The 2021 Business Book Awards

McGhee’s book—as brilliant, beautifully written, and ultimately buoyant as it is—is not an easy read.

The truths McGhee reveals will make readers uncomfortable or even angry at times. She unflinchingly exposes the brutality of an economy built on the backs of slave labor in colonial America, a system that was preserved and even enshrined in law when the colonies coalesced into a single nation. She explains how, even after a bloody Civil War between the states ended slavery, systematic oppression of Black Americans was extended through Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration and how, as New Deal and postwar economic policies built a robust middle class that would come to define the American Dream, the Black community was refused entry and redlined out of it. And when Civil Rights legislation was enacted that might finally secure that access, a large portion of the wider populace that had already reaped the benefits suddenly decided that the government providing for the social good wasn’t such a good thing to do after all. White America, it seemed, would rather do without public investment in their own communities and wellbeing—would rather go without everything from public swimming pools that once formed a focal point of communities across the country, to affordable public universities, let alone any shot at public healthcare—if Black Americans were going to be considered a part of the public with shared access to them.

Social progress and economic justice for some was posed as a threat to others—a zero-sum narrative that had its roots in the beginning of our colonial history and the institutionalization of chattel slavery. McGhee lays out this history not to dwell on the past, but to explain how much of our present is intertwined with and influenced by it—how that narrative, in fact, continues to hold sway.  

It is a history and reality that many don’t want acknowledged or taught today, but we believe it is a profound and impactful presentation of the facts, past and present, that need to be examined and addressed as we continue to build our businesses, consider economic policy, and engage in public life. As McGhee writes: 

The narrative that white people should see the well-being of people of color as a threat to their own is one of the most powerful subterranean stories in America. Until we destroy the idea, opponents of progress can always unearth it and use it to block any collective action that benefits us all.  

The only way to destroy such a deeply entrenched idea is to expose it for the lie that it is and show its insidious effects on us all. And that is exactly what The Sum of Us does. And it is, in the end, a hopeful and inspiring book, calling on us to remember the power we have as individuals and communities to work together, to “live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class,” to protect and extend what we have come to call the American Dream by ensuring that it is accessible to all. 

Jack Covert Award for Contribution to the Business Book Industry

Our founder and former president, Jack Covert, passed away in August. Because of that, this year we will not be handing out the award that we named in his honor. Instead, we are using this space to honor Jack himself.  

Jack made an indelible imprint on the company he founded and those that work here, and we are committed to bringing not just his memory but also his wisdom forward with us into the future.  

Read about Jack and his legacy

Category Winner

Leadership & Strategy

The Promises of Giants by John Amaechi OBE | Nicholas Brealey Review Press

Unlike many leadership books, it was written with the understanding that all of us, regardless of our titles, wield influence and have the ability to lead. It is "rooted in the belief that the most unlikely of people, in the most improbable of circumstances, can become extraordinary." Amaechi suggests fourteen promises we should all make in that effort, promises that honor others' humanity and inherent dignity, and help us take greater care in how we exercise our influence so it is deliberately productive and positive rather than unintentionally harmful to individuals around us and the organizations of human beings we work with.

Read an excerpt

Category Winner

Management & Workplace Culture

Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life by Gillian Tett | Avid Reader Press

Gillian Tett’s 2015 book, The Silo Effect, turned an anthropological lens on organizational silos, explaining how they can be broken down to incubate ideas across different disciplines and unleash innovation in organizations. This year, in Anthro-Vision, she broadened those lessons to help us understand the need to get an outsider’s view on things—to make the “strange familiar” and the “familiar strange”—in every aspect of our life and work. The tools of anthropology, particularly the face-to-face, human observation and interaction used in ethnographic research, she insists, “are as useful in making sense of an Amazon warehouse as in an Amazon jungle.” She encourages us to use a new AI—anthropology intelligence—alongside artificial intelligence and big data, and social science alongside computer science, to uncover what we’ve become blind to and overcome the pre-existing biases that are baked into big data sets. So, rather than abandon expertise or science, we can embrace it by broadening our view to overcome the tunnel vision on the “big data” alone and develop a lateral vision that takes into account the “thick data” and descriptions that comes from the social context, culture, and people involved. If we get the process right, instead of obscuring real, individual human beings in a mass of numbers, we can learn more about each other and ourselves in the process.  

Category Winner

Marketing & Sales

The Widest Net: Unlock Untapped Markets and Discover New Customers Right in Front of You by Pamela Slim | McGraw-Hill

Ever since her Escape from Cubicle Nation—both the book and the reality itself—Slim has been out in the world building something new. It is focused in downtown Mesa, Arizona and the K’é Main Street Learning Lab she and her husband built to serve that community, but she has worked with thousands of entrepreneurs around the world and reached many more through her previous books. But her new book might be the best yet. As the jacket copy states:

Companies today are more vulnerable than ever to the blinders of culture, background, and lived experience. As the author explains, social media creates a comfortable cocoon for entrepreneurs, marketers, and leaders. However, we all need to understand the entirety of the marketplace. The real world offers far more opportunities outside our field of view.

Slim has been out in that real world for over a decade removing her own blinders and showing others how to do the same—conducting research, helping small business owners from diverse backgrounds, and gaining a new wealth of knowledge and experience to share. She has distilled it all down to 288 clear-eyed, inspirational, and actionable pages in The Widest Net.

Read an excerpt

Category Winner

Innovation & Creativity

Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways by Sarah Stein Greenberg and Stanford | Ten Speed Press

The book is not only actionable, but a hands-on toolkit that provides the reader with activities and creative experience through the over eighty assignments contained within. Chosen by the's executive director Sarah Stein Greenberg from “a wide range of activities developed and taught at the, plus a few that were created elsewhere by members of the extended family,” these “exercises embody playful yet rigorous ideas, and they’ll help you begin to act your way into a new creative reality.” 

The assignments may require you to confront some of your fears, or to cultivate a little oddness in your life. They will encourage you to engage with your feelings, to feel the physical world around you, and to engage with and feel the pain and joy of others. As our Creative Director Gabbi Cisneros wrote of the book, it provides “an essential reminder that, although many creatives are introverted individuals, the social aspect of creativity is what brings about the best ideas.” 

Read an excerpt

Category Winner

Personal Development & Human Behavior

The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change by Michelle MiJung Kim | Hachette Go

As our Community and Publicity Manager, Emily Porter, recently wrote about the book:

Seeking the knowledge and learning that enables us to become more well versed on everyday forms of oppression, and to better understand those around us, is important for us all. Michelle MiJung Kim, CEO and Co-Founder of Awaken, an organization that helps “empower leaders and teams to lead inclusively and authentically,” has an ample amount of experience in facilitating such understanding and bringing clarity to why we must address such things at work—in ways both big and (seemingly) small.

And, as we all know from our own personal lives, seemingly small acts can have a big impact, while the bigger issues in our society have a way of filtering into our smaller, everyday interactions. Helping us more clearly see how and when and why that happens—especially in our own interactions, especially when it can cause us to inadvertently harm those we care about and work with—is just one way The Wake Up can transform our good intentions into real change.

Read an excerpt

Category Winner

Current Events

Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy by Christopher Mims | Harper Business

There is a great quote attributed to National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson that “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” The same can be applied in a figurative sense to a great deal of nonfiction writing, as well. And just as some of the most interesting and revealing photographs come from seemingly mundane everyday scenes, the most revelatory writing is often buried in the unseen machinations or our everyday lives. So it is with Arriving Today by Christopher Mims.  

We've all stood outside our front door to get a recently delivered package. What Christopher Mims has done is placed himself in front of and amidst the many people and incredible complexity of the effort that it took to get it there. It is a fascinating journey though the modern, global supply chain that he began just as the pandemic altered it, and our everyday lives, turning the heretofore arcane arena of supply chains and business logistics into one of the most talked about topics of the past year. Interesting stuff, indeed. 


Read an excerpt

Category Winner

Narrative & Biography

Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR by Lisa Napoli | Abrams Press

Our friend and former coworker Blyth Meier used to joke that so many of the books we cover are about “how the world is going to end.” It sounds a bit severe, but because of the state of the world and the many challenges and crises we face today, covering business and nonfiction can sometimes feel a little severe—if not quite apocalyptic. But it’s not always so bad.

Sometimes we are reminded of the significant—albeit imperfect—progress we have made, and that this work continues. Sometimes we get books about how the world has been made, and made better, by individuals’ work and example. And the influence of Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts has been substantial. Chartered in 1970, the fledgling news organization they did so much to give shape and voice to, NPR, is today an institution. It isn’t a perfect institution, but our media landscape would be much poorer without its existence, and National Public Radio would not be what it is today without the considerable influence of the women who Stamberg dubbed its “founding mothers.” Lisa Napoli’s Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie tells that story. 

Read an excerpt

Category Winner

Big Ideas & New Perspectives

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee | One World

It is somewhat regrettable that the great research and writing Heather McGhee brings to The Sum of Us can even be considered a big idea or a new perspective in 2021, that we have so far been unable to see and build a more solid, common bond across race, class, and culture in our country that would allow us all a greater chance to prosper. But, as McGhee shows, we are still in the thrall of a false, zero-sum narrative suggesting that providing for the basic well-being of some must come at a cost to others. It is a myth as old as our nation, wrapped up in a repugnant belief in racial hierarchy that was used to condone the original sin of slavery, and that persists in undermining any effort to more adequately ensure the well-being of us all. Most of us believe that racism poisons the mind, and many accept that it pollutes our politics. Fewer see how racism continues to undermine our economy and individual prosperity. Heather McGhee’s book makes it clear, and offers a path to greater understanding and solidarity that can help us improve our personal lives, elevate our politics, and build greater prosperity in these divided and troubled times. That makes it not only a big idea, but one whose time has hopefully, finally, come.

Read an excerpt

Watch the 2021 Porchlight Business Book Awards Announcement Video

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