The Business History Conference offers extensive support to emerging (or early-career) scholars, including a doctoral colloquium, a mentoring program, and, crucially, a much-loved free breakfast at the BHC. But when, exactly, do you emerge? And what happens after that? That’s what I hope to illuminate with this series of interviews with emerging scholars on their state of mind, the state of the field, and everything in between.
Today’s interviewee is Dr. Sabine Pitteloud, the 2021-2022 Harvard-Newcomen Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Business School.
AM: How did you get interested in business history?
SP: I grew up on a farm in the Swiss Alps that was located right next to an aluminum factory. This industrial complex was one of the main employment providers in the region. Consequently, increased mechanization, restructurings, as well as environmental externalities had a huge impact on the life of the locals when I was growing up. This personal experience piqued my interest in understanding the local consequences of the activities of multinational companies.
My first encounter with economic and business history as academic fields was during the last year of my Bachelor’s degree in Geography, when I was, by chance, dragged by a friend to Prof. Mary O’Sullivan’s course. At that time, I had never really heard of business history. I couldn't imagine that Mary would become my PhD supervisor some years later. Thanks to this course, I was able to see the merits of a business history approach: putting current phenomena in broader historical trends, challenging mainstream economic assumptions with examples of the past, getting access to internal corporate strategies through the use of archives…the list goes on!
AM: When was your first business history conference (BHC, EBHA, etc.), and was there anything particularly memorable about it?
SP: My first Business History Conference was in Miami 2015 and I was attending the BHC doctoral colloquium. Everything was new: it was my first trip to the US, I had just started my PhD and I was still in the process of defining my research topic and my empirical approach. It was amazing to benefit from the guidance and the benevolent critics of well-established scholars. In retrospect, this experience at the BHC doctoral colloquium was impactful for my research, especially since Prof. Per Hansen made me aware of the narrative perspective in business history, which I used for framing my first article published in Business History, "‘American Management’ vs ‘Swiss Labour Peace’. The Closure of the Swiss Firestone Factory in 1978".
AM: Could you tell me a bit more about your current role as the Harvard-Newcomen Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Business School?
SP: The Harvard-Newcomen Fellowship has allowed me to deepen my knowledge of teaching pedagogy and research methods in the business history field. I have taught three sessions of the Business History Doctoral Seminar on the history of business interest associations, the role of entrepreneurs in disseminating ideas, and the reactions of firms to European integration. I also participated in creating teaching material for the MBA course Entrepreneurship and Global Capitalism by co-writing a teaching plan with Prof. Geoffrey Jones entitled "K.C. Li: The Tungsten King". Using the case method by following the path of Chinese entrepreneur K.C. Li, this teaching plan invites students to think about the importance of tungsten as a strategic material, as well as on the nature of Chinese-US relations during the two World Wars. It was fascinating to learn more about teaching at a business school and HBS’ famous case method in particular.
Last fall, I also co-organized the Business History Seminar Online on the theme “Global Business & Society.” This was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with part of the business history community, but also to invite researchers that do not always define themselves as business historians, but produce research that is highly relevant to the field. My second semester is mostly dedicated to research and I hope to make good use of the amazing archives and resources of the Baker Library.
AM: Increasingly, we see emerging scholars hold multiple positions before landing a permanent job - if we land one at all. Can you talk a little bit about your path from the PhD to the role you have now? Where do you see yourself going from here?
SP: Before arriving at HBS, I held a lecturer (maître-assistante) position in economic and social history at the University of Geneva.This is a fixed-term six year position which allows me to develop my research without needing to reapply for new postdoc positions every 1-2 years.
Moreover, my home university allowed me to freeze my contract for a year to accept the Harvard-Newcomen fellowship, which was quite fortunate. Nevertheless, the pandemic made this decision quite adventurous since I had to give up one year's salary without being sure I would be able to enter the US because of the travel ban for the Schengen Area in force at that time. From a personal point of view, this was also a hard decision, leaving my partner, family and friends behind, without any possibility of travel during the first semester. In the future, I would like to stay in academia and to secure a tenure track position, hopefully in a place that would allow me to have a balance between my private and professional life. Knowing what the academic labor market looks like, this might be wishful thinking…
AM: Certainly the balance between work and life is always a challenge. With that in mind, could you tell us a little bit about your current project?
SP: Of course! My book, entitled “Les multinationales suisses dans l’arène politique (1942-1993)” analyses the role of Swiss multinational enterprises (MNEs) and their business interest association called “Industrie-Holding” in influencing national and international politics. Drawing on a rich variety of archival material, such as minutes of meetings and private correspondence, the book substantiates the existence of close ties between MNEs’ representatives and high-ranking political actors to illustrate concretely how MNEs played a key role in specific decisions and in moulding institutional settings. In addition, the book explores the role of MNEs’ activities within business interest associations, and their efforts to make their particular concerns heard, as well as their interactions, and sometimes conflicts with, representatives of other economic sectors, labor unions and government representatives.
Since Swiss multinationals were historically, and until today, among Europe’s leading multinationals (Nestlé, Novartis, Roche, ABB, etc.), their representatives were also involved in shaping international politics, especially in Europe. After World War II, they fought for the return to a liberal economic order that allowed for free movement of capital, protected the property rights of international investors, as well as MNEs’ profits against double taxation. MNEs’ representatives relied mostly on Swiss diplomats to negotiate on their behalf within the OECD or in the context of bilateral negotiations between Switzerland and other, especially European, countries. Increasing economic integration at the global level, and then the troubled context of the 1970s, prompted MNEs to strengthen their international ties with their European counterparts, to place their own experts in international bodies such as the OECD and the UN, as well as to participate in hearings and studies launched by the European Economic Community.
To carry out this project, the biggest challenge was to collect relevant empirical material since MNE’s political activities are rather difficult to document. At the beginning of my research, I traveled all across Switzerland by train in the hope of finding relevant archives. I visited very interesting places, such as the Novartis Campus in Basel, a fully privatized area with its own shops, as well as the Roche tower, which is the highest building in Switzerland. I also went to rural areas in the Swiss German part of the country where I had never been to before. I eventually found out that my entry point to the topic would be through business interest associations’ archives and governmental archives!
AM: What are archive trips for if not for a little adventure, after all. Where are you in the process of publishing the book?
SP: The book is about to be published, stay tuned! It was a long and laborious process of external expertise, revisions, several rounds of proofreading and funding requests. Postdocs are often expected to have a brand new project after their PhD defense. The reality is that the road to the publication of the dissertation is still long and should not be considered by universities as a “mere hobby” to be conducted along other research projects and teaching obligations.
AM: That’s wonderful news! And yes, I’ve always found it strange that after living with a project for years, we’re supposed to immediately know what to do next. So, with that in mind, please don’t be offended by my next question – Are you working on any other projects right now?
SP: I am currently working on projects in three related themes: MNEs’ reactions and strategies to activism during the 1970s, business response and participation to the implementation of environmental norms, and the importance of global governance frameworks for MNEs. Regarding environmental norms, I have written an article co-authored with Dr. Matthias Näsman of Umea University. The article is entitled “The power and limits of expertise: Swiss–Swedish linking of vehicle emission standards in the 1970s and 1980s” and it is about to be published in Business & Politics. Since environmental problems are global in scope, it is incredibly helpful to collaborate with other scholars.
AM: That’s very good advice. Do you have any advice for emerging scholars entering the field?
SP: First, I would recommend applying for the BHC doctoral colloquium, and more generally, to take any opportunities to move forward with their writing and to receive feedback. Second, I would advise them to publish reviews of the latest books they read and thought were impactful for their research. This is a good way to prepare your literature review, make your resume more appealing and to attract the attention of relevant scholars in your field. Third, I would highly encourage them to socialize with peers, and to share their hopes and doubts. Good friendship and moral support is essential to navigate the joy, but also the hardship academic life can bring.
AM: Absolutely. Any last words for our audience? Where can we find more information about you or your work?
AM: Thanks again for taking the time to chat with me today. Best of luck as you wrap up your work at HBS and head back to your family in Switzerland.
This is part of a series of interviews with Emerging Scholars on H-Business.
Because I’m away and not able to update these interviews in real time, some of their contents, particularly peoples’ current roles or positions, may be slightly outdated. In some cases, I may check back in for an update when I return, in August or September.
- Ashton Merck, H-Business Associate Editor