Book recommendations

Must-reads of 2020

By Larry Gennari
Boston Business Journal

The end of any year, especially one like this, has many of us scrambling to find just the right gift for friends and family. Now more than ever, we value insight, knowledge, perspective and the chance to become our best selves, personally and professionally. I’ve read a lot of books this year, and I am happy to recommend 10 2020 titles that appeal to the thoughtful and entrepreneurial readers on your list. Check them out:

Post-Corona, by NYU business school professor Scott Galloway. As direct, audacious and thoughtful as its author, this book is a must-read for any CEO, management team or investor trying to set strategy in this soon-to-be post-pandemic economy. I loved Galloway’s spot-on take on the power and influence of the “Big Four” (Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook), and I think that every parent of a college age student would do well to read his predictions about the coming disruption of higher ed and the future of work.

How I Built This, by NPR’s Guy Raz, the creator and host of the popular podcast of the same name. Raz is the son of entrepreneurs and a former war reporter, and he’s pulled together an important “lessons learned” volume from interviews with hundreds of successful and inspiring entrepreneurs from across a wide range of industries. Every chapter, with topics ranging from idea development and financing to executing, pivoting and creating buzz, centers on the experiences and hard-won wisdom from now-famous entrepreneurs with recognized brands and products.

The Growing Season: How I Saved an American Farm and Built a New Life, by Sarah Frey, CEO of Frey Farms. This is easily is one of the most memorable business books of the year. Frey, one of 21 children of a colorful, entrepreneurial father, grew up on a farm in southern Illinois, where she learned the agricultural business literally from the ground up. You can’t help but root for this energetic, brash young entrepreneur as she confronts sexism, inconsistent weather, crazy delivery logistics, and the mercurial buyers and supply chains at Walmart and Lowe’s, all the while building a sprawling, billion-dollar enterprise of wholesale fruits and vegetables as well as an impressive natural beverage product company.

Blindsight, The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes Our Brains, by neuroscientist Matt Johnson and consumer-marketing guru and neuromarketing expert Prince Ghuman. Our own expectations can shape the message we are hearing. I was fascinated by the countless, entertaining examples of how shapes, colors and smells can influence decisions around pricing, product development and marketing.

The Power of Bad and How to Overcome It, by New York Times Science Editor John Tierney and psychologist Roy Baumeistertackles how our built-in human bias for the negative colors first impressions, shapes how we build relationships, and ultimately, becomes a darker lens through which we view the world. Put simply, with news, projections, and our initial views of topics in general, why do we always assume the worst?  I’ll now spend even less time watching cable TV. Maybe CNN’s ratings formula really does stand for “constantly negative news”?

The Startup Playbook, by Will Herman and Raj Bhargava, now out in its latest edition, is a terrific and practical “how to” book for any aspiring entrepreneur. The chapters are logically sequenced to set out the very real challenges behind team building, product development, and financing strategy. If you know someone considering a new business beginning, this is the book for them.

First Pitch: Winning Money, Mentors, and More for Your Startup, by Debi Kleiman, director of the Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College. Centered on the engaging stories of actual entrepreneurs, the book takes the reader step-by-step through the early, daunting task of creating a compelling and impactful pitch for investors, advisors, and customers. This is a book worth adding to any business library—and for enthusiastically passing on to entrepreneurial friends.

Girl Decoded, by Rana el Kaliouby, single mom, Ph.D, Muslim woman scientist in an overwhelmingly male field — and founder of an artificial-intelligence startup spun off from the MIT Media Lab. This engaging book is part personal memoir, part clarion call for applying emotion recognition technology to virtually every field, including mental health and autism.  With AI sorting and sifting our online choices, this book reminds us that the human always must come before the artificial.

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, by author, historian, and Harvard fellow Candacy Taylor. It’s a riveting chronicle of the Green Book, the travel guide published for black motorists from 1936-1967. Taylor takes the reader back in time to the Jim Crowyears and through the civil rights movement when a simple road trip for a black motorist was a demonstrable act of courage in many parts of the country. We know that traveling builds community. When you finish Taylor’s book, you’ll have a better understanding why it matters and the work that lies ahead—for all of us.

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, by Harvard professor Michael Sandel, is among the most consequential books of 2020. Sandel takes on our business and media culture of crowning “winners and losers” and offers a new and compelling way of thinking about success, moving away from the all-too-familiar and often misleading “rhetoric of rising” that holds “anyone can make it if they really try,” which he argues is not only untrue for so many, but also erodes community and demoralizes millions left behind by globalization.

As this unusual year comes to a close, we all will gain from stepping back and reflecting on our personal and business lives.  These books, available from your local independent bookseller, will be a great addition to that important task.

 Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival.  Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.


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