As the upstart Borderplex Alliance fills its executive ranks, a pattern is emerging.
The positions are going to El Pasoans who left the city to attend college, built a career in some other big-name city and have returned, lured by the transformation they see taking place in their hometown.
The latest is 28-year-old El Paso native Laurie Banitch, who, to her surprise, was named Borderplex Alliance vice president of strategic planning last month. Banitch had resigned in December from her job with Deloitte Consulting in New York City and moved to El Paso – where she didn’t have a job lined up but knew she wanted to be a part of the city’s future.
The Borderplex Alliance was formed less than three years ago by the private sector to coordinate economic development efforts in the region, after a study commissioned by the city found significant problems with the way economic development was being handled in the region.
Since then, the Borderplex Alliance has gotten a mixed reception, and the economic development plan it released in June has received some pushback, especially among those who object to the Borderplex’s self-appointed role as quarterback of the region’s economic development efforts.
Banitch’s job as VP of strategic planning will be to guide the implementation of the plan – and to make sure it doesn’t just become another plan in a closet.
Developed by Austin-based Angelou Economics, the economic development plan will be refined and implemented over the next five years, Banitch says.
Banitch grew up in El Paso and attended Loretto Academy. Her mother, Patricia Banitch, is from Juárez and her father, Christian Banitch, New Jersey. The couple now works in commercial real estate in El Paso.
Banitch left El Paso to attend college in Washington, D.C., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and international business from Georgetown University.
She graduated in 2009 – the worst time possible for a finance major. Lehman Brothers had collapsed, and the world’s financial system was in freefall.
But Banitch managed to land a job at a big consulting firm, Deloitte in Washington, D.C., and later, New York City. At Deloitte she worked on jobs involving the FDIC, U.S. Treasury, Affordable Care Act and Dodd Frank financial overhaul, rising to the level of a senior consultant.
At the same time, she earned a master’s degree in applied economics from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Banitch sat down with El Paso Inc. at the Borderplex Alliance’s offices in the historic Mills Building in Downtown and talked about what brought her back to El Paso, what a VP of strategic planning does and why the new economic development plan is different from the ones that came before.
Q: Was economics something you always wanted to do?
No, not at all. That was not my answer in third grade.
But I always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit. I remember starting small businesses when I was in grade school and middle school and high school. I did a print shop.
Q: Print shop?
When I was in maybe fifth grade, I would sell business cards and flyers. My dad was really computer savvy, and he was always teaching me stuff. We built a computer when I was little.
I also sold anime costumes online.
I started with Silver Moon, which is like the gateway to anime. This was in eighth grade. I remember buying the Japanese anime and then reading the English translations online and going back and forth, reading left to right, and thinking, “This is so awesome.”
I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, but I knew I wanted to do something business focused.
Q: Computers, anime and economics. I’m gathering you’re a little nerdy.
(Laughs) You’ve got my profile; I think we’re pretty much done here.
Q: What was it like going from El Paso to Washington, D.C.?
As a high school senior, it’s just SATs and AP classes and clubs, and you don’t really realize that you’re about to uproot your life and move to an entirely different city.
I was extremely honored about going to Georgetown and, in a way, I felt like I was representing El Paso, because there were only three or four of us from El Paso who joined that year. I really enjoyed sharing about El Paso, because people didn’t have any idea where it even was in some cases.
In terms of going to D.C., it was completely different. My classmates all had a global outlook. That was something I wasn’t too used to. They were all into global causes and social change. They were all into public policy. They were reading The Economist. It opened me up to a whole new world.
Q: What was your first job?
I was a finance major in international business in 2009 – the worst time to graduate, ever. People were crying in finance class.
Q: Students were breaking down in tears?
Yes. We talked about the financial crisis in an academic way in class, but by the end, people would be tearing up because they had had offers with signing bonuses from companies like Lehman Brothers that were no longer good.
I had no idea what I was going to end up doing, because my internships were in private wealth and no one was hiring. But I got very fortunate. I applied for a job with Deloitte and got it.
Q: What got you thinking about returning to El Paso?
My parents. They are actually the ones who lured me back to El Paso initially. Being in commercial real estate, they had seen a lot of the development projects and all of the growth in the city.
Q: Why leave the heady world of finance in New York City for El Paso?
There are a couple of reasons. My philosophy is when you are getting too comfortable, it is time to shake things up. I loved the people I worked with at Deloitte, but I wanted something different.
I looked first in D.C. and New York, but it was all going to be doing the same thing I was doing but with a different company. All the time, my parents were talking about all the new stuff going on in El Paso and the people here that were doing great things in the community. One day I just said yes.
Q: That must have been a tough decision. At that point, you didn’t have another job lined up?
No. It was scary – lots of expenses, no income. I wondered what I was doing. I had a solid job and a great place to live. There were a lot of things, but the most important thing besides my family has been feeling like I’m dedicated to what I’m doing. That is what I needed to shakeup.
I came back to El Paso in December, and I stayed for about a month weighing my options.
I started reading El Paso Inc. and read an article, “Investment banking comes to El Paso.” So I read about the Borderplex Alliance and Ben Gonzalez, who had been hired as a vice president. I couldn’t find his email address so guessed at it. A really crazy thing happened – he responded in two days.
We were supposed to meet at this Starbucks here for coffee, but what was supposed to be a casual coffee chat turned into an interview superday. I didn’t even know what position they had available.
A couple of days later, I got an email at midnight with an offer letter.
Q: How does it feel to be back in your hometown?
It feels great – it honestly does – not only to be close to my family for the first time in 10 years, but to see that the city has changed a lot.
Q: How so?
Coming back I see a lot of great developments. Montecillo – so cool. You see restaurants that are really stepping up their game. People are coming back. You hear of chefs who have studied elsewhere and come back and opened up restaurants.
Of course, the ballpark is huge. I’ve been to Nationals games in D.C., but I enjoyed this more.
Small businesses are really ramping up. They are getting, I hate to say trendier, but a little bit, you know? The Plaza Theatre is fantastic. The Plaza Classic Film Festival, you don’t even see things like that in D.C.
Q: What is your job at the Borderplex Alliance as VP of strategic planning?
Project planning and project management, which sounds really cloudy. But it’s about keeping a really clear path to your goals and staying on track. The moment you have any sort of project implementation, immediately there is a lot of noise and you can lose sight of the final goal.
There has been a lot of work done on the strategic plan and it involves bringing the region together, so my job is going to be managing that process.
Q: Where is the Borderplex Alliance in that strategic planning process?
There are three things that have been released that are on our website. There has been a market analysis, which is looking at the assets, strengths and challenges we have as a region; there is a targeted industry analysis, which highlights what industries the region should be looking at for growth and development; and the third report is a strategic plan that has recommendations.
The next phase is engaging the community and stakeholders, getting feedback, looking at the recommendations from the strategic plan and creating a plan to implement it. It is going to be a five-year implementation.
Q: The economic development organizations that preceded the Borderplex Alliance had plans and the counties and cities in the region must have closets full of them. What is it going to take to see this plan through to fruition?
Hopefully, what we can do is stay focused on the implementation and really engage the community. This is what we live and breathe and what the organization was set up to do. Everyone here is really dedicated to furthering the region and passionate about what they do.
Q: Pulling the region together is easier said than done. What do you say to those who don’t buy into the plan and the Borderplex Alliance?
Of course, Las Cruces, Juárez and El Paso are very different. Each one has their own strengths, their own challenges and different populations. But it is about pushing the idea that the whole is greater than the parts. We are going to focus on regionalism and bringing people in together.
We can’t just pretend we are the only economic development organization – we are not trying to do that.
We are trying to say, “This is what is going on in this city and this is what is going on in that city. Let’s try not to duplicate efforts.”
It’s about seeing how we can help you. That’s how you move forward.
I know a lot of organizations in the region have their own efforts going. That’s what a lot of this next phase is all about with the steering committee and task force. We are trying to engage as many people as we can.
Q: The Borderplex has said a 30-member steering committee will review the recommendations and create an implementation plan. To some that is code for getting nothing done.
We are still finalizing all of that. I’ve been on projects, in the project management role, where we have had more than 70 people working on the project. And that sounds like a disaster at first glance, right?
But what happens is you have different work streams that are dedicated to a specific objective. It requires a lot of communicating.
Q: The strategic plan paints a grim picture. Angelou Economics blames the region’s economic malaise on a negative image, lack of worker training, dysfunctional border crossings, insufficient financing for budding companies and an overreliance on a single industry, manufacturing.
In this process, we are not going to sugarcoat anything. If you are going to try to improve something, you’ve got to look at it as it is. With economists there is no color in that picture; it is just black and white.
We need to highlight the challenges first and then implement strategies for each of those challenges. That’s why we are talking about a five-year implementation period.
We are not saying we are going to have a plan tomorrow. It is going to take talking to all the stakeholders; they know the region best. We’re not going to walk in and tell you how to develop an industry. We are going to listen and then help you develop a strategy.
Q: At the end of the day, what is the ultimate goal?
World domination. (Laughs)
Q: Besides that?
There are a lot of recommendations in the analysis, and this next phase is about filtering through those recommendations and being able to prioritize them.
There are a lot of people interested in seeing improvement in the region, and the Borderplex Alliance is looking for input.