Q: How many women are CEOs of big companies? — R.W., Rutland, Vt.

A: The folks at Catalyst (a nonprofit advancing women in the workplace) maintain a list of female CEOs of the S&P 500. As of April 1, there are 30 out of the 500 – or 6%. They are Mary Barra, General Motors; Corie Barry, Best Buy; Gail Boudreaux, Anthem; Rosalind Brewer, Walgreens Boots Alliance; Michele Buck, The Hershey Company; Debra Cafaro, Ventas; Safra Catz, Oracle; Joanne Crevoiserat, Tapestry; Mary Dillon, Ulta Beauty; Jane Fraser, Citigroup; Adena Friedman, Nasdaq; Lynn Good, Duke Energy; Tricia Griffith, Progressive; Vicki Hollub, Occidental Petroleum; Jennifer Johnson, Franklin Resources; Reshma Kewalramani, Vertex Pharmaceuticals; Christine Leahy, CDW; Karen Lynch, CVS Health; Judy Marks, Otis Worldwide; Lisa Palmer, Regency Centers; Kristin Peck, Zoetis; Linda Rendle, The Clorox Company; Barbara Rentler, Ross Stores; Lori Ryerkerk, Celanese; Lisa Su, Advanced Micro Devices; Julie Sweet, Accenture; Sonia Sygnal, The Gap; Carol Tome, United Parcel Service; Jayshree Ullal, Arista Networks; and Kathy Warden, Northrop Grumman.

Here's hoping that within a few years there will be too many to list individually.

Q: Is it true that you can buy shares of stock directly from companies instead of through a brokerage? – H.C., Watertown, Wis.

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A : Yup. While you can own stocks in brokerage accounts and through mutual funds, many companies also let you buy their shares directly. You can do this using Dividend Reinvestment Plans (sometimes called "DRIPs"), Direct Stock Purchase Plans (DSPPs) or other methods. These plans generally let you spend small sums on stock, charge low or no fees and often allow you to reinvest dividends in additional shares or fractions of shares (though reinvested shares can require extra record-keeping).

Fool's School

Check Your Credit: It's important to keep track of your credit record and credit score – especially if you have some borrowing in your future, such as for a new car or a new house. Your credit record determines your credit score, and the higher your credit score, the better interest rates you'll be offered.

Consider this: If you were to borrow $200,000 for a $250,000 home with a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, your monthly payment might be around $955 with a 4% interest rate – but $1,074 at 5% interest. That $119 monthly difference will amount to $1,428 over a year and will cost you almost $43,000 in total interest paid over the 30 years.

While your credit report is likely several pages long, listing your creditors, bill-paying history and much more, your credit score is just a single number. Many credit cards offer free access to your credit score, and that's handy whether you're just curious or are working on improving it. (You do that by paying bills on time and paying off debts, among other things.)

You should review your credit reports regularly, to find and fix any errors that might lower your score. (While you're there, look for any signs of unauthorized activity, which might reflect identity theft.) Each report should tell you how to dispute anything that you believe is an error.

If a report contains information that's negative but accurate, it's likely to remain on your report for up to seven to 10 years. Fortunately, though, credit issuers tend to give more weight to your recent bill-paying history, so a clean record for the last year or two can make a real difference. Keep paying your bills on time, and your credit score will increase.

Everyone in the United States is legally entitled to an annual free copy of their credit report from each of the main credit-reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. It's smart to review reports from all three bureaus, as they may differ. Learn more about credit reports and how to order your free ones at Consumer.FTC.gov.

My dumbest investment

The chips were down: My dumbest investment was selling NVIDIA shares that I'd bought at around $16 each a decade ago, as part of my retirement account. I held them for a few years, then sold because the stock wasn't performing – yet. I missed out on a return of 14 or 15 times my original investment of $10,000. I learned to be patient, especially when I know the company is on the right track. – D.M., online.

The Fool responds: Yikes – with NVIDIA shares recently topping $500 apiece, you missed out on more than a thirtyfold gain in your investment.

But we can't capture all of every great stock's gains. Your job as a long-term investor is to park your hard-earned dollars in the most promising investments you find, and then to wait – often for many years, and possibly for decades. Lots of great stocks will increase in value tenfold, twentyfold or sometimes even a hundredfold over long periods. As long as the company is performing well, maintains competitive advantages, and still has plenty of room to grow, it's best to hang on – through inevitable temporary downturns and occasional slumps. NVIDIA, which specializes in programmable graphics-processor technologies, has grown powerfully, but many still expect yet more growth due to demand for its chip technology that serves high-end video gamers, data centers and even cryptocurrency miners.

Foolish Trivia

Name that company: I trace my roots back to 1993, when I was founded in St. Louis. I went on to acquire cable systems across the nation, but was deep in debt – and trouble – by 2009. I spent much of that year in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, but I emerged stronger. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen held a controlling stake in me for about a decade. Today, with a market value recently near $136 billion, I'm a major telecom enterprise. I have the Spectrum brand, a network of more than 750,000 miles and more than 31 million customers in 41 states. Who am I?

Last week's trivia answer

I trace my roots back to 1938, when a guy in Chicago started a mail-order tractor parts business at his kitchen table – and soon opened his first store, in Minot, N.D.. I hit $1 billion in sales in 2002 and was added to the S&P 500 index and the Fortune 500 in 2014. Today, with a stock market value recently near $20 billion, I'm the premier "rural lifestyle" retailer in the U.S., with more than 1,900 stores in 49 states, and more than 42,000 workers. I also own the Petsense chain of more than 180 stores in 25 states. Who am ? (Answer: Tractor Supply Co.)

The Motley Fool Take

Merck. Plenty of potential: The pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. (NYSE: MRK) hasn't performed well over the past year, but that poor showing means its stock has remained at relatively attractive levels. The company's forward-looking price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio was recently around 12, compared with a forward P/E of about 22 for the S&P 500. The low price has also pushed up its dividend yield, recently to a solid 3.4%.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing stay-at-home orders led to reduced access to health care products such as vaccines and medicines, which didn't help Merck's business. But there are excellent reasons to think its performance will improve as the world shifts back.

Arguably the most important reason is the company's Keytruda drug, approved to treat various types of cancer. In 2020, Merck's sales were up a meager 2% year over year to $48 billion, but Keytruda sales jumped by 30% year over year to $14.4 billion. And the cancer medicine still has a bright future; it's currently undergoing multiple Phase 3 clinical trials, and it stands a decent chance of being approved to treat additional conditions within a few years.

Merck's pipeline features dozens of drugs in development. Its animal health business is also performing well. This is a solid health care stock, whose shares may not remain on the cheap side for much longer.

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