Africa is the “last frontier of international investment,” and Africans need to be ready to make choices and take action to take advantage of this situation, according to Christopher Gardner, founder and chief executive of the Chicago-based brokerage company Gardner Rich LLC.
In addition to his financial career, Gardner is also a best-selling author, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He is probably best known as the inspiration for the acclaimed film The Pursuit of Happyness, based on his 2006 autobiography.
Homeless and the sole guardian of his young son in the early 1980s, Gardner refused to give up on his dreams. He climbed the financial industry ladder from the very bottom. Today, as the chief executive officer of his own brokerage firm, he is tireless in sharing his story — and his advice about overcoming obstacles — with others.
In a September 28 interview, Gardner said his mother always told him to “be ready, so you don’t have to get ready.” That is good advice for Africa, he says: “The truth of the matter is that the rest of the world is beginning to recognize that Africa is the last frontier, and there could potentially be tremendous amounts of capital flowing into the continent for business opportunities,” Gardner said. And because of that, Africans need to be “ready to embrace the opportunities that will surely come along with that investment capital.”
Gardner will travel to Ghana for the U.S. State Department in early October to meet with Ghanaians who are working in the areas of community outreach, public welfare, education and government. He said he plans to tell Ghanaians that “we all have choices that we can make, and the choices are that we can settle and become the things that are right in front of our faces, or we can dare to say ‘No, I choose better.’ We have choices.”
“When you do have a choice, you also have to have action,” he said. “There are things you have to do. It is not just a matter of saying ‘No.’ It is a matter of saying ‘Yes’ to something else, something better and a lot of times something bigger than you.”
Gardner’s childhood was marked by poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, sexual abuse and family illiteracy. Gardner said he wrote his autobiography out of a desire to shed light on these universal adversities and show they do not have to define a person. Gardner never knew his real father, but his mother was a strong positive influence, he said.
Gardner says when you read his autobiography, you meet his stepfather. “I could have become him. I had a choice. I could have become another alcoholic, wife-beating, child-abusing illiterate loser, or I could embrace the light. I saw the light in my mom and I chose to embrace that.”
Gardner’s second book, also a best-seller, is Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, published in May 2009.
Gardner called family support everything. “Anything and everything that I am doing right now in life and potentially can do that is positive, I am doing and will do because I have a mom who told me I could from the very beginning and I believed it.”
What is most important, he said, is “you make a choice, and then take action. Choosing and embracing. Two separate actions. Make your chance and be prepared. Don’t take a chance. If you want to take a chance, go to Las Vegas [America’s gambling capital],” he said. “Make your opportunities, and be prepared when they come. One must be prepared for when the opportunities present themselves because you never know when they will. But if you are not prepared and you don’t commit, you never know when they will come again,” he said.
Asked about the importance of education, Gardner again referred to his mother, who told him “Son, you have to let the world be your classroom” and learn from it.
Gardner called entrepreneurs “probably some of the most exciting, dynamic and unappreciated people in the world — certainly here in America. If you look at things happening here in America right now, so many of these challenges economically could be addressed if there was a serious commitment to small businesses” and entrepreneurs. “Entrepreneurs built this country,” he added.
Despite today’s economic adversity in the United States and elsewhere, Gardner said, “This is an absolutely fabulous time to be building a business, especially here in America. History tells us 50 percent of all of the companies in the Fortune 500 [America’s largest companies] were built or started in a [weak stock market] or a recession. So now is the time.”
Gardner said he plans to take that message with him to Africa. His trip also includes a stop in South Africa, where his brokerage company has private equity interests. He said he will be looking at other business opportunities while on the continent.