Leading Women

The perplexed look on a female client's face gave Ashley Dando an enlightened idea.During a portfolio review, Dando was talking about mutual funds when she noticed her client's confusion. "Then she said, 'You know, I'm really not sure what a mutual fund is.' That's when the idea struck me: 'This is a smart woman who has kept good control of her finances. If she didn't know the exact meaning of what

The perplexed look on a female client's face gave Ashley Dando an enlightened idea.

During a portfolio review, Dando was talking about mutual funds when she noticed her client's confusion. "Then she said, 'You know, I'm really not sure what a mutual fund is.' That's when the idea struck me: 'This is a smart woman who has kept good control of her finances. If she didn't know the exact meaning of what a mutual fund is, there must be a lot of women out there who don't know either.'"

So Dando, a Merrill Lynch financial consultant in Columbia, S.C., decided to launch a seminar to teach women about investments, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and annuities. She calls it The Women's Financial Success Forum.

"I wanted to focus strictly on women because no one else was doing it," Dando says. "And I wanted to do it in a luncheon-type setting, a low-key environment where women could feel free to ask questions and feel comfortable doing it."

Back in March 1998, the first luncheon drew about 13 women. They met once a month. Now there are more than 1,000 women on the active database, and the luncheons have been increased to twice monthly. Over 50 women regularly attend. They discuss financial planning, investment ideas, corporate and individual retirement plans, and 401(k) plans.

Dando, the main speaker at the luncheons, sends out monthly postcards to promote upcoming events. Dando, who does 300,000 dollars in production and manages 35 million dollars in assets, has appeared on the NBC, ABC and FOX affiliate TV stations in Columbia to discuss her group.

There is no fee to join the forum. The luncheons are held at Nonnah's, a restaurant whose owner, Maggie Groff, subsidizes the meals to the women's group. Merrill Lynch and Alliance Capital, a mutual fund wholesaler, pick up the rest of the tab.

"Clearly, the women's market in investing is underserviced," Dando says. "I'm glad to offer a service that wasn't being offered in the past. I wasn't fully aware of the lack of investment knowledge among women before establishing the group."

The Woman's Financial Success Forum has caught on in a big way. Luncheons have already expanded into the surrounding towns of Orangeburg and Sumter. Dando attends those meetings, too, as often as she can.

Dando is pleased by the positive results. In particular, she remembers one group of female co-workers from the clerical department of a bank. They didn't know much about investments, retirement programs and financial planning. Yet for several months, they were always the first ones at the luncheon, took notes and asked insightful questions. They became so interested in financial matters that they started their own investment club.

"It was great," Dando says. "They invited me to speak at one of their first meetings. They talked on and on during the meeting about topics they didn't even know about six months earlier. I told them, 'Look at yourselves. This is like old hat to you.'"

Dando, a Cumberland, Md., native, was always interested in finances, but it took awhile for her to launch a career in the field. After graduating from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor's degree in business, Dando worked in advertising. She started her own advertising company, AD Sales.

"I was working out of my home office for five years, and I realized I missed the interaction with people and the relationships," Dando says. So she challenged herself: transition to the field of financial consulting.

In 1997, she went to work at Dean Witter in Columbia, then made the jump to Merrill Lynch in May 1998. "I feel very fortunate to have found something that's challenging, something that I enjoy so much, and something that enables me to help people and add value to their financial situations."

Dando hopes that other brokers will launch groups similar to The Women's Financial Success Forum across the country. "It's not like Columbia is the only place where women need to be better educated about financial issues," she says. "It needs to occur everywhere. ... I believe the key is creating a relaxed, low-key environment. The interaction, conversation, questions and exchange of ideas is just amazing."

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