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Discovering 'The Richest Woman in America'

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- In her book The Richest Woman in America (Nan A. Talese, 2013), Janet Wallach chronicles the cosmic ascension of Hetty Green, who had amassed $100 million (equivalent to some $2.5 billion today) by the time of her death in 1916. A true self-made female tycoon, she was an anomaly in her day.

It was in 2007 that Wallach first discovered Green, and when the Great Recession arrived in 2008, as the writer poured over her research and scanned the newspapers of Green's era, Wallach realized the true genius of her new obsessional figure; Green had lived through the financial panics of 1873, 1893 and 1907, and not only did she survive, but she also came out on top.

To excavate the strategies of Hetty Green that led her to become the richest woman in America, MainStreet posed the following questions to Wallach.

Today we have female billionaires from Spanx founder Sara Blakely to Oprah Winfrey: what attributes do the modern female tycoons share with Hetty Green? Which women (or men) is she most similar to in today's world?

Wallach: Like Hetty Green, each of these modern women billionaires is a pioneer venturing into unknown territory, ready to face anyone, male or female, who stands in her way. It takes tremendous courage and fierce belief in yourself to start a business or invest your money when everyone tells you you're wrong. Sara Blakely fought against long-established trends in her industry and refused to give up; Oprah Winfrey crossed color and gender lines with her ventures. Hetty Green dared to go beyond the boundaries of Wall Street. She was a woman who bashed the male bears and bought when they were selling; she battled the male bulls and sold when they were buying. Her instincts were to go against the crowd mentality. But her actions were met with rejection, resentment and repudiation.

Hetty Green was the female Warren Buffett of her time. She believed that common sense was essential to making money. She studied her companies, read everything she could, talked to anyone who knew anything about them, and only when she was convinced of the real value of the business did she buy or sell. Like Buffett, she believed that financial crises presented a great opportunity for investors. On a more personal level, she, like Buffet, lived simply, and derived her pleasure not from spending money but from making it.