Chris Gardner '89 (communication) on his career path and gift to SBS students
At the time of his graduation in 1989, Chris Gardner was confronted by an economy that was weakened by the previous year’s historic Black Friday stock market crash, the national debt had reached an all-time high of 3.7 trillion, and economic growth was slowing down. “I ended up doing construction for a couple years and real estate for a couple of years, before I got a job in business.” Gardner, who was a PVTA driver as an undergrad, says “I even thought about being a truck driver!”
A mass communication major, Gardner wasn’t entirely sure what direction he wanted to go in while at UMass. “I did not have a laser focus, on becoming a broadcaster or anything.’” He says. “I actually always envisioned myself working in business in some way, shape, or form.” While at UMass, Gardner also made sure to take courses that interested him outside of communication, like astronomy and music theory.
After working in construction and real estate, Gardner started to more aggressively pursue a job in the business world. “I said, ‘I’m trying to get my act together’ and I started looking for a job in business. My first job was an inside sales job at a tech company.” After a year and a half an entry level job in marketing communications opened up, and Gardner took on the challenge. “I just jumped into it. I learned desktop publishing, I had to write brochures, set up trade shows, talk to the press.” Gardner had attained his goal of getting a job with “communications” in the title. “That was what started it for me.”
Today, Chris Gardner is the head of in-store products at PayPal after co-founding Paydiant, a Boston-based mobile payments startup that was acquired by PayPal in 2015. Since graduating, Gardner has held jobs such as Chief Marketing Officer at ExtendMedia (a video content delivery software company later acquired by Cisco), Senior VP of products and marketing at m-Qube (a mobile payments trailblazer that was acquired by Verisign in 2006), and several other roles in the start-up world. When asked what speaks to him about entrepreneurship, he told us “I like to work very closely with a small group of people I can learn from, respect, and like personally. I think small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy.”
Advice Gardner has for students based on his experiences is the importance of learning to communicate well. “I think everyone needs to learn how to be a good writer. I don’t mean writing a novel or poem -- I mean clear concise, persuasive, written communications.” He also stresses the importance of learning how to stand up in front of a room full of people and persuade them. In order to do this, he points out you need to become an expert in the domain you’re working in. He adds, “I worked for tech companies in hardware, software, speech recognition, video, mobile and payments and I learned that if you ‘own’ the material and you're a good writer and presenter, you have much of what it takes to be successful.”
As Gardner’s children approach the age where they’ll begin applying for college, he’s been reflecting on the higher education system more. “I think our higher education system is challenged…especially as far as cost and accessibility.” With this prevalent problem in mind, Gardner formed an internship award to help support SBS students who are conducting an internship abroad, with an international company with offices in major US cities, or conducting an internship in the technology or E-commerce industries. The fund will provide awards for two students each year for the next three years. “I wanted to recognize UMass and what it did for me, and felt the best way to do that was to help some students have a similar opportunity.”