Turning a turn-down into a triumph

by David Kitai04 Feb 2021

Catherine Okoroh’s first taste of the mortgage industry came when she was denied a loan. The first in her family to graduate from college, Okoroh (pictured) was working a solid job as a recruiter, had a good income and a down payment ready but, as she would learn, was struggling with a poor credit score simply because she paid her bills on an infrequent schedule, overpaying on the first bill and expecting that covered the second.

Her family didn’t have the sort of family financial discussions that many other families may have had. She learned from her mom to live within her means and work hard, simple mantras that should lead to the American Dream, but she didn’t get exposure to the more complex aspects of personal finance that could have made all the difference when it came time to apply for a mortgage and start her building wealth journey.

Okoroh, though, is not one to be deterred by a single setback. She spent the next four years learning about credit, understanding why she had bad credit and how she could improve that picture. She started keeping financial records and updating her credit report regularly while monitoring her expenses. She paid off all her debt and realized only after the fact that while she had no debt, she also didn’t have any positive credit. She started with a secured card and that was the long path, but as her credit score improved and her overall financial picture changed, she realized that she was spending more time on this and was seeing results.

“While I was educating myself in this process… I started getting offers for credit cards. I thought, ‘huh I went from not being able to get a loan to being offered credit. How’s that happening?’” Okoroh said. “I started putting everything together, went back to that loan officer and asked, ‘how do I do what you do?’”

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Okoroh, motivated to learn about the mortgage industry by the denial at what should have been the start of her homeownership journey, was seeing how credit and lending fit together and saw how she could turn her newfound knowledge into a meaningful career.

Okoroh’s story shows the many subtle ways advantages and disadvantages play out in careers and personal lives. Raised by a hardworking teen single mother who kept her bills paid and credit score high, Okoroh’s challenge came because her family simply didn’t know how to have the financial conversations to educate her. She said she was told what to do and not taught how to do it.  She doesn’t blame her Mom or family, she believes this made her stronger and more diligent as she became more financially aware. That education doesn’t happen in schools and it’s left up to families to provide. When families live for generations without exposure to that education, stymied by the challenges of circumstance or systemic racism, the knock-on effects can be as subtle as a misunderstanding of how bills should get paid. That misunderstanding, though, might mean that someone is denied their home loan. If they weren’t as committed as Catherine Okoroh, they could end up thinking the American Dream is out of their reach.

Now she’s one of the leaders in Guaranteed Rate’s Chicago operations and a passionate crusader for the cause of personal financial education, both with her clients and her wider community.

Okoroh works with all clients and educates them, but she said most of her clients are African American middle to upper middle-income individuals and households. She is known for educating them and walking them through the homebuying process. She tries to pay her hard-won education in personal finance forward, engaging with clients around their own day-to-day finances, instructing them on how to live within their means and why, even if they have a great income and a down payment ready, paying off student loan debt or credit card debt is a crucial step to purchasing a home.

Okoroh’s business has more than doubled in the last few years and she is thankful for every lesson, every client, every organization, every partner who has supported her along the way. She continues to lead financial literacy classes for various organizations and churches in Chicago. Her goal for 2021 is to educate 10,000 people and she is off to an amazing start. She knows that the success of more loan officers that look like her will open the door for more minorities to join this industry and improve it in the process.

“I’m a Black woman, in an industry that is predominantly White male,” Okoroh said. “There are many times where I have gone into a room or been at conferences, where I was the only person of color in the room… It can look very intimidating. 

“I would say to any person of color reading this that they have to be themselves, be authentic, and allow their energy, creativity, and interest in other people’s wellbeing to drive them. I would tell them to know their difference makes them even more powerful.”