INSEAD mourns the loss of founder and lifelong leader

No one has supported the INSEAD family and promoted its values-driven purpose with more flexibility, fidelity and efficacy than Claude Janssen. The most faithful of stewards and the very definition of effectiveness paired with discretion, Claude was always willing and amply able to take centre stage. But he was happiest when working behind the scenes to build momentum and consensus to propel our school to ever-greater heights of impact and excellence.

Claude’s commitment to INSEAD and its principles can be traced back to his early life. As a young scholar, he was never anything but exceptional, both in achievement and in imagination, as evidenced by his unique ability to think, then envision, then act, beyond the conventional. On graduating from the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris, perhaps the grandest of France’s grandes écoles, Claude did not follow the prescribed path and immediately enter French industry. Instead, he chose to pursue an MBA at Harvard University. 

Today, such a choice seems obvious, its value self-evident. But our current belief in the power of international business education owes much to the work of Claude and his co-founders. At the time it was nothing short of radical for a European to enrol on an MBA in the US.

While at Harvard, Claude encountered the legendary Georges Doriot, the first French graduate of the Harvard Business School and its first French professor. An inspiring teacher, he had long dreamed of bringing a graduate business programme to Europe. But his vision went far beyond the American model. 

Having experienced the wholesale destruction of Europe by World War II in Europe and now confronted with the apocalyptic threats of the Cold War, General Doriot envisioned a revolutionary business school defined by internationalism, diversity, independence, entrepreneurism, and proximity to business. He believed that the interaction of this unique combination of core principles could help to transform a newly integrated Europe, stimulating economic growth and fostering peace and prosperity. It was a vision that was practical yet idealistic and, though daring, reflected the zeitgeist.

Claude did not simply believe in the idea that would become INSEAD; he gave his time, his energies, and his passions to manifest it. This generosity was always without financial recompense, free of any aspect of self-advancement, and often at great personal sacrifice. 

In 1955, Claude returned to France and went to work for the Worms group, a prominent private Paris-based group active in banking, insurance, shipping, and industry. Here he would spend his entire career, becoming one of four managing partners before his retirement in 1996. Like all young executives in their first position, Claude faced long hours, a steep learning curve, and exhaustive demands. 

Yet just when the requirements on his time were greatest, Claude – along with compatriots Olivier Giscard d’Estaing and Jean Raindre, both fellow Harvard graduates and Doriot disciples – threw himself into the INSEAD project. He was instrumental in finding and vetting candidates to become INSEAD’s first Director General, as well as scouring the Paris region for a potential home for the new school and serving on the Comité Technique, charged with constituting INSEAD’s operating policies and course outlines. 

All of this effort was for the sake of a mere idea: a collective aspiration without precedent, a school offering a programme without accreditation, without proven demand, without financial backing, without faculty, even without permanent facilities. As with any entrepreneurial start-up, the likelihood of failure was high, and the chance for success slim. The scales were further weighted by the short-sightedness of some members of the French establishment, who contended that INSEAD’s multinational orientation would encourage a diaspora of domestic talent rather than concentrating it at home.

Nevertheless, the founders and early supporters – from General Doriot, to the French Chamber of Commerce, to far-thinking French and European industrial behemoths and captains of industry, to d’Estaing, Raindre and Janssen – held firm. They were confident that their convictions would attract likeminded pioneers. And on 12 September 1959, Janssen, Raindre and Doriot were finally able to cable the General: “The ship is launched. 57 registered today. Opening ceremonies completed. All engines turning.”

Two days later, Claude closed a longer communication to Doriot with, “It remains for us to thank you for starting up the whole idea and giving us the opportunity to contribute to an endeavour with so much future.” 


From 1959 to 1970, Claude served on the Advisory Committee. He played a vital role in steering INSEAD through its formative years, during which the Fontainebleau campus was built, intakes doubled in size, the commitment to diversity went global, executive education programmes were launched and professorial chairs were established. 

During the period 1971 to 1982, Claude served as Executive Chairman of the Board. It was a decade of rapid expansion that included a further increase in numbers of participants and faculty members, the introduction of the world’s first company-specific educational programme for executives, the establishment of the Centre Européen d’Education Permanente (CEDEP) and the opening of the Euro-Asia Centre. Claude and Chairman of the Board, John Loudon, worked closely to establish the administrative and financial infrastructure that not only made such growth possible and sustainable but also anticipated initiatives and needs long into the future. 

In 1982, Claude took the helm as Chairman of the Board. During his tenure, which lasted until 2004, global political and economic change was dramatic: the fall of the Iron Curtain; the expansion of the European Union; the rise of China and other Asian economies. Change was seismic at INSEAD as well. And as the world in many respects became smaller, so INSEAD’s scope grew bigger. 

Under Claude’s care, INSEAD expanded its mission while reinforcing its core values of internationalism, diversity, independence, entrepreneurialism and responsiveness to business. It also became the first truly international business school via the launch of an equal-status campus in Asia. In addition, the school became the largest provider of executive education in the region; launched its doctoral and Executive MBA programmes; inaugurated ground-breaking alliances and partnerships with institutions such as the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania – all while greatly expanding the Europe Campus in Fontainebleau, and initiating its first capital campaign and the Asia Development Campaign. 

Since 2004, Claude served as Honorary Chairman of the Board and Honorary Head of the International Council, continuing his life-long mission to advance INSEAD, an institution he loved and which represents values he believed in at his core. As Jean-Louis Barsoux observed in INSEAD, From Intuition to Institution, the school has been particularly rich in trailblazers and stakeholders who ensured its survival, especially during the early years of financial pressures. But Claude stands out from the crowd. As Barsoux wrote in 2000: “Continuity of people served as a surrogate for continuity of funding. Perhaps the embodiment of that continuity has been Claude Janssen himself. From participant in the pre-launch conception of INSEAD to Chairman of the Board, he has approved, accompanied or anticipated every stage in the development of the school. The trusted lieutenant of both Doriot and Loudon, their spirit flowed naturally through him. Finding a replacement with the same experience, legitimacy and understanding of the school will not be possible.”

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