The Best Books for First Time Startup Founders

Twenty-nine-year-old Emilie Cushman is the founder and CEO of Kira Talent, a leading tech company in the higher education space. Founded when Cushman was herself a college student, Kira Talent grew out of a desire to help admissions teams identify the students who will succeed in their programs through an application process that goes beyond test scores, GPAs, and essays. Implemented by institutions in over 25 countries, the video-based platform aggregates data on competencies such as leadership potential, motivation, critical thinking, and empathy. Kira Talent has partnered with an impressive list of over 350 university programs in California and New York, including Stanford, USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC San Diego, Pepperdine University, NYU, and Cornell. Here, Cushman shares the media that inspires her to live, love, and lead better.


I read fun novels and boring business books alike. Some might regard fiction as a waste of time, but I’ve drawn a wealth of inspiration from military books such as Admiral William H. McRaven’s Sea Stories to memoirs and biographies like Michelle Obama’s Becoming and I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai to even Reese Witherspoon’s book club picks. Novels can take one on an adventure of a lifetime, while business books can offset failure by revealing other people’s mistakes and illustrating the basic principles of founding a company. My top picks for anyone launching a startup are Good to Great, The Lean Startup, and The Innovator’s Dilemma. Don’t even begin until you read these books.

Right now, I am enjoying books that teach me how to solve the most beautiful and complex puzzle of all: people. Optimizing team performance requires a solid understanding of how people think and what makes them react. Your team is the lifeline of your business. Reading a book such as The 5 Love Languages is just as important as reading The Hard Things about Hard Things. Lean In and Brotopia have given me a deeper awareness and insight into the challenges of being a female founder, but The Happiness Advantage helps me understand why people operate the way they do. Thanks to an subscription, reading these books requires minimal effort and makes my 50-minute commute to work insanely productive.


I identify with strong female characters such as Sandra Bullock as the mom in the movie The Blindside, Reyna James on the TV show “Nashville,” and Donna Paulsen on the legal drama Suits. Fierce and assertive, these women never hide who they are for one second. As Reese Witherspoon would say, “They are like whiskey in a teacup.” I also love watching Netflix docu-series such as Broken, a series about how we can make our planet more sustainable. I admit to watching my fair share of The Bachelor for relaxation. Binging reality shows is my meditation.


While Twitter is too noisy, Instagram is just right. I follow pretty things, such as home decor on One Kings Lane, so I can get inspired for my next room renovation project. I’m not too big on blogs, but everyday in my inbox, I receive curated Medium articles with titles such as “How I Escaped a Toxic Relationship Despite Wanting to Stay,” “The Problem with Taking Away Children’s Obstacles” or “The 10 Mistakes Smart People Make.” I’m big on The Economist for international news, but I also find scrolling through left- and right-wing news accounts on Instagram to get both sides of the story as efficient.