2010 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"When we make an unconditional sacrifice for the well-being of others, we eventually become the ultimate beneficiary of our goodwill."
Earl W. Stafford was born in 1948, the ninth of 12 children, to a part-time Baptist minister and his wife in Mount Holly, New Jersey. His father worked for 40 years as a laborer at the Campbell Soup Company and his mother worked as a domestic. "My parents always worked hard to support the family," says Earl Stafford. "We weren't rich, but we grew up with the thought that we weren't poor. Poor deals with your attitude, but being broke deals with your wallet."
The ages of the children in the Stafford family spanned 20 years, which meant the large family never actually lived under one roof at the same time. When Earl was born, for example, his oldest brother was entering the Navy. A short time later the Korean War started and his other older brothers followed suit and joined the military. But he remembers a loving, close-knit family that remains in frequent contact even today. Two siblings had particular influence on him: his brother Eugene, who was 13 years older, and his sister Joan, who was 7 years older. "Eugene was a role model," he says, "and Joan was a guiding force in my life. Ever since I can remember, my sister and I have talked once a week, even when I was away in the military."
From the time he was five, Earl Stafford knew that if there was anything extra he wanted he had to work for it. He began earning money by collecting soda bottles. Later he cut grass and shoveled snow. One summer, when he was 10, a neighbor told his mother that she wanted Earl to help her sell hot dogs and sodas on Mount Holly's main street. He did, and that experience began his interest in business. Other jobs when he was older included working at a grocery store, in the kitchen at Howard Johnson's, and as a furniture mover.
Earl's father was an un-paid, part-time Baptist minister. "Our family was raised with a deep and abiding faith," he says. "And our values are faith-based and Christ-centered. I see it as an advantage that my parents instilled in my brothers and sisters and me. They taught us that through faith, perseverance, and endurance you are able to continue through difficult times until you achieve your goal."
When Earl did have time to himself, he often went to a condemned home next door where there were stacks of old magazines. He read Life, Post, National Geographic, and Ebony magazines. "A whole new world began to open for me," he says. "I saw a world that I was not even aware existed. It made me realize I wanted to travel and be a part of a bigger world."
In high school, Earl Stafford was involved in basketball and football. He also enjoyed band and played chess. For most in his community, college was not a realistic option after graduation. "You were encouraged to go right to work full time," he says, "but I wanted to see the world. To make that happen, I decided to join the military."
Mr. Stafford graduated from high school in 1966. He worked for the post office for a few months and then enlisted in the Air Force. He was trained as an air traffic controller and on two separate occasions he was credited with saving an aircraft and passengers that would likely have crashed without his guidance. While he was in the service he took it upon himself to start taking college courses at night. After passing an exam for the Air Force scholarship program, he was awarded a full scholarship and went on to earn a bachelors degree in business from the University of Massachusetts. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree. He went on to earn his MBA from Southern Illinois University. Later, he graduated from the Harvard Business School's OPM Executive Program.
At the height of his career with the Air Force, Mr. Stafford served as assistant Air Force liaison officer to the Federal Aviation Administration immediately following the national air traffic controller strike of 1981. But in 1987, at the age of 39, he decided to retire and go into business for himself. "It was a dream I'd always had," he says. Using his background and contacts in aviation, he founded Universal Systems & Technology Inc. (UNITECH) in 1988. He began with just one small contract with the Navy monitoring air space. It was a difficult and slow beginning. "I recall our lights were turned off at one point," he says. "But we persevered and worked hard. I got other contracts and we began to grow."
Under his leadership, UNITECH grew from a small professional services firm into a provider of robust business and technical solutions with nearly 500 employees. UNITECH became a world leader in providing a complete portfolio of Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement Systems (MILES), range instrumentation, and other Tactical Engagement Simulation Systems (TESS) for military training. In addition, the company designed and developed high-end interactive and immersion courseware and gaming solutions for the defense, healthcare, and financial sectors. After leading the company for 21 years, Mr. Stafford sold UNITECH to Lockheed Martin in January 2009.
When he reflects on his current achievements, Earl Stafford says he thanks God his early prayers for easy success upon opening his business were not answered. "I wasn't ready for instant success," he says. "It was through my struggles, my endurance and perseverance through the tough times that made me work hard to give my customers what they wanted. In the end, there are no short cuts to success. You get there through a lot of hard work. I don't believe success is a destination. For me, it's a journey. Success comes when you establish goals and objectives, accomplish them, and then keep on pursuing new dreams. But I don't think it's much of a dream if your dreams for success don't include others. And one other piece of advice is to separate fear from your dreams. In other words, don't limit your dreams with your fears. Dream big, and never, never quit."
Drawing on the faith instilled in him as a child, he says, "I try to live my life in a manner of replicating Jesus Christ. I believe there should be no dichotomy between how I live my life and what I believe."
Earl Stafford and the Stafford Foundation
Today, Mr. Stafford serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Stafford Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes the principles of Jesus Christ. The foundation provides assistance to the underserved, marginalized, and economically distressed and assists them in helping themselves so that they can in turn, help others. "I was once asked by my pastor to go to Haiti to help rebuild churches," says Mr. Stafford. "That experience helped me realize I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to helping others. That is why I established the foundation."
A major project for the foundation was funding the People's Inaugural Project, which enabled hundreds of disadvantaged people to participate in the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Mr. Stafford formed a relationship with comedian and educator Bill Cosby. Mr. Cosby volunteered to participate in the Foundation's Doing Good Campaign which seeks to inspire people from all walks of life to get involved by giving a dollar and volunteering an hour of their time. Their internet-based effort provides volunteer opportunities and information about partner groups that are engaging in high-impact volunteer projects.
A more recent endeavor of Mr. Stafford's is The Wentworth Group LLC, a holding company established to provide financial and business support to small businesses operating primarily in the Federal market. Mr. Stafford serves as the group's Chief Executive Officer.
Mr. Stafford serves on the boards of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Drexel University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Venture Philanthropy Partners, and the Business Executives for National Security.