Glenn Stearns was born in 1963 in Silver Spring, Maryland, and grew up in a low-income apartment complex. His father worked as a printer, and his mother clerked at the local grocery store and cleaned homes.
“We had bars on our windows, drugs were sold on street corners, and I wasn’t allowed to play outside after dark,” he says. “When I was five, I found a gun near my apartment and carried it around for days. The laundry room in our building was set on fire with my two-year-old sister inside. She might have died, but I happened to be there to pull her out. My childhood seemed normal because that was all I knew.”
When he was eight years old, Stearns moved with his parents and sister to a small house near the railroad tracks in Rockville, Maryland. “My dad paid $14,000 for that house, and we were very proud of it,” he says. “My father worked hard, but he struggled personally and financially. Dad worked the graveyard shift, and mom was always busy helping out. Mom and Dad smoked and drank heavily. I grew up with little structure, but I did hear about integrity. That is one gift Mom and Dad insisted on giving.”
Stearns’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, and—ultimately—his mother all died from alcohol-related issues. When he was 12, Stearns went on a fishing trip to the Chesapeake Bay with his father. “My dad was drinking heavily that day, and he passed out in the truck,” he recalls. “I helped drive us home and nearly made it, but a block from my house we wrecked the truck. The police came and took my father away. Life is what you see—and that was life.”
Stearns was a socially adept child but struggled in school. He was diagnosed with dyslexia, but his parents kept this from him. He was humiliated when he failed the fourth grade.
Stearns began working at age 8, earning $6 a month delivering a small paper, and at 10, he was selling the Montgomery County Journal. For that job, he remembers being picked up in a van with other boys. They were dropped off at apartment complexes and given a bundle of papers to sell within a specified time. Stearns enjoyed the competition. “This was probably one learning experience I excelled at,” he says. “I was keen at analyzing the buyer. By the end of the night, I would have 12 to 15 sales, and the others guys would have only 2 or 3.”
At 13, Stearns’s unstructured life led to life-changing complications. When he was 14, his 17-year-old girlfriend became pregnant. She elected to raise the child. His mother quit her job to take care of her grandchild during the day. At night, the baby’s mother picked up her daughter and returned to her parents’ house. “I felt depressed when this all happened, as if I’d let everyone down,” says Stearns. “How odd it felt to be more like an older brother than a father to my own daughter.”
Stearns secured a job at the local mall to help his family with household expenses, but he had to hitchhike to and from work because he did not own a car and was not old enough to drive. In high school, he worked part time in a restaurant and gave most of his earnings to his mother.
When he was 17, Stearns’s parents divorced. “Years later, my father told me the day my mother left him was the day that saved his life,” he says. “It took her leaving for him to hit rock bottom and acknowledge he had a problem: he was an alcoholic. He entered recovery and has remained sober ever since. Today we have a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. I am very proud of him.”
As a high school senior, Stearns was determined to go to college. His counselor told him that to achieve his dream, he would have to dramatically increase his grades, which were then a D average. Stearns hit the books and by graduation was an honor roll student. He enrolled as a freshman at Maryland’s Salisbury State University, and he transferred to Towson University—also in Maryland—the following year. The first in his family to attend college, Stearns graduated with an economics degree. He was also a founding father of Towson’s Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity. Stearns credits his fraternal adviser’s belief in him and that leadership experience as contributing factors to his success.
Soon after graduation, he ventured on a cross-country road trip to California with his best friend. While staying in Orange County, an afternoon walk along the coast started him thinking about his own future. Sitting on a park bench overlooking the ocean, he asked a man doing yard work what he did for a living that afforded him the luxury of owning such an amazing home. “I am just the gardener,” the man replied. “The owner is in real estate.” And with that, Stearns’s career path was set. When his friend returned to Maryland, Stearns stayed behind to begin a new career as a home loan officer while splitting time working as a waiter. Ten months later, a partner with $100,000 helped Stearns start his own mortgage company; within six months they were turning a profit.
To expand his business, he became a settlement contractor for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Starting with one contract for Orange County, Stearns expanded nationally, eventually becoming the nation’s largest settlement contractor. In 1999, he bought out his partner and sold his escrow company, putting those profits back into his mortgage business. Seeing a void in the industry, Stearns also started an audit firm to service HUD and soon became one of its largest auditors. He continued to build upon his success until the subprime mortgage industry crisis hit in 2007.
Within a matter of months, Stearns’s company saw its revenue drop by 80 percent. “We had class-action lawsuits, multiple millions in loan default, and unsold nonperforming loans. This was a very dark time for me,” he says. “I went to a close friend and mentor, George Argyros—a Horatio Alger Member since 1993—who encouraged me to hang on tight and have confidence. He told me I would one day see things from the other side of this crisis and said, ‘This too shall pass.’ When someone you admire believes in you, it gives you the confidence you need to work through adversity.”
It was a daunting challenge to keep the doors of the business open, but as Stearns watched all his competitors going bankrupt, he saw his window. Stearns decided to employ many of the teams of mortgage professionals around the country that had been abandoned by their previous employers. “I knew I would never have an opportunity like this in the future,” he says. “I found teams that had all worked together for 15 or 20 years. They were the best in the industry. Were it not for this financial crisis, they would still be working for their former employers. We took the chance and hired over 1,000 mortgage professionals from 2007 to 2009.” Stearns emerged as the second largest independent mortgage banker, and the fourth largest independent mortgage lender in the country. His financial services corporation grew to include Stearns Lending, Stearns Wholesale, FPF Wholesale, Goverline, TriVerify, TriMavin, and CU Partners.
Stearns’s life is based on an idea that integrity will produce advantage, and drive will turn advantage into success. “Integrity is not a suit you put on in the morning and take off at night,” he says. “Integrity is a seed you plant in your youth and grow with adversity, failure, and perseverance.” His philosophy is not to ask “why,” but rather “why not.”
Stearns speaks regularly at venues including his alma mater, Towson University. After telling youth about his life experiences and struggles, he concludes his talk on a positive note. “I think challenges and disappointment can be wonderful teachers,” he says. “The hard times allow us to appreciate the successes of hard work. When you look at the positive and negative influences on your life, you have a choice to make: You can either choose to be a victim, or you can look at your circumstances as a learning opportunity and choose to move forward and grow. If you make the choice to move through the pain and overcome adversity while maintaining your integrity, you possess the true makings of a leader. When I look back on my childhood, in a strange way I feel privileged to have been so underprivileged. In each of our lives exist two kinds of people—balcony people and basement people—those who want to pull you up and those who want to pull you down. You’re better off surrounding yourself with balcony people.”
Asked how he defines success, Stearns says, “If you dedicate your life to improving the lives of others and speak the truth, others will make you successful. Having a daughter at 14 who is now the mother of my two grandchildren and my best friend ain’t too shabby either! Sometimes what appears to be the worst situation in your life can turn out to be the biggest blessing in your life.”
In 2004, Mindy and Glenn Stearns competed in The Real Gilligan’s Island , a television show. He won, matched his winnings, and donated $500,000 to local charities that provide opportunity for youth. The couple also hosts Life Changing Lives, a charity gala held annually on September 11 to honor American heroes; the event has raised millions for multiple local and national organizations. In 2009, they won the Giving Is Living Award for their philanthropic activities in Orange County, California. In addition, the Stearnses have earned multiple awards for their generosity toward youth and community services. The mayor of Newport Beach, California, has declared December 21 to be “Stearns Family Foundation Day.” Stearns sits on 11 nonprofit boards, which serve mostly youth. He believes in spreading the dream “one child at a time.”