“I hope you don’t need to use this,” is what Vanessa Brewster Laughlin (MBA 2007) often says when handing out her business card at networking events.
The response from those on the receiving end of a Banister Advisors card? “A lot of them pause for a moment and then say, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ ”
Finding inspiration in loss
To understand Brewster Laughlin’s business, one needs to understand the loss of a loved one.
In 2014, her father-in-law, Jay Banister Laughlin, received an unexpected diagnosis of a rare, stage-four cancer. It was followed by a whirlwind of treatments, clinical trials, decline and, ultimately, his death in the spring of 2016.
“What I’m trying to do, at the heart of all of this, is create the service that our family needed over those years,” says Brewster Laughlin.
“I have a strong moral sense that the way that we handle grief in our society could be improved, that the cultural scripts for grief are not serving us in the ways that they should. We can do better.”
Creating a new category
Thus, Banister Advisors was born and the conversations that her business card prompt point to the need.
“A lot of people listen intently as I describe our services, then tell me incredible stories of their own challenges and loss,” says Brewster Laughlin.
She now leads a team of ten, offering “lifespan navigation” services including managing medical treatment options and end-of-life transitions, planning funerary events, personalized bereavement support for individuals and groups, estate processing and transition project management, and future mapping for survivors.
In doing so, Brewster Laughlin has essentially created a new category of professional services. Her conversations with the Washington State Department of Revenue, the City of Seattle business license office and others have all led to Banister Advisors being placed in the ‘other’ category.
“They simply have never encountered a business that does what we do,” she says.
My DNA made me do it
Seizing an opportunity is nothing new for Brewster Laughlin.
“I was that kid who caught the entrepreneurship bug fairly early in my life, inspired in large part by my mother’s business as a seamstress and my father’s private practice on Whidbey Island,” she says. “I agree with people that refer to entrepreneurialism as a genetic defect!”
In middle school, Brewster Laughlin used the sewing skills she learned from her mom to create and sell items ranging from bags to prom dresses. By the time she left her dorm room at Tufts with a BA in economics, she had officially launched a multi-channel fashion business. After growing it into a profitable venture, she shut it down in 2005 to get her MBA.
She followed an internship at Starbucks with a seven-year stint at the coffee giant before joining the Camber Collective in 2013. The consulting firm’s 13th employee, she embraced the opportunity to work for the social impact practice until her father-in-law’s death led to her current charge.
The time is right
Looking at population data, Brewster Laughlin’s new startup is timely. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 40.3 million people age 65 and older in 2010, a number expected to increase to 88.5 million—or 20 percent of the population—in 2050. In 2018, the National Institutes of Health estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer being diagnosed in the United States and 609,640 people dying from the disease.
Fueled by the inspiration of the father-in-law who devoted much of his life to aiding others—as Buddhist lay minister, community volunteer with the Seattle Police Department, MSW social worker and pro bono therapist—Brewster Laughlin is ready to help.
-Story by Andrew Krueger, photography by Jennifer Boyle