By Barb Oates
There’s a lot to be learned from billionaire Glenn Stearns.
Including that it doesn’t matter where you came from or what your grades were — you could still make a billion.
Stearns is relaxed, humble and honest when we speak at the Beverly Hilton prior to a press panel for the docuseries Undercover Billionaire, on which he is a featured panelist at the Television Critics Association’s semiannual press tour. The eight-episode series airs on Discovery Channel Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Unlike most in the billionaire boys circuit, Stearns was not born into wealth — he grew up in a working-class family, had alcoholic parents, flunked the fourth grade and by the young age of 14 he fathered his first child. Despite graduating at the bottom 10% of his class, he finished college and moved west with a dream of doing better than his parents and making something of himself. He saw an opportunity in the loan business, and with basically nothing, started his first company at age 25 and eventually built it into a billion-dollar lending company.
But five years ago, Stearns was diagnosed with cancer and given a 50/50 diagnosis.
“I just remember thinking, ‘the times that I thought were the worst times in my life, that I never would ever want to relive them again,’ I thought, ‘what I would give to be in the middle of that again,'” Stearns says. “Like, the financial crisis was hard, and I thought I would lose it all. I thought, ‘I would give anything to be back in that,’ because it makes me feel alive when you’re solving problems and you’re dealing with situations, and they’re not health situations. They’re just business situations.
“I thought, if I could ever do it all over again, I would love to see if I could do it. Take me back to when I was 25,” Stearns says. “When I had no money and just a beat-up truck and see if I couldn’t redo it.”
Well, it didn’t take long for a production crew to catch wind of the idea and challenge him to see if the American dream is still alive and/or even remotely obtainable. And so began the experiment of Undercover Billionaire.
Stearns bet a million dollars of his own money — believing he can take just $100 and build a million-dollar business in just 90 days. But to even the playing field and prove that anybody in this country can be successful with the right knowledge, Stearns is stripping himself of his name and wealth — no yacht, no airplane, no house, no assistants — basically nothing. He’s going to a city where he knows no one (unbeknownst to Stearns, producers picked Erie, Pa.), and has just the clothes on his back, a beat-up pickup truck, a cellphone with no contacts and $100 cash. He intends to start from the bottom and work with locals to build a company.
Cameras follow him as he sleeps in his truck, showers in gas stations and hustles for jobs and scraps just to provide the basics of life — food and shelter.
“When you don’t have money, you’re just surviving every day trying to figure out where your next meal is going to come from. While I had that for a very short glimpse of time, I got to realize that people really could use a hand,” Stearns says. “I thought that was very real, an eye-opening kind of understanding for me, that people — just trying to get by — it’s hard to go to the next level.”
Along his journey, Stearns shares practical tips and the knowledge on how to build a fortune from his three decades in business. After the 90 days, Stearns will reveal his true identity and potentially award team members a stake in a company and a key role running it. An independent financial evaluator will also assess the value of the new company to see whether it has hit the mark. If it’s a penny short of $1 million, Stearns will put $1 million of his own money into the business.
“If I had known it had been this hard, I would have said no,” Stearns says. “I wanted to get to that point, and I wanted to say, ‘What in the world was I thinking?’ Then I wanted to try to pull myself up out of that … when it’s real to you, like, ‘this is impossible,’ and then you pull yourself up, then you feel good. Because it’s about having, to me at least, a sense of pride that you don’t give up in life. You don’t get defeated just because it’s hard. Those kinds of things are what I wanted to get to. You only get there when you’ve talked yourself into, ‘This is crazy, impossible, probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,’ blah, blah, blah. Then you can create wonderful things. It’s a weird dynamic, but you don’t achieve great things without a lot of pain, I think.”