No one expected stay-at-home wife and mother Margaret Starner to jump into the male-dominated financial planning industry, let alone become a defining member in the fight for gender equality.
By the 1980’s, Starner had already fulfilled her life’s purpose by typical societal standards. She was highly educated with a degree in economics from Stanford University, had married an engineer with a steady income and had raised two daughters. Yet the American dream meant more to Starner than a white picket fence.
“I noticed that I never was expected to make a difference in my family’s financial life and I thought that needed to change,” said Starner, who is 81. “My mindset was different because I didn’t intend on having a career, I just wanted to have fun while making a difference for women like myself.”
From then on Starner had one main objective: Give women a voice in their financial lives.
“Far too often I see male advisers meet with a couple and never look at the wife, not once, even today,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to give women a voice in financial decision-making. I decided early on that if I worked with a couple, the woman would be heard.”
This year’s winner of the InvestmentNews Excellence in Diversity & Inclusion Lifetime Achievement Award is not only a minority professional who’s succeeding in the financial services industry, she’s an individual who has made giving women a seat at the table a focal point of her life.
Starner started her firm 40 years ago. Today the Starner Group of Raymond James & Associates is an invitation-only wealth management practice in Coral Gables, Florida, with more than $1 billion in assets under management.
Before setting up shop in Florida, Starner grew up in the rural Mississippi Delta as the daughter of Chinese immigrants who owned a grocery store. In the 1940s, there weren’t a lot of Chinese immigrants in Mississippi so throughout her upbringing, Starner was used to being “the only something,” she said.
In Florida, the setting wasn’t much different once she became a certified financial planner. Being a woman made her unusual, but coupled with her ethnicity — she was an anomaly. “I use the novelty of me being different to my advantage,” she said. “You have to take what’s different about you, and make it work for you.”
In fact, when Starner first started going to client meetings, her opening statement was not traditional. “I introduced myself and said: ‘I’m a CFP with Raymond James, and if you don’t know what a CFP is, it’s a Chinese financial planner, and I’m the only one in Florida.’” She doesn’t make that joke anymore, but in the 1980s it made a statement, she said.
Starner has garnered myriad recognitions from publications as a pioneer for women in financial services, but she’s most proud of the support she offers other women.
“Margaret took a chance on me when I had zero industry experience and had no idea what the difference was between an IRA and a client named Ira,” said Jessica Delgado, senior client service associate at the Starner Group.
“She worked with me when it came time to take maternity leave — twice,” Delgado said. “I got to witness firsthand her passion for empowering women in the workplace. Margaret is one of the most generous people I have met in both my personal and professional life. Just don’t ask her to comment on that, she is far too modest.”
Starner has been giving women a voice before most women even thought about being active participants in financial planning. In 1992, she helped found the Raymond James Women’s Advisory Board, an internal organization focused on fostering opportunities for women at Raymond James. Starner was recognized as the Raymond James Woman of Distinction in 2006.
Moving forward, Starner is aimed at motivating the next generation of female leaders in the financial advice space with the Women’s Leadership Alliance, which she founded about three years ago.
“I started this nonprofit and we just raised short of $1 million to begin to develop it,” she said. “It’s been hard, by the way, we’re building a structure to get more mentorship for women to become advisers. It may be hard, but we’re women and we’re all bosses.”
Starner has been working with a group of Latina women advisers who are struggling to adjust to a “traditional white male-dominated environment,” she said. “I told them that they’re going to be pioneers in this industry, and one thing with being a pioneer is that you’re going to have a lot of arrows pointed at you, and you need to know that ahead of time.”
“Women can’t come into this industry thinking it’s going to be something you’re already used to — it’s not,” she said. “What is great is you’ll have an opportunity to make a difference because you’re pioneering a whole new concept for the industry.”
Starner also is a member of the Financial Planning Association, has served on the executive board of Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation since 1996, and is a past member of the board of the Securities Industry Institute.
Starner has no intentions of slowing down anytime soon. In fact, she balks at the idea of retiring. “I was supposed to retire nine years ago,” she said, with a laugh so sincere and inviting you can’t help but laugh with her.
Despite her insatiable passion for female empowerment, her temperament is fun, flowy and insanely personable.
“I remember early on in my career when a guy told me I’m too casual about everything,” she said. “Pretty soon, I was passing him up with clients and coaching him.”
However, being a pioneer for women isn’t easy, particularly because not all women are sure they want to have a voice in financial planning.
“The husband may be the dealmaker, but the wife is the dealbreaker,” she said. “However, many times the wife is reluctant to speak up.”
For advisers, it’s important to remember there will be times a woman doesn’t want to participate. “You have to figure out a way to let her, but it’s not always going to be the same for all women so as an adviser it’s your job to figure that out.”
Starner likes to have fun, but she attributes her successful career that spans four decades — and counting — to her discipline.
“Passion only gets you so far — it’s about doing the same thing every day until you are successful, that’s discipline,” she said, lamenting on the days when the internet came out and financial planners were deemed irrelevant. “But I stuck to it anyway.”
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