They were treated like royalty, with awards, prizes, and food galore, and even free salsa-dancing lessons provided by a sexy hunk dressed in black. The three-day conference is the highlight of the year for many attendees, who praised the inspiration they gathered from one another and the integrity of Raymond James & Associates as a woman-friendly company.

    Raymond James is not alone in recognizing and attempting to harness the untapped power of women advisors, nor is it alone in the problems it faces recruiting and retaining talent. While 12.5% of women in the top echelon of producers at Raymond James & Associates are women (a 20% increase over the past year), only 11% of the St. Petersburg firm's 860 brokers are women. The numbers are a little better for sister company Raymond James Financial Services, where women comprise 15% of the firm's 3,850 independent reps.

    These statistics are representative of brokerage firms across the country. At independent broker-dealers LPL Financial Services, (5,700 total reps) and Commonwealth Financial Network (1,140), roughly 16% of reps are women. The numbers suggest that women do better as independents, with more control over how they run their businesses.

    In many ways, women are ideally suited for the profession. They are praised for being excellent listeners, teachers, multitaskers, consensus-builders and realists when it comes to the challenges of everyday life.

    "It's easy to stereotype, but women do tend to focus a lot more on some of the intangibles, for example whether a client is happy or not, and to challenge them without being confrontational," Starner says. She has managed to carve out a niche for herself, with a fee-based practice that markets to clients, including many business owners, in the 45- to 55-year-old range. "Advisors in Florida often prospect to retirees in their sixties and seventies, but we start earlier, when issues of business succession, college planning, elder care and maintaining income for life are likely to come up." As part of her fee, children of clients are encouraged to call for financial advice at any time. Many eventually become clients themselves.

    Starner attributes her success to her passion for financial planning, her fierce advocacy on behalf of clients, and a touch of plain old naïveté. As a child of the only Chinese family in a small town of 2,500 people in Mississippi, Starner was used to being an outsider, and never flinched when men teased her or called her honey and dear. "I assumed that was normal everywhere," she says, "because in the South, these were friendly terms."

    Starner believes that financial planning calls for many of the skills that women have already developed in everyday life. "Women tend to plan naturally, to multitask, to be a little more inquisitive, you could say busybodies, and we're used to herding our kids and husbands around and being bossy," Starner says. "Now I get paid to do that.

    "But it wasn't always that way. Starner considers her naiveté to have been a plus in the early stages of her career in the early 1980's. For example, she thought that she had been invited to an employment interview at Raymond James, which was then a very small regional brokerage, but when she arrived at the home office in St. Petersburg, Fla., no one was expecting her. "Instead, they treated me like a special guest, and led me around to all the offices of the principals who would later become my sponsors and mentors," she recalls. 

    Starner was hired and given unprecedented independence within the company. "I made a deal whereby I would not be accountable for selling anything the first year," she says. "That would be unheard of today. I had no idea I was negotiating, I just asked for what I wanted and got it." 

    In strange ways, the small firm's informality worked to her advantage. Starner considered it a stroke of luck when she was asked to pick up chairman and founder Bob James at the airport and chauffeur him around town, a task that might prompt today's female-or male-MBAs to feel put out. "We were a small company and no one else had time. It was another great accident because he was a great teacher, and very kind. He offered two pieces of advice that have stayed with me to this day," she remembers. "First, he told me that I was too idealistic, and that I would first have to become very successful myself before anyone believed a word I said. Secondly, he told me that there were so many people who were going to seek out financial planning in the future that I should never feel bad about those that turned me down. That helped me not to suffer rejection."