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Hair care manufacturer Gary Gardner was born on August 22, 1954 in Chicago, Illinois to Edward and Bettiann Gardner. He graduated from the University of Illinois, Chicago with his B.A. degree in pre-law in 1975, and then attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he earned both his J.D. and M.M. degrees in 1982.
In 1964, at age ten, Gardner began working for the family business, Soft Sheen Products, Inc., packaging hair care items with his younger sister in the family’s home in Chicago. After graduating from Northwestern in 1982, Gardner rejoined Soft Sheen Products, Inc. and transitioned to president in 1985, succeeding his father, Ed Gardner, who remained as chairman. He served as president until 1996, when he stepped down to pursue his own ethnic hair care company in Chicago called Namaste Laboratories, with his wife, Denise. In 1999, Gardner and his wife launched their own philanthropic organization, the Gary and Denise Family Foundation, which focused on youth participation in the arts. Namaste Laboratories was later bought by the Indian consumer goods producer, Dabur India Ltd., in 2010, and Gardner remained with his management team to continue running the laboratory. In 2014, Gardner co-founded a private equity firm based out of Chicago called P.F.G., LLC, where he also served as president. The following year, Gardner and his wife established the Denise and Gary Gardner Scholarship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015 to assist undergraduate students’ education at the Art Institute, primarily those from the South Side.
Gardner has been a member of the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute, and during his time as president of Soft Sheen, the company received several awards, including being ranked sixth on Black Enterprise’s top 100 service industry companies in 1987 and, two years later, receiving the title of the Company of the Year by Black Enterprise.
Gardner and his wife reside in Chicago, Illinois, where they run the Gary and Denise Family Foundation and maintain a private art collection. The couple was awarded the Art Alliance of Illinois’ Citizen’s Advocate Award in 2018.
Gary Gardner was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on July 13, 2019.