One positive outcome of the downturn is that the motivational speakers at the annual industry trade dinners are getting better.

The Global Semiconductor Alliance‘s dinner tonight is a case in point. The chip industry is having a tough time. The market capitalization for the top 20 public chip companies is now less than the cash they have. Chip stocks are down 45 percent compared to a year ago.

It only makes sense that they dug deep to get someone to inspire them in this time of deep funk. Someone who could live up to the “Visualize Success” theme of the dinner that reminded them all of their self worth despite their dropping net worth. They scored a good one in Chris Gardner, the man played by actor Will Smith in the rags-to-riches film The Pursuit of Happyness. What Gardner shares with every person in the room is a sense of hitting rock bottom, and the need to learn how to survive incredibly tough times.

Barely making ends meet as a medical equipment salesman, Gardner took a chance on a low-paid training program at Dean Witter to become a stock broker — a decision that (while ultimately successful) landed him and his young son on the streets of San Francisco for while. He was one of many white-collar homeless people down on their luck during this time.

You could hear a pin drop as he told the story of how he and his son endured more than a year of homelessness, frequenting havens such as San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church just a few blocks away from the Neiman Marcus at Union Square. He delivered his talk as a cross between a self-help speaker and a comedian. The absolute bottom of his travails came when Gardner was incarcerated for 10 days because he failed to pay $1,200 in parking tickets. During that time, his ex-wife took off with his son and left him wondering where they had gone. She eventually gave up on raising the child and returned him.

Gardner broke his family’s cycle of fathers abandoning their children and became a successful stock broker, founding Gardner Rich & Co. The movie based on his life has generated more than $400 million in revenues, his book has been published in 15 languages, and a sequel film is in the works. His tale held the audience spellbound, and the message was clear. Stick it out, and you can survive even your worst nightmares.

The chip industry isn’t quite in its year of homelessness, but it could be pretty darn close if the downturn is a long one. Jodi Shelton, executive director of the GSA, repeated a few times that this coming year is unlikely to be as bad as 2001, when industry sales fell 32 percent. The group gave awards to a bunch of chip companies that are doing well despite the downturn: Intel, Tilera, Mediatek, Xilinx, Open Silicon, Ambarella, Display Link and Cavium Networks.

Irwin Federman, general partner of US Venture Partners, said while presenting an award to flash chip pioneer Eli Harari that the longtime chief executive of SanDisk deserved honors for surviving amid the wreckage of the memory chip business.

“For God knows what reason, every participant in this benighted business is being punished,” Federman said.

He praised Harari, whose company dodged a hostile takeover from Samsung, for being stubborn and determined enough to weather the peaks and troughs of the chip industry’s cycles. The companies that adapt will emerge stronger, Harari said as he took the stage.

“We all know the market sucks,” he said. “But it was really getting to be too easy. We have been through these cycles before. There are circumstances beyond our control. But they will lead to the next wave of growth, more consolidation. It will be difficult for small companies to survive. Cash is more important than your mother. But at the end of the day, there will be a steep recovery just as there is a steep decline.”