Taking Control--and Having Fun Doing It

With music blaring and fans cheering, the team members jogged out one by one as their names and professional credentials were announced. But this was no basketball game. Rather, it was the opening of the Everywoman's Money Conference, a free, one-day financial seminar for women, and the stars were a 12-woman ''empowerment team'' of financial experts and authors who teach the workshops. This multimedia event is rolling into major cities across the nation. The one I went to, the eighth so far, was held at the Richmond (Va.) Marriott hotel and attended by some 1,200 women of all ages and walks of life.

Never before has learning about money and investing been so entertaining. Conference participants were treated to live piano interludes, video clips, and speakers who could double as standup comics. That's in addition to 30-minute one-on-one meetings with financial planners. I listened as Debbie Reynolds, the 68-year-old, thrice-divorced actress, gave an ultimately upbeat speech about her disastrous financial mishaps that occurred because she lacked knowledge about dealing with money.

NO HARD SELL. At a typical conference, attendees get to pick three workshops from a menu of 18 ranging from ''You Can't Take It With You But You Can Control Where It Goes'' and ''Divorce And Money'' to sessions on financial Web sites. One of the most refreshing aspects is the absence of any hard sell. At the hotel, PaineWebber, Merrill Lynch, and a host of other sponsors set up booths. But no sales pitches mar the workshops. Indeed, this quality may be why the conferences have been fully booked, even without big advertising campaigns. ''Women who attend the conference are here to talk only about money, and they are ready for action,'' says Jody Temple-White, a financial planner and co-founder of Everywoman's Money Conference.

In the audience in Richmond, I chatted with everyone from recent college graduates and Web site designers to retired, white-haired grandmothers. Many enjoyed the opportunity to network with like-minded women, and none seemed troubled that most of the conference material was aimed chiefly at beginners. ''I came for the reinforcement of things I already know and believe, and to make sure I'm on the right track,'' says Barbara Vick, an investor who trades her $3 million-plus account. ''I can always learn something.'' Added Jennifer Royal, a stockbroker-turned-transplant nurse who came with her investment club: ''I want to gain more knowledge so I can keep and make more money.''

Everywoman's Money Conference is the brainchild of Temple-White and Jan Black, an artist, entrepreneur, and writer. The two Portland (Ore.) area residents launched the first conference in their home city in September, 1998. In 1999, they created the nonprofit Project Green Purse to take the conference nationwide in collaboration with state treasurers. Black and Temple-White also established the Everywoman's Money School, a series of follow-up classes taught by financial professionals in each city for free or a nominal fee. ''Now, I can tell my financial planner what mutual funds to buy instead of him telling me what to invest in,'' says Abigail Ehlers, a recent college grad who's a registered nurse in the Navy.

At the conferences (table), everything is gratis--including lunch, parking, and on-site child care. The $90,000 to $200,000 cost of each event is covered by dozens of sponsors, including the U.S. Labor Dept., the Social Security and Small Business administrations, as well as financial institutions, local real estate offices, and financial planners. Nonfinancial corporations, including Avon Products and US West also provide backing for the events. ''Never have I seen people go away from a conference with as much excitement and motivation to make changes,'' says Pennsylvania State Treasurer Barbara Hafer, who hosted a conference in Philadelphia in June and will host another one in Pittsburgh this fall. As a catalyst for change, these conferences are right on the money.

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Taking Control--and Having Fun Doing It

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