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A Winding Road

Cristina Banks, CLA alumna and entrepreneur
January 13, 2015

The hotel laundry chute that Cristina Banks and her twin sister used to slide down as kids isn’t there anymore. The Claremont Hotel itself is now officially a “resort and spa.” But the spectacular view of San Francisco Bay is the same as it was in her childhood, and the Berkeley Tennis Club courts are as familiar as the days when she was a promising tennis player.

“I grew up in those places right there,” Banks says, pointing to both the tennis club and her childhood home a few blocks away.

“I always say to students, ‘If you try to stick to a straight and narrow road, you’ll miss out on the person you could have been,’” she says.Had she grown to adulthood in this affluent neighborhood, Banks’ life would have been utterly different. She might even have become a professional tennis player. But the paths that drew her away and then led her back here—to Berkeley and a successful career as an entrepreneur in industrial psychology—were crooked and more difficult than her privileged early childhood would have predicted.

The kinks in her own road began after her parents divorced and her privileged life became a struggle to make ends meet. She moved to southern California with her mother and sister, worked as a retail salesgirl in high school and bank teller in college, and financed her own way through Berkeley—sometimes by cooking for friends.

Then there was that “C” she got in her first college psychology class, which might have predicted a dead end for an aspiring psychology major. Still, she never considered anything else, even before she read University of Minnesota professor Marvin Dunnette’s book, Personnel Selection and Placement as a junior.

“When I read this book, I thought: ‘Organizational Psychology! This is what I need to do!’ she says. “I decided I was going to study under this man at Minnesota.”

The odds were against this: She had never lived outside of California. Her graduate-record exam score was just average. She had little money. In the anti-establishment atmosphere of 1970’s Berkeley, she didn’t even want to admit her ambition to be an organizational psychologist. But she got the nod from Minnesota, packed up her 1965 Comet, and left California for the Midwest—and to study with Marvin Dunnette.

“It turns out he was perfect for me,” Banks says. “He didn’t teach a class, so I went to work for him in his consulting firm for two years. And that’s how I learned the consulting business: from watching him and learning how to execute a successful project. I learned a lot and I had valuable time with this professor, who was really a creative person, an out-of-the-box thinker and extremely tolerant of different ideas as long as there was scholarship involved. That was key for me, because I really wanted to apply research to the real world.”

Dunette also supported her doctoral dissertation on judgment in job-performance appraisal, even though at the time her thesis and the questions she raised were at odds with accepted practice. In spite of that, her dissertation was so persuasive that she got through her orals in 20 minutes. “I had the easiest time ever,” she remembers, even though it is a safe bet that this “easiness” was the result of determined hard work.

Banks actually finished her dissertation long-distance, after she and her husband moved for his job at the University of Texas-Austin. After they returned to Berkeley in 1985 with two young children, she faced her most traumatic detour yet, when she and her husband separated in 1989. If she was going to make a healthy income now, she decided, she’d better get serious about starting her own consulting business.

With the help of an accountant who coached her in business essentials and a friend who provided leads and advice, she launched Terranova Consulting Group to help executives meet their business goals by understanding human behavior. Steeped in psychology and fortified with business skills, she taught them how to succeed through people. “That’s not going to work,” she loved to tell clients. “Human beings don’t act that way.”

Her business was so successful that eventually she got a lucrative offer to sell—and then founded Lamorinda, a company that concentrates on wage and hour law. Among her specialties: providing expert-witness testimony in class-action lawsuits. This in itself is another story—but in some ways, it is all the same story: Think broadly, be open to your environment, and know that setbacks are inevitable.

“I arrived here because of all those crooked paths,” she says. “There is no piece that is not relevant for me today.” That probably includes the laundry chute.
What she says:
“Get the liberal arts degree. A liberal arts background teaches you about the world and makes you a better observer and analyzer of the world and provides the foundation on which everything can sit.”

“What kept me going was having a mission—something beyond making a profit. I needed to make money to survive, but really I wanted to do good in the world. The question is, where do you want to make a difference? That’s where the motivation comes from, and you’ll never feel like you want to crawl up in a ball when the failures and setbacks happen.”

“I’m always afraid. I never think I’ve got it made. The thing about being an entrepreneur is that whatever you’ve made to this point doesn’t matter. It’s what you are going to make tomorrow. Your whole business could collapse tomorrow. On the positive side, you are the boss. You get to decide.”