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Program Seeks to Broaden Fund Market

At 24, Carmen Caldwell has already invested some $700 in mutual funds. And unlike many investors her age, she took the initiative to set up the account herself.

The single graduate student, who lives in Federal Way, Wash., just south of Seattle, has earned a bachelor's degree in biology and works as a specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency.

She earns $37,000 a year and invests in the retirement savings program provided by the EPA. And she takes evening classes at the University of Washington in hopes of earning a masters degree in public administration.

For Caldwell, all of this ads up to an ambitious plan.

"I'm retiring at 45," she says.

Caldwell is an example of the type of investor the mutual fund industry is trying to attract through a year-old program called "Investing for Success." This spring she attended a free, two-hour seminar in Seattle the program sponsored to attract African-Americans such as Caldwell to the idea of investing.

The seminars, conducted by portfolio managers and fund company principals, are sponsored by the Investment Company Institute Education Foundation, the National Urban League and the Coalition of Black Investors - Investment Education Fund.

African-Americans save about 20 percent less for retirement than whites, according to a study conducted by Ariel Mutual Funds and Charles Schwab & Co. Forty-eight percent of African-Americans in the survey said they own mutual funds, compared to 61 percent of whites, according to the study.

Those figures have prompted efforts to get more African Americans to invest - and to invest more frequently, said Mellody Hobson, president of the African-American-owned Ariel Investments of Chicago.

The seminars provide basic investing advice and information about investment vehicles, such as mutual funds, said Derede McAlpin, a spokesperson at the ICI. Attendees also receive an information packet and videotape that summarize the information. No information about specific fund companies is provided, she said.

The organizations have hosted similar seminars in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston, Boston and several other major cities, McAlpin said. More will follow in the next few months.

"We just felt that the wealth gap that exists between black and white America is one that we can have a role in changing," said Hobson, who will speak at one of the seminars next month in Chicago.

The ICI thinks getting African-Americans to invest at the same rate as whites is simply a good thing to do, McAlpin said. But Milton Little, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the National Urban League, said he has spoken with several fund industry executives who, concerned that the mutual fund market has become saturated, are eager to cultivate new demographic groups.

"I think the mutual fund industry is looking for some new folks to engage in its efforts so the seminars do something to meet the needs of the industry as well," he said.

That idea is in line with a nationwide trend of politicians using segmented marketing techniques to garner votes and executives in all industries using similar tactics to gain market share, said Burton Greenwald, president of B.J. Greenwald Associates, of Philadelphia, a consultant to the mutual fund industry.

"It's a natural evolution as marketing techniques become more sophisticated and the low-hanging fruit is harvested," he said. "You begin to use new techniques and segmented marketing is part of that."

Still, no minority group, racial, religious or otherwise, has a large enough population to alone provide a sufficiently large new market, and because of that, such segmented marketing can only serve as a supplemental effort to wider marketing campaigns, he said.

Organizers say it is too early to assess whether the program is actually resulting in more African Americans investing, but they say attendance at the seminars has been strong, averaging 200 at each.