Adrien Passant interview ESCP

You have just completed your doctoral thesis on the history of ESCP. What has motivated your choice of this subject?

When I was a student at school, I was struck by the fact that its history was rather complex, and quite unknown. Several mysteries remain unravelled. Who, for example, are the founders of the school? Vital Roux, Jean-Baptiste Say, other people? When was the school founded? We talk about 1819, but why does the stone facade say 1820? The history of the school, as shown on its website, ignores entire decades of its history: e.g. the period 1905-1969 is treated as a historical blind spot. Why is that? No comprehensive book has yet covered the complete history of the school from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Writing a thesis on the subject was therefore an excellent way to fill this gap!

Was it to satisfy your curiosity as a student that you undertook your thesis on the history of the school?

Not only that! After leaving the school, I worked in several French and international consulting firms. As I am also a historian at heart (it was my major at Normale Sup), I felt that this aspect was not valued in my profession. That is why, in 2014, I decided, in parallel with my consulting activity, to start a doctoral thesis and to do conduct a historical research.

You must have learned a lot about the history of the school... How is our school different from other schools?

My work has allowed to feature some of the highlights of the school's history. The school was the only one that was a family business for almost forty years (1830-1869), under the direction of the Blanqui family, before becoming a consular school. This is a unique case in France and apparently at the international level as well. In addition, in the nineteenth century, the school had a tradition of being a "business education incubator". In 1825, its former director Amédée Brodart opened the first business school in Buenos Aires! Similarly, another former student opened a business school in Nice (1850) before opening the first business school in the Kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia in Turin!

That makes for a lot of history to discover!

I rediscovered that, from an educational point of view, the school is at the origin of several innovations: business games, business trips, but also educational films. ESCP was the first business school in France to create an educational film library in the early 1920s. It was also the first to create compulsory computer education in the 1960s... In fact, ESCP is much more than a school: it has been, for two centuries, an actor supporting organisations in their expansion. The destiny of companies such as Ladurée, Hermès, LVMH or Banque Rothschild is, in part, linked to that of the school. Beyond the economic sphere, it has been an actor in social issues since the nineteenth century: it supported the first universal exhibitions, and the first Olympic Games of the contemporary era.

What are the key moments to remember in the school's history?

The history of the school can be roughly divided into five phases.

In the first phase (1819-1869), the school is taking form, as a private institution. Its beginnings are difficult: several times it is on the verge of financial bankruptcy, and its existence is threatened by serious leadership succession crises. Nevertheless, during this period, not only its image of a quality school - run by economist Blanqui and his family - but also its international influence, are built.

During the second stage (1869-1947) the school becomes a consular service, after its purchase by the Paris Chamber of Commerce in February 1869. During this difficult period (three wars took their toll), it sought to assert its precedence over the other business schools that multiplied after 1870, particularly in the provinces, but also in Paris, where HEC opened in 1881. However, this strategy barely filled the school’s student cohorts, and, from 1905 to 1947, it was both a secondary and higher business school - a unique case in France.

The third stage (1947-1969) begins in 1947, the year in which the school became, for the first time in its history, a higher-education institution. It was only from this time on that the former pupils became students. Over twenty years, the school management worked on the transformation of its commercial teaching into management training. Curricula were revised, the first international exchange partnerships with universities were signed, and the premises were modernized.

1969 opens the fourth stage (1969-1999): by gaining its autonomy from the Sup de Co network, the school regains a capacity for strategic initiative that it had lost. From then on, it organises its own entrance test, its own examinations, and awards its own diploma. Until 1999, the school gradually expands its offer, with, at the end of the 1960s, executive education programmes, in 1986, Specialized Masters, and in 1993 with the launching of the first MBA. It was also during this period, in 1973, that EAP was created.

Finally, the last period opens with the 1999 merger with EAP. This event makes the school shift into the twenty-first century. With its European campuses, it is becoming an international player with a European positioning that is still unequalled to this day. Since 2017, more than 50% of its students are non-French; which is absolutely unrivalled elsewhere. The school’s independence from the Chamber of Commerce in January 2018 is definitely a key date, but it is too early to assess its effects.

In conclusion, is there still a lot to learn about the history of the school?

The history of ESCP is very rich and, after four years of working on my thesis, I am pleased to see that there are still many grey areas in its past! I have identified several as yet unexplored archival collections, that may reveal their secrets in the near future - and that is very exciting!

Credit: © DR / CCI Paris IDF