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Lessons from 'The Richest Woman in America'

Article by Matthew Denhart February 1, 2013 //   2 minute read
Is the experience of Hetty Green — the richest woman in America's 'Gilded Age' — a model that should be emulated by those seeking fortune today? That’s the question my colleague Amity Shlaes addresses in a recent Wall Street Journal review of Janet Wallach’s new biography of Green, “The Richest Woman in America.” Shlaes gives credit to Green for some of her undeniable business skills, most notably Green’s savvy at judging the solvency of banks. But overall, Shlaes finds Green’s career less than admirable, and not a model for emulation. Shlaes especially finds fault with Green’s extreme use of litigation, writing:
It was precisely Green's vision of life as a zero-sum game, a match between enemies, that proved her flaw. She appreciated the idea that dollars compound, but she never seemed to grasp that the compounding of ideas, innovation, is just as important, that in certain, non-litigious, environments ideas "fructify," to use a period verb. Litigation like Green's prevented the kind of innovation in which she might have wanted to invest.
Litigiousness harms innovation, and thus economic growth. Hetty Green should not be our model for economic success, rather we should find inspiration from true innovators whose new ideas changed the world. You can read Shlaes’s entire review here, and can purchase Wallach’s full biography of Green here.