University of Bonn, Germany, 1984-86, Chinese Studies, Japanese Studies & Business Administration
Fudan University, Shanghai, China, 1988, B.A. equivalent, Chinese language & economic history
University of Bonn, Germany, 1992, M.A., Chinese Studies (major), Japanese Studies & Business Administration (minors)
University of Oxford, England, 1998, D. Phil., Modern Chinese History
Elisabeth Köll is a Rhodes Scholar from Germany, who has studied and researched extensively in China. She specializes in Chinese business and socio-economic history and is fluent in English and Chinese and proficient in Japanese. From 1998 to 2007, she was taught modern Chinese business and social history at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. In July 2008 she joined the Entrepreneurial Management unit at Harvard Business School as an associate professor with teaching assignments related to business history and doing business in China for the elective MBA curriculum and the doctoral program.
Tell me about where you grew up and your family.
I was born in Switzerland and my parents are Austrians. Very soon after my birth, we moved to Germany. I spent the first six years in West Berlin and then we moved to Cologne and Frankfurt. I spent my teenage years in Bad Homburg near Frankfurt, where I went to high school.
How big was your family?
I have a sister, five and a half years younger than I am.
What did your parents do for a living?
They are retired now. My father was in chemical industries and my mother worked as an antiquarian bookseller. She later worked for a publishing house.
What values did they try to instill in you while you were growing up?
Independence was the number one value, in the sense of going out and doing the things you are interested in. Both my parents were interested in music, art, literature, and curious about exploring other countries and cultures. However, they were teenagers when World War II ended, so they had a lot of interests and ambitions that they just couldn’t pursue in the depressed post-war period. They were very encouraging in terms of getting their children to be adventurous and explore things, be it in terms of study, hobbies, music. Also, being responsible, disciplined and compassionate towards others were important values they conveyed.
The example they set guided me in the right way, because I was always interested in foreign cultures and traveling. And then later I spent so much time in China. My first visit was from ’86 to ’88 for two years straight. This was before the Internet and open international phone service! For parents to let their 20-year-old daughter go for two years with just basic letter contact, that’s pretty brave. At the time as a child, you don’t see this, because you think it’s normal. It’s what parents should do. Now I realize how strong and supportive my parents were in their encouragement (and how tough that sometimes must have been for them). They always said, “Go off and do the things that are interesting and help your career or whatever you want to pursue”.
What stemmed your interest in Chinese studies?
As a teenager I had a general interest in Asia, because I was reading all sorts of things, travelogues and biographies of explorers in Central Asia like Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, and Alexandra David-Neel, the first Western woman to explore Tibet. I also read fairy tales and children’s stories from various Asian countries which were fascinating.
At the same time, I was very much into classics. Latin was my first foreign language, followed by English and Greek. Since I went to a traditional German gymnasium (high school), we had an incredibly intensive and high level of teaching in languages, history, and philosophy. I loved it. The history of Troy and the discoveries by Heinrich Schliemann captured my imagination. For a while I seriously toyed with the idea of studying classics and archaeology at university, because I liked the combination of the historical and philological approach, but then I thought that I don’t want to teach high school. [Laughs]
Instead, I started studying Chinese, because it is a pretty complex language and a challenge. I thought maybe I would give it a try and see how it goes. Even more so, I really wanted to go to China, but in the early ‘80s you could only go with a scholarship through official government exchange. This was before China really opened up. Going the official, academic route was pretty much the only way of spending some serious time there. And that’s what happened.
Why did you pick the University of Bonn?
Because it had a good Sinology department and was strong in history.
Did you ever finish at Bonn, because you went to Shanghai after two years in Bonn?
After Shanghai, I came back to Bonn and I finished my master’s. I got a B.A. equivalent at Fudan University, but the courses I had taken there did not count towards my master’s degree. Under the old order of the German university system, the M.A. was the first degree you could get in subjects like Sinology. There was no B.A. degree. You had one major and two minor subjects to finish, so that takes quite some time. I had Japanese Studies and microeconomics as minors.
Why did you pick economics to round it out?
Actually, I started out with political science. I did it for a year and then realized that I was not interested in the theory of political science, and courses on international relations with Asia weren’t taught at the time. Since I thought of going into the China field with a more contemporary slant, economics seemed a more suitable approach. Although I only studied it as a minor, I still felt that economics gave me a better perspective for looking at developments in contemporary China. In addition, some faculty in the economics department had serious research interests related to Asian economies, mostly Japan at the time, so that helped me too.
Let’s go back to more of your childhood for a bit. How would you describe yourself as a child?
To some extent, a serious child. I was an avid reader in all sorts of fields from fiction to plays and poetry. I also had quite a serious education in piano and organ. For a couple of years, I went to the conservatory in Frankfurt. Pretty focused, I guess.
Did you have any role models while growing up either fictional or real?
From the point of view of morals, life philosophy and attitudes in general, I still think my parents are my role models, because they’ve done some pretty cool things. They are just really great people, generous, non-conformist, passionate, curious, open-minded. On a more gender-based level, my mother is definitely my most important female role model, because she’s a very independent, creative, intelligent, opinionated, and courageous woman.
I still think Goethe is one of my heroes as a multi-talented writer and artist with strong social and political involvement and an incredibly complex personality. Then I admired writers such as Franz Kafka and Uwe Johnson, painters like Gabriele Muenter and Sven Hedin as explorer. I still remember that through my mother I got to know one of the professors in the literature department at the university in Frankfurt. And I thought, “Wow, it would be so cool to be like that one day.” Fortunately, during my undergraduate years, I had a couple of extraordinary teachers.
In what way were they extraordinary?
At university, I remember three teachers in particular. One was my first professor in classical Chinese, Dr. Michael Quirin. He was incredibly learned, rigorous, demanding, and never let you off lightly. In fact, he was quite intimidating. It was a new experience for me to be challenged that way as a student, to be pushed to do better while being exposed to a high standard of critical thinking. Of course, now I realize the tremendous impact his teaching had on me, and I owe him a lot in terms of my work as a scholar and teacher.
Then I had a great female role model. I was lucky to have Dr. Regina Mathias as a professor in Japanese social history. She was relatively young and just starting out in her academic career at the time. She was incredibly smart and strict, no-nonsense, but also very supportive. At that time, there were even less women in higher ranks in the university hierarchy, so she really set an example for me.
In economics, I had one very famous teacher, Prof. Horst Albach. He was advising the German government in economic policies and really brought an international orientation to his teaching and research. He was not only incredibly intelligent, but also a sophisticated and open-minded teacher and one of the best lecturers in the classroom I have ever seen. What was particularly amazing is that despite his fame and busy schedule he still cared about his students and made himself available. I remember once waiting a long time to get his signature required for a scholarship application. Although his assistant ushered him out of the office and steered him towards the waiting taxi to the airport, he stopped, spoke to me and signed my papers. I thought that was quite incredible.
You meet a lot of people along the way. I could tell you about so many people who have influenced me in various ways like the wonderful antiquarian bookseller I visited once a week in Bonn. Certain people leave a mark, and it certainly isn’t always the big academic star. It’s a mix. Life is very interesting that way.
How did it come about that you went to China?
I was lucky enough to get a scholarship that was run by the academic/educational arm of the German government (DAAD). You had to apply, write essays and go through a competitive exam with interviews — the usual selection process.
So it wasn’t an independent idea?
Our university teachers told us about it. I was really keen on going to China. Our teachers made it clear that you have to go to China if you wanted to be a serious scholar and learn the language in context. There was no question that you had to do this to prove yourself. The question was just when and for how long. The scholarship was for a year, to see how you would cope. I was lucky, because they renewed the scholarship so I could stay for two years.
Before you went to China, how much did your family travel?
Quite a bit. As a family we would spend our summer holidays often in Austria and also traveled to Italy, Switzerland, Holland, etc. As teenager I had the chance to spend a summer camp in England, and we explored a lot of local history in the south of Germany and Austria.
Was traveling to China on your own shocking?
It wasn’t shocking. I had traveled on my own or with family, but I had never been to Asia. As a 21-year-old, going to China was certainly exciting.
Talk about the transition from Germany to China. What was it like for you? Give an example or memory that really stands out from that time.
Well, it was a total immersion in a different culture. In 1986, it was the pre-email, pre-Starbucks, pre-anything time. In hindsight, I’m very glad and grateful that I had the chance to experience that. For example, Shanghai in ’86 looked exactly the same as it was in the late ‘50s. There were no skyscrapers. All the old neighborhoods still existed. In some ways, it gave you a much better idea of the historical context of 20th-century China. Across the country, the historical sites were relatively unpolluted. There were no tourists apart from domestic visitors, but still that was nothing. No numbers to speak of. You saw an un-modernized China. Everyday life was much simpler and tougher in terms of amenities. Like the Chinese residents, we didn’t have air conditioning or anything like that.
During those two years I traveled in China a lot, mostly by railroad. It was fantastic. You see, when we got to China, language teaching was really bad. That was not ill will. Our Chinese teachers at that time just didn’t have the experience of how to teach foreigners. The exchange programs had just started and the country was very slowly and cautiously opening. You should not forget that politically it was a much more conservative and controlled environment at the time. Very soon, it was very clear that if you wanted to have contact and really talk to Chinese people without constraints, you had to leave the university compound.
How many other foreign exchange students were there?
If I remember correctly, there were altogether 200 from 20 to 30 different countries. We had North Koreans. And this was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, so there were some East Germans, Hungarians, and students from the USSR. It was an amazing mix, but if you wanted contact with the Chinese and real life in China, it was quite clear that you had to be entrepreneurial and start exploring by yourself.
So there were no Chinese students in your classes?
The first year we got assessed and put into different levels of language courses. In the second year, I went to some of the normal lectures and seminars for Chinese students. Still, you want to meet people of all walks of life, right? And who wants to stick around the university campus all the time?
How much Chinese did you know before you went?
What you learn as an undergraduate in two years.
What was your most impressive memory during your two-year period?
There are so many. On an abstract level, I would say the kindness of strangers. What I mean by that is the countless interactions and encounters with interesting Chinese people on the street, on trains and buses, traveling and having conversations. At that time, foreigners were much more of a strange sight and attracted a lot of attention.
Were you gawked at a lot?
Well, yes, but on the other hand, once conversation began… I really learned a lot about myself, my own cultural background, my strengths and weaknesses during those two years. The kindness of people that you had to set aside from the rigid political system was something that always struck me as a student. Seeing the human condition in a different cultural, historical and political context was a wonderful experience.
Then you went back to Germany for four years?
I came back in the fall of ’88 and then did the rest of my M.A. degree.
Who suggested that you apply for the Rhodes?
You just knew about it?
I was considering going to graduate school and knew that I wanted to do something more in the field of modern Chinese history with a social science orientation. At that point, David Faure had just started to teach at Oxford and I thought that maybe I could try and apply. I read up on funding possibilities for Oxford and that’s how I came across the Rhodes scholarship.
Did you have a sport?
I did a bit of rowing in Bonn, because it’s conveniently located on the Rhine River. I did sport as a way of recreational activity, but I’ve never been in competitive sports.
How many Rhodes Scholars from Germany were accepted?
Is the scholarship as prestigious in Germany as it is in the United States?
Maybe not as crazy as in the U.S. I think the U.S. is pretty unique in how much weight is given to the scholarship. Not that Germans think badly of it, it’s just that people are not that aware of it.
Were there any big events in your life especially while growing up that influenced you? Does anything really stand out?
You mean personal tragedies?
Yes, it could be tragedy, but it could also be something spectacular.
Fortunately there were no life-changing tragedies, and on the positive side, I think there was not just one single catalyst. But I still remember one day when my mother, my sister and I were out for a walk and we were talking about what we wanted to do in the future. My mother said, “You know you can do whatever you want to do, and it’s fine if one of you ends up in Australia and the other in America.” This was towards the end of high school, and she said this to encourage us to think outside the box and pursue interests with a passion. At that time, all my friends from school tried to go into banking, go to law school or something very boring. [Laughs] My mother said, “Don’t feel pressured by these expectations. We want you to do something exciting and interesting. And we will be very happy with whatever that is.” How can one not be influenced by such strong levels of support, freedom, and trust?
When you were a child, how did they encourage your independence?
With tough love. My parents somehow had the right approach, being on the one hand very hands off. For example, they never looked at my homework or things like that because they believed that the learning process is about making your own mistakes and your own achievements. And they knew that I was ambitious and competitive. In fact, I remember my mother realized that I was sometimes too hard on myself, almost obsessive. I would worry that I couldn’t cope with my own expectations, so my parents would put it in the right perspective and say, “Hey, listen. There are other important things in life. Get a grip.”
They didn’t push you to get good grades?
Oh, no, no, no.
Did you get good grades? I assume you did.
I did. Yes. I had to work for it in some ways. It’s not that I sat down and everything came to me. Of course, there were subjects I found more difficult. Anything related to language, literature and the arts was always something I was good at. I had to work harder at math and science, although I also blame the gender-biased teaching of those subjects for that. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, we female students in school were just not challenged enough by our math and science teachers.
Once you were at Oxford, what did you take away from being a Rhodes Scholar?
I really enjoyed meeting the group of Rhodes Scholars in my year and various people in the following years. There are about four to five people from my year whom I would still call close friends. After all those years, we are still in touch! What really broadened my horizon was the openness to interact with Rhodes Scholars, alumni, and impressive people whom I met at talks, dinners and receptions at Rhodes House. I also should say that I really love and admire Sir Anthony Kenny who was the Warden of Rhodes House during my tenure. We had a number of very good conversations, and I admire him as a great scholar and wonderful human being. The combination of people with all sorts of talents among the Rhodes Scholars was amazing. I really loved that diversity.
The Rhodes selection committee says they are looking for people who offer the promise of effective service to the world in the years to come. Can you address that? Does that still mean something to you?
In a sense, yes. Will I be president of the US? No. But do I have an impact academically and through that also on public life? Yes, I would say so. Being a teacher, a mentor or a scholar trying to improve people’s understanding of Chinese society and economy are important roles that I take seriously, whether it’s in interaction with students, colleagues inside and outside the US, academic organizations and now also the business community at large. Especially here at the Harvard Business School we are trying to build a lot of new contacts and synergies in an effort to increase interdisciplinary teaching and research on China and foster cooperation among researchers, institutions, practitioners, and future leaders. So yes, I think I/we do touch people in public life.
How long are you going to be at the Harvard Business School?
I spent last year at HBS as a visiting associate professor and was then offered a full faculty position in the business history group in the Entrepreneurial Management unit as of July 1, 2008. I am looking forward to very interesting and challenging years ahead.
How much do you think passion is involved in your achievements? I mean passion in your work, in your attitude. What drives you?
There has to be passion. I really live for my work. My work, be it my academic research on China, teaching, or working with colleagues, is my life and drives me. That’s very important to me. At the same time, I don’t want to sound disingenuous: life is also short and precious. Behind every endeavor is a human component. In that sense, I try to look at my life and my work as a very holistic experience. It’s important to have it balanced and to see the synergies in one’s interaction and collaboration with different people based on personal and community values. To some extent these values may touch on social issues or political issues, and to carefully deal with them is important. We do not live in a vacuum.
When you were younger, do you think you felt those things as well or at least have a foundation?
The foundation was always there. That started well before the Rhodes scholarship. No doubt. In many ways, my upbringing, the social activism of my parents, my role models and their values, the graduate training in Oxford and the interaction with remarkable people helped me to focus and identify what the really important things in life and in work are. What you want to pursue. What your values are and how you can contribute to community. It’s amazing how many different avenues there are for the expression of these values.
How about failure? What’s your perspective on it?
Oh, it happens all the time. [Laughs] It’s interesting to see how many (to paraphrase) failures turn out to be benefits in disguise. For example, one of the big themes in management and leadership literature is what you actually learn from your failures, your mistakes and how you deal with them. The real achievement is measured by dealing with failures and mistakes. Failure is part of life as much as success is, and there are ways to assess that and deal with it. As I get older, I find that I’m becoming a bit more patient and philosophical – which is a good thing because by nature I’m very impatient. [Laughs] You can’t succeed if you don’t fail sometime. That’s so true. Look at any person’s life, right?
And can you cite an example of when you pushed yourself to do more than you thought you could do?
My current new position is something like that, because I redirected my academic and research career by switching from working in the history department at Case Western Reserve University to the very different academic environment of the Harvard Business School. I never thought that at this stage in my life I would still be able to learn so many new things and even take an executive program on general management as a student. It’s an exciting challenge and a thrill to be moved outside one’s comfort zone again. Complacency is death!
And you’re teaching as well?
Together with three great colleagues I’ll be teaching a course on “Doing Business in 21st-Century China” and a business history seminar for doctoral students in the spring semester. We are already hard at work with the preparations, and I’m very much looking forward to the experience.
So what would you say to someone young or old about leading a fulfilling life?
Be who you are. Pursue your interests no matter what the environment signals in terms of social or peer pressure. At same time, don’t let go of certain values that you have for yourself-your attitude towards life in terms of the larger philosophical perspective and leadership in shaping the form of human interaction at all levels. Especially for women, there are now so many opportunities. I treasure the opportunity to be independent and pursue a career and life that fifty years ago, even thirty years ago would have been quite difficult for women to enter. It’s just wonderful. At the same time, you have to be able to life with the choices or “trade-offs” you made.
How come you decided to teach in the States?
It was really mostly job related. There are so many more universities here that teach Chinese history or Chinese studies in general. In Europe the number of universities with substantial Asian Studies programs is limited. In England, if you teach at Oxford, Cambridge, SOAS or the London School of Economics, then, of course, you are in the right place in terms of excellent research facilities and a vibrant scholarly community. But German academic institutions still lag behind in offering Chinese studies, especially social sciences, and the university system lacks transparency and is in great need of reform. In the US you’re more connected to colleagues in the field inside and outside of China, and the funding opportunities are much better. So that speaks to the reasons for why I moved here after graduation from Oxford and what drives me and my passion. Wherever the opportunity is best is where I’ll go. [Laughs]