Earning to Give
Twenty years ago Betty Scarborough received a call asking her to take part in a new project.
Thus far that project has yielded more than $460,000 in earnings and helped more than 50 students attend the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. The Mollie Wilson Women’s Financial Series began with a two-fold purpose: educate women about the stock market using real money and to provide scholarships with the earnings.
“They have helped so many students and will continue to do so in the future,” said Mary Lackie, vice chancellor for university advancement. An added bonus is that this is just a delightful group of women to be engaged with us as the university.”
Group members, at their own discretion, contribute between $500 and $1,000 each year as dues. That money goes into the portfolio to be used to buy and trade stocks. They also pay a $125 fee to help defray group expenses such as the monthly luncheons.
Scarborough, with her background in finance and who was then working as a bank controller, was a natural to ask to be involved. But many in the group have little or no financial backgrounds. Group members seem to fall into two categories: those whose husbands handle all of the finances and financial decisions and those women who handle the day-to-day finances while their husbands handle the investments.
“This is a good chance for women to get more comfortable with making financial decisions if they have to take over the family finances sometime,” Scarborough said.
On the first Thursday of every month, the women meet at UAFS. During the morning study group, members present recommendations to the rest of the group. They also hear from David Craig, owner of October Wealth Advisors, who acts as financial advisor for the group. Before they break for lunch, the women vote on the group’s investment decisions, on what stocks to buy or to sell.
“We’ve beaten the S&P (Standard and Poor’s 500 Index) lots of quarters,” Scarborough said. “We suffered the downturn of 2008, but we’ve come back.”
The group averages a return of 7 percent by studying and investing in publically traded stocks. Scarborough attributes their success to the collective wisdom of women from a variety of backgrounds from professionals to homemakers, along with the guidance of Craig.
“It’s amazing how savvy they are when choosing stocks. There’s been a lot of learning,” she said. “Frankly, it’s a good place to get stock tips to use in your own portfolio because of the research we do.”
But the women’s goal has never been just to earn money. They earn to give.
Mollie Wilson, a consultant at October Wealth Advisors, approached the UAFS Foundation in 1994 about creating the program to help educate women about finances and investment. She envisioned it having a greater purpose by it helping others have better lives through college scholarships. Carolyn Moore, then director of development, caught Wilson’s vision and the two women worked to turn it into reality. After Wilson’s death in 1997, the group renamed itself in her honor and continued chasing her vision.
In the following years, the group’s portfolio has continued to rise. In 1997, the group had a portfolio balance of $102,000. By October 2014, the portfolio had increased to more than $650,000 with stocks ranging from Zillow to Tractor Supply Company.
“Our focus is not to have a half-million dollar portfolio. It’s to learn and give the money away,” Scarborough said. “We have certainly more than achieved our goals.”
Until 2013-14, the number of scholarships the group provided varied between two to 11, depending on the group’s earnings. However, when the group’s portfolio crossed $550,000, they decided to give an additional $35,000 a year for scholarships. When students are selected for the scholarship, it is renewable for two additional years. For 2014-15, that equaled 12 scholarships worth $37,500.
The women know they’re making a difference in lives and that university graduates will have a higher earning power than those who only earn high school degrees. They also know they’re changing families’ stories.
“There’s a lot of first-in-their-family college students at UA-Fort Smith. That can start a new tradition in their families,” Scarborough said. “That’s what it’s going to take to move Arkansas up in the state rankings in the number of graduates.”