Martha Michael | Gurney: Sum of Her Experience

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Many of us assume that the formula for raising kids who succeed includes removing as many obstacles as possible from their paths. But when you run that calculation against the life of banker Tamara Gurney, it doesn’t add up. 

As president, CEO and director of Mission Valley Bancorp & Bank, her successful career was the featured conversation at a recent Startup Grind led by Tania Mulry. The monthly Startup Grind Fireside Chats are meant to teach, inspire and connect entrepreneurs, which the interview with Tamara accomplished. 

With only about 2% of venture capital going to women, it was hard to believe she overcame the challenges to be a bank founder. But still, my takeaways had more to do with her backstory. It’s ironic that Tamara’s work consists of providing the means for individuals and small businesses to get their footing, because her ability and drive comes, in part, as a result of her personal experiences where stability was in short supply.

“My parents divorced when I was very young and it seemed like we moved every year,” she said. “I always had to adjust to new schools, new neighborhoods, and make new friends.” 

She followed up those statements with the secret to her success when she said: “It helped me develop resiliency and determination.”

When she reached adulthood, Tamara ended up in similarly challenging circumstances. 

“I found myself a very young mom with two little boys and divorced,” she said. “I had a high school education. … That was probably my first, biggest solo challenge.”

Most of us would agree that those circumstances aren’t the trajectory leading to a future in bank ownership. But Tamara was a problem-solver. She looked at her two main options – an entry-level job at a bank and/or clerical work.

“So, I went to the library and got a shorthand book, practiced my typing and worked up the courage to go apply for a job,” she said.  

She was hired by Bank of America in downtown Los Angeles and saw it simply as a means to an end. 

“I figured I could pay the rent, put food on the table for my boys and figure the rest out later,” she said. “One thing led to another and I had an opportunity to jump to this small bank that my account officer managed. I went to work as secretary for the president of that bank in 1980. By the time that bank was sold in 1999 I was the executive vice president chief operating officer. That was my college education.” 

Along the way, Tamara went to night school and even earned a master’s degree. The resiliency and determination forged from her childhood came in handy. And it would again when she set her sights on another challenge: opening a new bank.

She described for the audience at Startup Grind how she spent months on a business plan and a year of regulatory processes before beginning the job of raising capital. While that all sounds impossibly difficult to someone like me, she and her colleagues organized their bank from a hangar at the Burbank Airport. 

They opened in July 2001, soon after the tech crash and just before 9/11 and later the Great Recession. Mission Valley Bank has survived through it all. 

Community is what fuels Tamara’s efforts. Mission Valley is a community bank that’s relationship-based, meaning they personally meet the needs of small businesses owners. And unlike big banks, customers sit and talk with bank employees who can help them solve problems.

“I really feel I’m in the service business,” she said. “It’s dealing with people. … In all my years, I can’t think of a significant challenge that hasn’t been rooted in communication or lack of it.” 

She’s also seen changes for women in the workplace in nearly 40 years of banking. 

“It was a very different world, especially in the banking space,” she said. “I’ve seen a tremendous advancement for women into C-suite jobs, running companies. I’d like to see more women helping women … sharing that opportunity, reaching out and bringing others with them.”

And like Tamara’s granddaughter who is pursuing a degree in engineering, she’d like to see more girls in STEM fields. 

People who experience adversity tend to develop character. And it’s because Tamara has needed help herself that she gives back from her bounty now. Her philanthropic efforts in Santa Clarita are widely known. She’s served such local nonprofits as Single Mothers Outreach and Carousel Ranch, and she’s the incoming board president for the College of the Canyons Foundation. 

“It’s really rewarding to see the work people are doing in the community,” Tamara said. “What I’ve tried to do is work with organizations and see where there’s overlap – especially during the Great Recession when many nonprofits were teetering. I saw opportunities where they could work together.” 

She used Homes for Heroes as one example where they could add sustainability to the work of awarding homes to military veterans. 

“It’s wonderful to have housing for returning vets,” she said. “But we have to be more holistic – they need job skills so they can integrate into society. … You feel really good when you give them the keys to the house, but you also have to teach them how to manage money.” 

Sure, when you sum up Tamara Gurney she looks good on paper. But she knows what it’s like to be on the other end of the resources. The resiliency and determination she turned to so often began out of necessity. But in the end, they turned out to be some of Tamara Gurney’s greatest assets. 

Startup Grind on Nov. 12 will feature a panel of three women — Jackie Morgan-MacDougall, Melissa Maribel and Kelly Noble Mirabella. For tickets, visit https://www.startupgrind.com/santa-clarita/

Martha Michael is a Signal staff writer.

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