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Vanessa Brewster Laughlin named 40 under 40

By Marc Stiles  – Staff Writer, Puget Sound Business Journal

Oct 7, 2019, 2:22pm EDT

Vanessa Laughlin didn’t just start a new business in early 2018, she created an industry. Banister Advisors helps clients navigate life’s challenges such as health crisis management, complex eldercare situations, end-of-life circumstances and bereavement after a major loss.

What was the inspiration behind Banister Advisors? The origin, and my vision for a broader lifespan navigation industry, are deeply personal. My late father-in-law, Jay Banister Laughlin, inspires our mission every day. Not just in the way he died when his life was cut short by cancer, but in the way he lived. Before his death in 2016, Jay was a loving husband, father and grandfather, dear friend, Buddhist lay minister, community volunteer with the Seattle Police Department, social worker and pro bono therapist. It was through the experience of our family navigating the emotional and logistical challenges of his oncology diagnosis, treatment journey and end of life, that I first asked the question, "Is there a better way?" From that the spark for Banister was lit, this idea that families deserve better options when facing these types of overwhelming lifespan challenges.

How do people respond when you tell them your company helps people through overwhelming challenges like health crises and grief? Telling people what we do at Banister is a surprising icebreaker. Because so many of us have been touched in some way by complex health issues, loss or other types of life crisis, many people listen intently as I describe our services. Then they connect it to their own experiences as either patients, or as caregivers when it was their child, spouse, sibling or parent who was going through an unfortunate health concern or at the end of life. People regularly tell me incredible stories of their own challenges and even loss. It’s always an honor when people choose to share their experience. It’s lovely to be able to make these types of deep connections on a regular basis, oftentimes with complete strangers. It’s also gratifying when people express their enthusiasm for the entirely new category of professional services we are building and want to know how they can support our work or get involved in other ways. We are always looking to grow our network of trusted professionals and other collaborators, so sharing what we do as widely as possible really tends to open doors in exciting, and sometimes unpredictable, ways.

Dealing with so much sadness has to take an emotional toll. How do you and your colleagues deal with that? The work we do at Banister brings us deep joy and meaning because we are making a really impactful difference for families. However, it’s true that this can often be extremely challenging from an emotional standpoint for our team. Because of this, peer support is essential. When I first founded Banister, I never envisioned it being solo act. We can do what we do because we act as a team, not only with our colleagues, but also the other professionals with whom we partner, such as doctors, attorneys, therapists, wealth managers and others. We are on the front lines helping families through health crisis and grief in a really intimate way, and we need to provide the professionalism, compassion and expertise that they deserve. To achieve this, every client engagement not only has a primary navigator to lead the work, but also a co-navigator. Each co-navigator provides additional strategic insights, clinical expertise, back-up assistance, and importantly, becomes a critical source of direct support for their colleague. We have also invested in a thoughtfully designed work space where our team can relax and enjoy themselves, and policies such as capping weekly case load hours and providing unlimited personal time off. To do lifespan navigation work well you need to be able to restore yourself and your resilience periodically to ensure clients can rely on you to deliver your best in their time of need.

Aside from starting this company, what has been the biggest achievement of your professional career? I would say "staying in the game" when things got really intense in both my personal and professional life throughout my 30s. Starting a family, supporting my husband through graduate school and as his legal career took off, making a big career switch from Starbucks corporate roles to a position in a global health and development strategy consulting firm — all of those represented huge, taxing shifts. Pile on to that context the details of three pregnancies, one miscarriage, two children born with complex medical conditions, the illness and death of my father-in-law and my own physical and mental health challenges — it was a lot. Sometimes, as the saying goes, 80 percent of success is just showing up. In my case, in terms of my career, I would correct that to 100 percent of success was just sticking with it and seeking out the right kind of help from my family, community and health care providers in order to do so.

As a serial entrepreneur, what advice would you give to budding business owners? I would encourage early stage business owners, and even those who think they might someday want to be an entrepreneur, to balance courage with patience. You can engage a double frame of mind, to both pursue your passion to create something new and deliver value, but also realize that not every idea deserves your energy and investment. I would encourage people to never ‘force’ an idea that isn’t going to be valued in the marketplace just for the sake of being an 'entrepreneur'. Trust me, I had plenty of wild ideas in between my first successful business I grew out of my dorm room in 2003 and what I am now creating with Banister Advisors. It’s worth it to focus on gaining experience in your day job, building your personal skills, extending your network, and saving your money to invest in an idea that is really going to make an impact.

Where do you want to be at age 50? At 50, I would love to be leading a successful and expanded version of Banister Advisors, playing an active and influential role in the Puget Sound region as a community leader, and enjoying time with my loved ones on a regular basis.

How much do you want to be earning? My own income is less important to me than my ability to grow Banister Advisors into a thriving global operation with offices in all major regions of the world and to be able expand our philanthropic efforts, through the soon-to-be launched Banister Foundation.

How will you pay it forward? My dream is to use grant funding from Banister Foundation to create a health care respite, hospice care and bereavement retreat center on Whidbey Island that can allow for people of all income levels to experience healing, support and meaning in a beautiful environment.


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