Camber Alumni Spotlight: Vanessa Laughlin, Founder and Principal of Banister Advisors, LLC. 

Mar 31, 2022Perspectives

‘Helping clients gracefully navigate life’s most overwhelming challenges.’

One of Camber Collective’s values is nurturing talent. Over the years, we have developed, mentored, and supported dozens of alumni who have pursued meaningful careers across a wide range of social impact spheres. We are proud of these alumni, and this series highlights their incredible stories before, during, and after their time at Camber.

Q: What was it like growing-up for you?

I am the product of two individuals from very different parts of the world. My father is US born, from a multi-generational family of European descent and is part of the Silent Generation. My mother is a lovely Colombian woman who grew up on a coffee farm in the Andes Mountains and later immigrated to the US at age 19. They met and fell in love in Santa Cruz, California, and started a family when my brother was born in 1979.  Fast forward just another year, my father starts law school at the University of Oregon with a toddler and a pregnant young wife. I was actually born the night before his first term final!

When I was four, our family continued north and settled in the community of South Whidbey Island [in the Puget Sound]. The best way to describe rural Whidbey is a ‘small town, surrounded by water.’ I grew up on a 2-acre property, surrounded by tall pine trees, and a short bike ride down a hill to Useless Bay. We had chickens, ducks, turkeys, you name it. There are pros and cons to living in rural America, and I’ll say that ‘it’s a good place to be from.’  By sophomore year of high school, I had transferred to a high school in Seattle, or as we called it, ‘the mainland.’

It was not easy. I felt like a foreign exchange student from a cultural standpoint. The wealth disparity was staggering. There were kids I knew on Whidbey Island who lived in the woods in a trailer, without electricity or running water, and then I go to a place where students were coming from some of the wealthiest, most prominent families in the region. It was a big shock, fairly striking, and one of the more formative experiences of my life. Especially with my parents coming from such different backgrounds, it added another level of awareness to my understanding of how much complexity there is in the world.

Q: How did your upbringing affect your education or career choices?

After graduating from high school in 1999, I ended up moving to the other side of the country to attend Tufts University in Boston.  It was great living in the city for the first time in my life.  I studied languages (Spanish and Italian) and majored in Economics. I spent an entire academic year abroad Spain as a real foreign exchange student, but funny enough, I actually felt like I fit in fairly well. I have Spanish heritage and looked like a local in many ways, and because I grew up bilingual, I was able to blend more than other American students. It was a weird sense of feeling like I belonged while also knowing I was a foreigner.

After moving back to the U.S, I spent winter break of senior year back home in the Seattle region. During my time off, I found myself inspired to start a small business and to run it on campus. Because my mother is a professional seamstress, I’ve been making clothes my entire life—it was a fairly obvious choice to make and sell clothes created in my dorm room. My first retail event was a “pop-up sale” at the Tufts Campus Center, and it went really well—I actually sold out a small collection of 80 pieces! I decided, hey, maybe there is something here. I ended up running and growing this small wholesale and direct retail fashion business for several years—I named it “Osorio,” the maiden name of my maternal grandmother. That early entrepreneurial experience, combined with good grades in college and a solid GMAT score, helped me get into business school a little bit earlier than I otherwise would have.

I’m proud of my family and how far we have come collectively in just a few generations.  My grandmother from Colombia (Abuelita Bernarda) only received a third-grade education. My mom graduated from high school and went on to take college courses, but did not end up graduating, in part because she married young and started a family in her early 20s. Within just three generations, I not only graduated from high school and then college, but then also went on to complete my MBA, which is an experience that many immigrant families share.

Q: What were your goals in business school?

I was 24 when I started business school, and most of [my classmates] were between 5 to 10 years older. This was a wonderful experience to have friends and fellow students who I could really look up to and mentor me, but it also meant I was in yet another situation where I felt like a foreign exchange student. While I had developed my small business to the point of working with a local factory, things were still quite modest, and I worked alone—it was all still very much a “scrappy” operation. I really did not have a good sense of how the corporate business world worked nor what my place in it might look like. I learned as much from my peers as I could and interned at Starbucks corporate over the summer to learn about this unfamiliar environment. While I was doing my internship, I met a wonderfully supportive executive who offered, “You should come work for me.” It was a very fortunate opportunity and I ended up working 3 days a week at Starbucks while also finishing my second year. It was atypical, but I felt [a need] to play catch up. I ended up enjoying a nearly 7-year career at Starbucks across many different roles, and three different large departments.

Q: Why did you decide to join Camber Collective?

After many years at Starbucks, I wanted to try something different. I wanted to get on the strategy team, but I made it to the final round of several interviews, but in the end, they always went with somebody who came from McKinsey, Bain, or BCG. A senior leader on that team pulled me aside one day and shared “You know, we really think you’re great, and we want to keep interviewing you, but I got to tell you—you don’t have the ‘right’ consulting experience.” The next day, I refreshed my resume and started talking to different local consulting firms that focused on strategic client work. I knew I had hit this kind of internal ‘dead end street.’ During my research, I took the advice of a high school friend who had left Deloitte to join a startup called Switchpoint (Camber Collective at the time).

I just really enjoyed everyone I spoke with. I really liked the people. With the other firms I was interested in, yes, everyone is smart, but there was something about the team at SwitchPoint that was so appealing. They didn’t make me feel like a foreign exchange student. Haha. They were growing and hungry, and at that point in my life I was like, “Yes, this is where I want to be.” The feeling was mutual, and I was brought on as employee number 13.

Q: Is there a Camber project that stands out to you?

I had the pleasure of working on a project with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s on—drum roll, please—male contraception! Long time ago, there was a race to create hormonal birth control for both sexes. They landed the female contraceptive technology sooner than male options, but not by much. When human drug trials began, it turned out that women were less likely to complain about side effects than men were.  This in turn led to the perception that female hormonal medications had fewer side effects. That in part is how the birth control pill for women became commercialized and the gender-based medical intervention that we know today.

There is a whole history of gender norms and sexuality tied to this medical technology path dependence, and it was a fascinating project to be a part of. If you ask anyone [at the Foundation] today what the single most effective contraceptive technology is, they will tell you the same answer: female education starting in early childhood and that extends throughout a lifetime. I’m proud to say that the engagement work we did for the Foundation had important impacts on the foundation’s family planning and gender equity work that continues even today.

Q: After 5 years at Camber, why did you decide to start Banister Advisors?

Banister Advisors offers client services that help ease the complex emotional and logistical burdens that individuals and families confront in the face of critical circumstances across their lifespan, including health crisis management, complex eldercare situations, end-of-life circumstances and bereavement after a major loss.

How do we decide what our occupation will be and what we’re called upon to do? I went through a very rough decade in my 30s. My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. After I became pregnant again with my oldest child, he ended up being born prematurely with a range of health concerns that led to my first experience with a multi-month quarantine in 2013. When I was pregnant with my second child in 2015/16, they found a birth defect in utero at the 20-week ultrasound. After he was born, he needed surgery as an infant to, in the doctor’s words, “salvage his left kidney.” Like many people, I experienced serious bouts of postpartum mood disorder after both pregnancies, which included symptoms of anxiety, OCD, and even cognitive impairment. After my second child was born, my beloved father-in-law was diagnosed with a rare form of bile duct cancer. It was fairly advanced by the time it was diagnosed, and 18 months later (just three weeks after my second son’s major surgery), their grandfather died due to complications of his cancer.  He was only 65 years old and the kind of person who preferred to put the needs of his family, friends, and community ahead of his own.  

It became very apparent that as much as I appreciated working in a mission-oriented organization like Camber, the distance between strategy work and the lives I wanted to impact was just too wide of a gap for me to contend with. As I learned more about the world of grief and bereavement and how people navigate the types of personal suffering we face as human beings, the more I felt called to do something to alleviate the pain, even if I was not sure what that might even entail. As any good consultant would, I turned to my skills built in service of our social impact clients and started developing a landscape analysis. Consultants work with organizations to strategically identify and solve their problems, respond to their crises, and make difficult decisions. Why couldn’t we use similar approaches, tools, and frameworks in our own personal lives? I couldn’t get this idea out of my head. Why wasn’t personal strategic consulting and solution implementation a thing?

That is why I started Banister Advisors. “Banister” is my father-in-law’s middle name (Jay Banister Laughlin), and our organization an homage to him and the way he lived his life in service to others. Our team has been growing steadily since the company was founded in July of 2018. We are just now getting to a point where I’m not playing all the roles anymore. Instead of running around and ‘playing all the instruments,’ I feel more like the conductor of a very talented orchestra. It’s a new and sometimes quite uncomfortable role for me. We’re creating efficiencies and trying to put people in the best place for everyone to succeed. I say to my team all the time, “Well, at my old consulting firm, we used to…” so the skills and wisdom from my time at Camber continue to be an enormous source of guidance and support to me and my team. We’re a client services business at our core, and at the end of the day, we’re helping our clients navigate some of the most difficult dilemmas and circumstance they will ever face.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of my family, my kids, and my company.  For Banister specifically, where we are right now three and a half years in is not something that has just happened easily. The pandemic has been tough on everyone, including early-stage businesses—in September 2021 we became a majority ‘pandemic business,’ with more than half our existence now having occurred during the Covid-19 era. We are now a core team of 16 people. Our number one investor is our own revenue. You know, it’s never going to be perfect. There are going to be [hardships] and successes, so many ups and downs, but I’m just enjoying the ride. I’m proud to be a service business that can be distilled down to a one-word mission: Help. One thing in common from both my father’s and mother’s Catholic working-class and farming cultures is not talking about yourself. You do not boast.  But sharing about the work at Banister is a very clean source of pride for me, because I’m proud of ‘us’ not ‘me.’