Elisabeth Koll

Associate Professor of Business Administration (Leave of Absence)

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.

  1. From Cotton Mill to Business Empire: The Emergence of Regional Enterprises in Modern China

    The demise of state-owned enterprises, the transformation of collectives into shareholding cooperatives, and the creation of investment opportunities through stock markets indicate China’s movement from a socialist, state-controlled economy toward a socialist market economy. Yet, contrary to high expectations that China’s new enterprises will become like corporations in capitalist countries, management often remains under the control of the onetime bureaucrats who ran the socialist enterprises.

    The concepts, definitions, and interpretations of property rights, corporate structures, and business practices in contemporary China have historical, institutional, and cultural roots. In tracing the development under founder Zhang Jian (1853-1926) and his successors of the Dasheng Cotton Mill in Nantong into a business group encompassing, among other concerns, cotton, flour, and oil mills, land development companies, and shipping firms, the author documents the growth of regional enterprises as local business empires from the 1890s until the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. She focuses on the legal and managerial evolution of limited-liability firms in China, particularly issues of control and accountability; the introduction and management of industrial work in the countryside; and the integration and interdependency of local, national, and international markets in Republican China.

  2. Insurance in China: The Introduction and Indigenisation of the Industry

  3. 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.