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Must-read business biographies

By Kobo • July 16, 2022Big Ideas in Books

These are thrilling tales of risk and reward, heroes and villains, and the makings of power brokers and their legacies.

In the best business biographies, readers get to know what drives founders and leaders, which decisions were the ones that turned out to matter most, and what challenges emerged along the way. Discerning readers don’t want a self-aggrandizing myth of a fortune foretold; we want to hear about the lucky coincidences, the competitors who stumbled at the critical moment, the mistakes that turned out to be the right calls in the long run. We want to see the human side of the story.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

Today, Nike’s annual sales top $30 billion—but it took a lot of work, smarts, and incredible luck to get there. Nike founder Phil Knight tells the thrilling story of how the shoestring company he founded in 1964 to import Japanese track shoes became a global icon. In every chapter Knight seems as amazed as anyone that things worked out as they did—and he doesn’t mind sharing his low points and mistakes as well as internal conflicts that shaped him as a founder and Nike as a brand.

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

Amazon’s strategic consistency from Day 1 means to understand it now, you need you understand how it started and the man behind it all. Though Amazon and Bezos have done plenty in the years since this book was published, it still stands as the definitive account of Bezos’ upbringing and Amazon’s early years.

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The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire by Stephen Bown

Founded in 1670 to conduct trade between a handful of English aristocrats and Indigenous peoples around Hudson’s Bay, The Hudson’s Bay Company is one of Canada’s most fundamental national institutions—with repercussions that have far outlasted its commercial significance. Bown tells a ripping yarn of ambition, greed, and scheming in this award-winning book.

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Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace

Pixar wasn’t supposed to be a movie studio. Founder Ed Catmull, a computer scientist by training who now works as President of Walt Disney Animation, tells the story of how the company when from computer graphics software to animated feature films with some help from George Lucas and Steve Jobs. Along the way Catmull learned—often through trial and error—how to run a company that gets the best out of everyone.c

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The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner

A story so incredible you’ll hardly believe anybody lived it before Will Smith played the role of the protagonist in the film adaptation. Chris Gardner had a bright future ahead of him when he left the US Navy, but a series of unfortunate events left him and his son homeless while he continued to work and try to climb out of poverty—ending up as a major player on Wall Street.

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Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

Patrick Radden Keefe, the award-winning author of Say Nothing, tells the multigenerational story of the Sackler family, whose running of the Purdue pharmaceutical company led to the creation of OxyContin, the drug behind the horrors of the opioid crisis that still takes a toll on America today. It’s the story of brothers, Raymond, Mortimer, and Arthur, whose combined talents created a marketing-savvy pharmaceutical company the likes of which the world had never seen. How did the Sacklers become philanthropists with their names adorning wings of the world’s greatest art galleries—and how did it all come undone?

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Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins, Elizabeth Gardner Hines

Award-winning television journalist Carol Jenkins and her daughter Elizabeth Gardner Hines tell the story of Jenkins’ uncle A. G. Gaston. Born to the children of slaves in 1892, Gaston died in the late 20th century with a fortune of over $130 million earned through the financial empire he built, and which underwrote significant parts of the movement for civil rights in the 1960s.

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Personal History by Katherine Graham

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, this is the story of the woman who piloted the Washington Post newspaper through the scandals of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Graham was born to wealth and power but chose to break into the boys’ club of the newspaper business anyway, serving at the helm of one of the great American institutions of journalism while it made history.

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Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

Reading this book, you’ll wonder where Shonda Rhimes—TV mogul behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Bridgerton, and many, many more hit shows, as well as a parent to three children—ever found the time to write it. Here Rhimes reveals how she, an introvert, struggled to stop using the demands of her job(s) as an excuse for isolating herself from experiences that she was afraid of—and started saying yes to opportunities for growth. It’s as much a warts-and-all memoir as a self-help guide for readers who need a nudge to step out of their comfort zone.

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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

The award-winning author of Alexander Hamilton draws on the private papers of the enigmatic John D. Rockefeller to try to explain a man who was both the unstoppable mogul at the head of the Standard Oil Company and a philanthropist whose lavish gifts benefited universities and medical research facilities.

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The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution by Gregory Zuckerman

Jim Simons is the mathematician who is the reason Wall Street today is so hungry for algorithm-tuning mathematicians. This is the story of how he conquered financial markets in the 80s and 90s and inadvertently led to Brexit and the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

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Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

In this suitable follow-on read after The Man Who Solved the Market, this is the story of a band of disgruntled Wall Street players who realize how fundamentally rigged the system is in favour of a handful of powerful players and how they set out to fix it.

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Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

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