Elisabeth Koll

Associate Professor of Business Administration (Leave of Absence)

Unit: Entrepreneurial Management


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Elisabeth Köll is an Associate Professor in the Entrepreneurial Management unit at the Harvard Business School. After pursuing her undergraduate education at the University of Bonn in Germany, and at Fudan University, Shanghai, she received her PhD in Chinese Business History from Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She has taught The Entrepreneurial Manager (TEM) in the first-year MBA curriculum and a graduate seminar on global business history in the doctoral program. As part of the school’s January term program, she leads an Immersion Experience Program in China and has previously taught in the elective course “Doing Business in China”. Within Harvard University she is affiliated with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies as a member of its executive committee, participates as Senior Scholar in the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies and maintains an affiliation with the History Department.

Professor Köll’s central research agenda focuses on the managerial, legal, and financial evolution of firms and the role of entrepreneurship in China throughout the twentieth century to the present. In her work she pursues an alternative approach to the field of business history by shifting the analysis from external factors such as government policies, local politics, or family networks to internal aspects of business institutions such as control and ownership, accounting, and management. Her book From Cotton Mill to Business Enterprise: The Emergence of Regional Enterprises in Modern China (Harvard, 2003) demonstrates how concepts, definitions, and interpretations of property rights, corporate structures, and business practices in contemporary China can be analyzed in terms of their historical, institutional, and cultural roots. Elisabeth’s current research involves a project on the development of Chinese railroads as infrastructure and business institutions and their significance to the economic and political interests of the Chinese state. The book project, under contract with Harvard University Press, explores how railroad companies have contributed to China’s economic and social growth and furthered the country’s political development as a modern nation-state.

Elisabeth has lived and conducted field work in China for many years. She began her studies in Shanghai in 1986 as an undergraduate and gained her first practical business experience working as an intern for a Chinese-German joint-venture firm in Tianjin in the summer of 1987. Since then she returns to China on a regular basis and maintains a research affiliation with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. She collaborates with colleagues in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and has received various grants from organizations such as the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation and the Research Foundation of Japanese Banks in Tokyo. In 2005 she received a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies which allowed her to pursue her research work in Shanghai, Jinan, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Hong Kong for a year. From 2004 to 2006 she was elected president of the Historical Society for 20th-Century China (HSTCC). Prior to coming to HBS she taught at Case Western Reserve University.

Featured Work


Journal Articles

Book Chapters

  1. China: The Indigenization of Insurance

    The concept of insurance was introduced to China in the early nineteenth century by Westerners trading in Guangzhou and practised essentially among them. We argue that indigenization of insurance, in particular life insurance, was a slow process that stretched from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. The establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, with a decided turn against foreign enterprises operating in China from the 1950s, and radical communism from the late 1960s through the 1970s, led to its eradication. It was revived from the reversal of the state's policy towards private business from late 1978, and has grown rapidly since. While insurance as a concept and product has been a big success in post-reform China, the growth of the industry has created strong domestic competition with foreign insurance companies still struggling to find their place. However, changes in the industry are also due to China's economic transformation, demographic changes due to an aging population and an economic agenda shaped by the state. As our chapter demonstrates, insurance companies and the fate of multinational competition will remain part of the state-driven agenda for the foreseeable future.

    Keywords: History; Insurance; Insurance Industry; China;


    Koll, Elisabeth, and David Faure. "China: The Indigenization of Insurance." In World Insurance: The Evolution of a Global Risk Network, edited by Peter Borscheid and Niels Viggo Haueter. Oxford University Press, 2012. View Details
  2. A Fine Balance: Chinese Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship in Historical Perspective

    Keywords: History; Entrepreneurship; China;


    Koll, Elisabeth. "A Fine Balance: Chinese Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship in Historical Perspective." In The People's Republic of China at 60--An International Assessment, edited by William C. Kirby. Cambridge: Harvard University, Asia Center, 2011. View Details
  3. Paying in Paper: A Government Voucher from the Southern Song

    Keywords: History; Money; China;


    Goetzmann, William N., and Elisabeth Koll. "Paying in Paper: A Government Voucher from the Southern Song." In The Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations that Created Modern Capital Markets, Translation by Wany Yu and Wang Wenyu. Shenyang: Wan juan chu ban gong si, 2010, Chinese Mandarin ed. View Details
  4. Chinese Railroads, Local Society, and Foreign Presence: The Tianjin-Pukou Line in pre-1949 Shandong

    This chapter explores issues of how Chinese railroads improved social mobility and standards of living along major trunk lines, and how foreign investment shaped the integration of the Chinese railroad network from the early 1900s to 1949. As this case study of the Tianjin-Pukou line argues, the political context of semi-colonialism and imperialism in the first half of the 20th century framed the emergence and growth of railroad companies in China. This is not to say that individual railroad lines were not able to become substantial business institutions, but different political regimes-colonial authorities, warlords, political factions in the Republican government, and the Japanese-prevented the growth of Chinese railroads into an expansive, strong national railway network during the first half of the 20th century.

    Keywords: Foreign Direct Investment; Business History; Industry Growth; Welfare or Wellbeing; Rail Transportation; Rail Industry; China;


    Koll, Elisabeth. "Chinese Railroads, Local Society, and Foreign Presence: The Tianjin-Pukou Line in pre-1949 Shandong." In Manchurian Railways and the Opening of China: An International History, edited by Bruce A. Elleman and Stephen Kotkin, 123–148. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2009. View Details
  5. China: Industry

    Keywords: China;


    Koll, Elisabeth. "China: Industry." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World: 1750 to the Present. Vol. 2, edited by Peter Stearns et al.. Oxford University Press, 2008. View Details
  6. The History of Corporate Ownership in China: State Patronage, Company Legislation, and the Issue of Control

    Keywords: History; Governance Controls; Laws and Statutes; Ownership; Government and Politics; Business and Government Relations; China;


    Goetzmann, William, and Elisabeth Koll. "The History of Corporate Ownership in China: State Patronage, Company Legislation, and the Issue of Control." Chap. 2 in A History of Corporate Governance around the World: Family Business Groups to Professional Managers, edited by Randall K. Morck. University of Chicago Press, 2006. View Details
  7. Paying in Paper: A Government Voucher from the Southern Song

    Keywords: History; Money; China;


    Goetzmann, William N., and Elisabeth Koll. "Paying in Paper: A Government Voucher from the Southern Song." In The Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations That Created Modern Capital Markets, edited by William N. Goetzmann and K. Geert Rouwenhorst, 91–103. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. View Details
  8. Zai zhanzheng he zhengzhi kunjing zhong zhengqu jiating he gongsi liyi (Negotiating Family and Corporate Interests during War and Occupation)

    Keywords: Negotiation; Business Ventures; Family and Family Relationships; Family Business; War;


    Koll, Elisabeth. "Zai zhanzheng he zhengzhi kunjing zhong zhengqu jiating he gongsi liyi (Negotiating Family and Corporate Interests during War and Occupation)." In Qiye fazhan zhong de zhidu bianqian (Institutional Change in Chinese Business History), edited by Lu Xinglong and Zhang Zhongmin, 156–173. Shanghai: Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press, 2003, Chinese Mandarin ed. View Details
  9. Factories in the Countryside: The Industrial Workforce and Social Division in Nantong County, 1895-1937

    Keywords: History; Human Capital; Rural Scope; Society; China;


    Koll, Elisabeth. "Factories in the Countryside: The Industrial Workforce and Social Division in Nantong County, 1895-1937." In Town and Country in China: Identity and Perception, edited by David Faure and Tao Tao Liu, 107–125. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. View Details

Working Papers

Cases and Teaching Materials

  1. Enterprise Culture in Chinese History: Zhang Jian and the Dasheng Cotton Mills

    This case focuses on the legal and managerial evolution of limited-liability firms in China, using the example of the Dasheng cotton mills in Nantong near Shanghai. Dasheng, one of the earliest and most successful industrial enterprises in pre-war China, was founded by the famous entrepreneur Zhang Jian (1853-1926). Having survived various economic and political crises, the Dasheng cotton mills became a state-owned enterprise in 1953. In the wake of the economic reforms the successor to the original Dasheng Enterprise was restructured as the Jiangsu Dasheng Co. Ltd. in 1996. Issues of corporate governance, legal environment, government relations and the role of family business structures are discussed in the context of how they shaped the business environment in pre-war China and continue to influence Chinese enterprise culture in 2008.

    Keywords: History; Law; Organizational Culture; Family Ownership; State Ownership; Corporate Governance; Financial Crisis; Business and Government Relations; Entrepreneurship; Change; Manufacturing Industry; Shanghai; China;


    Koll, Elisabeth. "Enterprise Culture in Chinese History: Zhang Jian and the Dasheng Cotton Mills." Harvard Business School Case 308-068, February 2008. (Revised September 2010.) View Details
  2. Financial Networks and Informal Banking in China: From Pawnshops to Private Equity

    Provides an analysis of why informal financial networks and institutions still play an extremely important role in China's economy in the 21st century. Although China has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it still suffers from a weak financial system dominated by state-controlled banks and severely limited access to capital for private entrepreneurs and consumers. The case shows how the political climate, economic regulatory environment, and social attitudes towards lending practices have shaped the approach to and structure of financing private enterprises over time. It also addresses the response of the Chinese government to the resilient curb market in the context of the economic reforms and policy changes for the banking and financial sector.

    Keywords: Entrepreneurship; Private Equity; Banks and Banking; Financing and Loans; Governing Rules, Regulations, and Reforms; State Ownership; Business and Government Relations; Networks; China;


    Koll, Elisabeth. "Financial Networks and Informal Banking in China: From Pawnshops to Private Equity." Harvard Business School Background Note 809-111, January 2009. View Details
  3. JWT China: Advertising for the New Chinese Consumer

    This case analyzes the business strategy and expansion of JWT China from the late 1990s to 2008. As part of the world's fourth largest marketing communications network, JWT China grew into one of the largest integrated communications companies in China operating from offices in various parts of the country. The case provides students with a comprehensive history of and insights into China's advertising industry and the challenges for foreign and domestic firms operating within a highly regulated media environment controlled by the Chinese government. At the same time, this case offers insights into the structure of the highly fragmented Chinese consumers market, exploring the socio-economic disparities in income and media access as well as culturally determined consumer behavior across different regions and urban and rural areas. The case lets students explore how these trends might impact JWT's advertising and marketing strategies in the future and how to evaluate JWT's business expansion in China dealing with local and foreign competition.

    Keywords: Governing Rules, Regulations, and Reforms; Marketing Strategy; Consumer Behavior; Business and Government Relations; Business Strategy; Expansion; Advertising Industry; China;


    Koll, Elisabeth. "JWT China: Advertising for the New Chinese Consumer." Harvard Business School Case 809-079, February 2009. (Revised September 2010.) View Details
  4. Opium and Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth Century

    Concerns the growth of multinational trading companies in the first global economy. Examines two Scottish-owned merchant houses, Jardine Matheson and James Finlay, and shows their changing trade and investment strategies as well as their use of an organizational form later known as business groups. Also demonstrates the role of ethnic networks in globalization during this historical period. A rewritten version of an earlier case.

    Keywords: History; Globalized Economies and Regions; Ethnicity Characteristics; Multinational Firms and Management; Groups and Teams; Trade; Social and Collaborative Networks; China;


    Jones, Geoffrey G., Elisabeth Koll, and Alexis Lefort. "Opium and Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth Century." Harvard Business School Case 805-010, July 2004. (Revised September 2011.) View Details
  5. Political and Economic History of the People's Republic of China: An Annotated Timeline

    Brief political, economic, and social timeline of China from 1949 to present to give context on and provide overview of modern Chinese history.

    Keywords: Economics; Government and Politics; History; Society; China;


    Abrami, Regina M., William C. Kirby, Elisabeth Koll, and F. Warren McFarlan. "Political and Economic History of the People's Republic of China: An Annotated Timeline." Harvard Business School Background Note 309-073, December 2008. (Revised June 2010.) View Details
  6. ReSource Pro

    Matt Bruno, founder and general manager of ReSource Pro, left his job working for a New York City-based insurance program shortly after the World Trade Center bombing and arrived in China. Initially he planned to teach English, but soon the entrepreneurial spirit of the country caused him to begin exploring opportunities. He returned to New York and talked his former boss into allowing him to start a back-office services firm for their insurance company clients, which grew into ReSource Pro. By year-end 2007, ReSource Pro employed 250 people, of whom only 4 were U.S.-based. With aggressive growth plans, Bruno began examining potential cities in China for expansion. After narrowing his list of potential expansion sites to the five Chinese cities of Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan Province), Jinan (capital of Shandong Province), Nanjing (capital of Jiangsu Province), Suzhou (Jiangsu), and Wuhan (capital of Hubei Province), he now had to make a final choice.

    Keywords: Geographic Location; Talent and Talent Management; Corporate Entrepreneurship; Cross-Cultural and Cross-Border Issues; Insurance Industry; Service Industry; China;


    Applegate, Lynda M., William R. Kerr, Elisabeth Koll, and David Lane. "ReSource Pro." Harvard Business School Case 812-031, December 2011. (Revised May 2014.) View Details
  7. The Rong Family: A Chinese Business History

    Provides the complex historical background to understanding the development of family businesses in China from the late 19th century to the present. Using the example of the Rong family, China's most prominent industrialist family in pre-1949 China, analyzes the organizational structure and transformation of Chinese family firms in terms of managerial hierarchies, kinship alliances, and local networks. Emphasizes the response of the family business to major political crises, demonstrates how they dealt with the transition to a socialist government in 1949, and interprets the success of overseas Chinese family business as well as the revival of family business networks in the wake of China's economic reforms.

    Keywords: Family Business; Business History; Organizational Change and Adaptation; Organizational Structure; Alliances; Business and Government Relations; Social and Collaborative Networks; China;


    Koll, Elisabeth. "The Rong Family: A Chinese Business History." Harvard Business School Background Note 308-066, November 2007. (Revised September 2010.) View Details


  1. The Indigenization of Insurance in China


    Koll, Elisabeth. "The Indigenization of Insurance in China." Paper presented at the 16th World Economic History Congress, International Economic History Association, Stellenbosch, South Africa, July 2012. (Presented in the panel "The International Networks Forged by the Insurance Industry since the End of the 18th Century.") View Details
  2. The Evolution of Railroads as Modern Business Institutions and Its Impact on Knowledge Transfer and Engineering Education in pre-1949 China


    Koll, Elisabeth. "The Evolution of Railroads as Modern Business Institutions and Its Impact on Knowledge Transfer and Engineering Education in pre-1949 China." Paper presented at the 16th World Economic History Congress, International Economic History Association, Stellenbosch, South Africa, July 2012. (Presented in the panel on "Transportation and Institutional Change in Global Perspective.") View Details
  3. Business under Reform? Institutional Structures and Managerial Practices in the Wake of the 1911 Revolution


    Koll, Elisabeth. "Business under Reform? Institutional Structures and Managerial Practices in the Wake of the 1911 Revolution." Paper presented at the International Conference on the Centenary of the China's 1911 Revolution, University of Tokyo, Japan, December 2011. (Paper presented in the panel "The Transformation of the Chinese Economy and Business.") View Details

Book Reviews

    Research Summary

  1. Overview

    In my research historical inquiry plays an important part in understanding the continuities from the pre-1949 past and the complex convergence of business institutions in the process of China’s current economic, political, and social modernization. Historians are able to offer a unique contribution to our understanding of China’s business environment by uncovering the institutional and organizational origins of firms, different forms of entrepreneurship in society, and the relationship between government and business in a long-term perspective. For example, historical analyses with an external focus have demonstrated the complex political and economic agenda of the Chinese state in its interaction with businesses and entrepreneurs which long predates the 1949 revolution and socialism. This insight is relevant to scholars comparing business development under different political regimes and varieties of capitalism as well as managers who need to understand the principle of aligning interests with government authorities when doing business in China today.

    Keywords: business history; China; business government relations; entrepreneurs; family business; industrial development; infrastructure; Transportation; Entrepreneurship; History; Manufacturing Industry; Transportation Industry; Rail Industry; Construction Industry; Asia;

  2. Railroads and the Making of Modern China

    My current book project is entitled Railroads and the Making of the Modern China and explores China’s economic and socio-political transformation from the last decades of the empire to the present using railroad infrastructure as a focus. Based on a large collection of historical data across select regions in China, my project analyzes how railroad infrastructure and railroad companies as new business institutions contributed to the emergence of complex work hierarchies, technology transfer, the rise of the engineering profession, business linkages and social mobility. One particular focus of my research involves the complex interaction between railroad companies, government agencies, and political authorities.

    In connection with my previous historical work, this research addresses issues relevant to contemporary China. For example, the development of China’s communication and transportation infrastructure features prominently on the government’s agenda to create economic growth and political stability. With regard to the business environment in contemporary China, the history of Chinese railroads highlights the origins of infrastructure development in core areas along the coastal corridor and the East, strong regional and limited national market integration, and the continuing linkage of modern rail transportation systems with alternative transportation methods.
  3. Buyers, Sellers, Manufacturers in China’s Emerging Market around 1900

    Ever since the economic reforms in the post-Mao period China’s economy as an emerging market has attracted much interest. However, we tend to forget that China was already an emerging market at the turn of the 19th century, if not earlier. This book-length study approaches the concept of the emerging market in a broader historical context and explores the opening and growth of the Chinese market in the light of the industrial and commercial modernization taking off around 1900. By analyzing the relationship between Chinese and foreign companies as buyers, sellers, and manufacturers of goods in an evolving consumer market the project identifies the institutional and structural strengths and weaknesses that have shaped the development of firms, entrepreneurs, and their relationship with the state.

    The historical approach to understanding China as an emerging market emphasizes how so many institutional, political, and socio-economic phenomena in the present did not originate in the socialist system but can be traced back to the 19th century and beyond. This project also shows how so many issues of concern to participants in China’s emerging market today were similar issues a century ago, ranging from legal disputes, volatile exchange rates to national interest debates. This project shows the strategic responses of Chinese and foreign firms to the opportunities and challenges in an emerging market and its strong interaction with the global economy.
  4. Technology and Knowledge Transfer in the Evolution of China’s Machine Industry

    This work-in-progress provides a historical perspective on the role of foreign companies as providers of machinery equipment and facilitators of technology transfer in China from the last decade of the 19th century to the early 1950s. The project focuses on a number of British, American, German, and overseas Chinese international companies and their activities and operations in the Chinese market. These foreign companies tried to align their interests with the government in order to secure beneficial relationships but also to beat other foreign competitors in the Chinese market. They competed not only for market share, distribution channels and customers but also for managerial talent and Chinese brokers necessary to run the business operations. As the paper demonstrates, foreign machine manufacturers in the early 1900s were as much motivated by the promise of China’s "vast emerging market" due to industrialization and modernization efforts as their counterparts in the early 21st century. Finally, the project explores the long-term impact of foreign imports and their significance for the Chinese machine industry in terms of indigenous technological development and import substitution.
    1. Awarded the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange Dissertation Fellowship in 1996.

    2. Received a 2005 fellowship from The American Council of Learned Societies.

    3. Elected President of the Historical Society for 20th-Century China (HSTCC), 2004–2006.

    4. Received a grant from the Research Foundation of Japanese Banks in Tokyo in 1999.