The President of the ETH Alumni Association on new networking programmes and untapped potential

- EN - DE- FR- IT
Jeannine Pilloud on her role as President of the ETH Alumni Association. (Photog
Jeannine Pilloud on her role as President of the ETH Alumni Association. (Photograph: Courtesy of anonymous).
Job platform, knowledge network, mentoring and cross-generational exchange: President of the ETH Alumni Association Jeannine Pilloud talks in an interview about the upcoming transformation of her organisation.

Ms Pilloud, what do you enjoy about being a member of the ETH Alumni Association?
I love the wide range of events it offers - things like the Global Lectures, which might feature a topic unrelated to my day-to-day work. I particularly like the mix of guests these lectures attract, from students and distinguished alumni to public figures. And everyone has their own perspective to offer.

Which event or occasion has impressed you most?
At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF), we invited our members to an event at AI House that was organised in collaboration with the AI Center. We expected around 30 people, but in the end over 100 alumni turned up. The place was absolutely packed, which was fantastic! We also had a live stream so that members could join in from all’over the world.

You became president of the ETH Alumni Association in May 2023. What motivated you to take on this role?
I was originally invited to join the board and provide an outsider’s perspective on the Alumni Association, based on my years of management experience. The association wanted to strengthen ties to ETH, and during those discussions, a number of people, including ETH President Joël Mesot, suggested I should take on the role of president.

When you took up the post, you announced your intention to double the number of members. How do you hope to achieve that?
The real question is when we hope to achieve that by! The point I was trying to make is that "ETH alumni" covers all’of the 90,000 people who have graduated from the university, yet only 35,000 of those graduates are actually members of the association. Following a survey, we realised that many people assume they automatically become a member of the association when they graduate. We think we can give the association a major boost by tapping all that potential.

Why does ETH need its alumni so much right now?
Our by-laws state that alumni should support ETH Zurich by raising awareness - in the business sector and the public domain - of the issues that are important to the university. Remember, 1,800 members of the Alumni Association are CEOs. That’s a powerful network, not least abroad.

Closer to home, ETH is concerned about the difficult financial situation. I imagine this issue is also very much on the association’s radar?
Absolutely. This is exactly the kind of thing we can help with. And I don’t mean by simply rustling up two or three more donors, but rather by identifying influential alumni and getting them firmly on ETH’s side. Education is the most important resource our country has. Cut corners here, and we risk jeopardising our prosperity. Student numbers at ETH continue to surge, which is good news for the economy. But if we wish to maintain the quality of research-oriented education, then we also need to increase teaching staff and expand infrastructure. ETH alumni understand how this all ties together, so they can put forward credible arguments.

What does the association offer its members?
We’re at the start of a major transformation. Towards the end of last year, we launched the Know­ledge Network, a flagship project that enables members of the Alumni Association to ask questions and get answers from experts. The project started as a pilot with around 2,000 members and has since evolved into a really active community. Over the next few years, we’ll be expanding it further. Young members, in particular, appreciate the opportunity to share information across generations. And they’re just as enthusiastic about our job platform and mentoring programme, as well as all the different activities offered by local groups and clubs.

You’re keen to strengthen ties to ETH. How do you plan to achieve this?
Firstly, through events. ETH offers all sorts of exciting events, and we would like to make these more accessible to alumni. I already mentioned the successful WEF event, and another good example is this year’s Industry Day, which is being run in collaboration with Swiss media conglomerate NZZ under the heading of Open-i. Everyone who signs up through the ETH platform gets a 50 percent discount. Continuing education and training programmes are another area in which we could envisage our members benefiting from discounts.

What services are available to alumni who are living abroad?
We have some 3,500 members outside Switzerland, who are organised into chapters that hold their own local events. We’re currently drawing up a blueprint in the US that will provide guidance and support in setting up new chapters. Other plans include a worldwide Alumni Community Day to strengthen the bonds between our members. And we’re also seeking synergies with ETH in the area of communications: we want to give our members better access to articles and audiovisual content produced by ETH by linking to them in our newsletter and on our website.


Jeannine Pilloud graduated from ETH Zurich with a degree in architecture and went on to pursue a successful career in a number of industries. She came to public attention with her appointment as head of passenger transport at Swiss railway operator SBB. In May 2023, Pilloud was elected president of the ETH Alumni Association on an honorary basis. In July of the same year, she joined the Office of the Vice President for Knowledge Transfer and Corporate Relations, where she is responsible for partnerships with industry and institutions.

This text appeared in the 24/02 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.
Roland Baumann