher Gardner, whose story is featured in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” delivered the keynote address to College of Business and Economics graduates on June 12.

Christopher Gardner, whose story inspired the critically acclaimed Will Smith film, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” was the keynote speaker at the 68th Commencement for the Cal State L.A. College of Business and Economics on Friday morning.

The movie and Gardner’s best-selling memoir by the same name chronicle his struggle with homelessness while raising a son and training to be a stockbroker. Gardner went on to create a multimillion dollar brokerage firm with offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco and now talks about self-empowerment to audiences around the world.

He was asked to speak at the commencement by Marshall Geller, a longtime friend and mentor who is a Cal State L.A. alumnus and member of the College of Business and Economics Advisory Board. Geller provided Gardner with one of his first breaks when he hired him in the 1980s at Bear Stearns & Company.

“It was the greatest opportunity I got in my life,” Gardner said in an interview before the commencement. “Anything and everything I’ve done in my life, I’ve been influenced by Marshall Geller.”

When Gardner addressed students at the University Athletics Stadium, he offered life lessons from his latest book, “Start Where You Are,” which discusses the importance of developing a plan and following through to achieve success. Signed copies of his book were passed out to students after the ceremony.

Gardner told the students that he was honored to speak to them, noting that many of them came from non-traditional backgrounds and learned the value of hard work by holding down full-time jobs while attending the University.

"Your life has not been linear," Gardner said.

For the Class of 2015, Gardner noted, there are parallels between the current economic climate and the climate in the early 1980s when he struggled to make ends meet. At that time, homelessness was growing and the economic safety net that many people had relied on was stretched thin.

But Gardner told Cal State L.A. students not to be deterred as they strive for success. More than 1,200 College of Business and Economics students received bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees. “You have to have a plan,” he said.

Photo: Christopher Gardner was the keynote speaker at the College of Business and Economics Commencement (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State L.A.)

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