Whether he’s working in real estate, technology or health care, Mark Stagen has always held the same job title: irrational optimist.

It’s the position he assumed when he ran a comic book store at the age of 15, and it’s one he’s kept as an entrepreneur over the last two decades.

“If you work hard enough, it’s going to work out,” he said. “There are stumbles along the way, but I like to think that if you’re a good person and you work hard and you have a good head on your shoulders, it usually works out OK.”

Stagen, a Santa Monica resident for about 15 years, is familiar with the challenges of starting a business and running a company. It’s why he’s signed up as a judge for Ernst & Young’s 30th annual Entrepreneur of the Year awards competition, which recognizes up-and-coming business leaders in a variety of industries.

Organized by the multinational audit and consulting firm, the contest honors entrepreneurs in several different categories. Applications are due March 11, semifinalists will be chosen two weeks later and finalists will be announced May 9. An awards gala is scheduled for June 21.

Winners from the Greater Los Angeles program will be eligible to compete for national and global awards in a program that operates in more than 60 countries.

The applications will be evaluated by a panel of judges that includes successful business leaders as well as former awardees like Stagen, who was honored in 2007.

“I was honored when they called me and asked if I wanted to participate,” he said. “It was an incredible experience for me to go through as a candidate. I figured if there’s a way I can contribute and help future candidates and winners, I’m happy to help.”

Stagen, who grew up in Westwood and attended Brentwood School, took a roundabout route back to Southern California after studying at Yale University. He worked as a real estate developer in Nevada before moving to San Francisco to launch a tech company that he has since sold.

He then moved to Santa Monica to start Emerald Health Services, a health care staffing firm, in 2002. Now based in El Segundo, the business began in an office near the Third Street Promenade. And as the company grew, Stagen heard about the entrepreneur awards program and decided to apply.

“I was totally nervous,” he said. “I didn’t think I had a chance in the world, and all the stars lined up.”

Stagen has kept busy in the decade since. He’s passed off the day-to-day management of Emerald, but he’s involved in the local startup scene and trying to figure out what his next company will be. He is active in the Santa Monica Bay chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization, a networking and professional development group for chief executives.

A few years ago Stagen launched the Youth Business Alliance, a nonprofit organization that runs after-school business classes and workshops for teenagers in underserved communities.

“A lot of these kids, they’re super-smart,” he said. “They just don’t have the role models and resources that I did.”

As for the Ernst & Young competition, Stagen will work with other judges to evaluate the entrants and come to a consensus. He said it’s hard to narrow the field of talented professionals, although he sympathizes with entrepreneurs who started from scratch without millions of dollars in funding.

“I’d compare it to the Academy Awards,” he said. “You could have a bunch of great movies up for best picture, and only one is going to win.”

jeff@www.smdp.com