As a teenager in his native city of Hangzhou, Jack Ma used to hang around the shores of the famed West Lake, chatting to foreign tourists who were willing to let him practice English. As the naturally curious entrepreneur would later recall: "I knew the world was not as I was told, there was another world outside... the very important thing for people to do is communicate.”
A TEACHER WITH AN IDEA
Unlike the founders of China’s other tech giants, Tencent and Baidu, Ma didn’t come from a tech background and was never academically inclined: He failed his university entrance exams twice before he was accepted by a teaching institute. He worked for five years as an English teacher and his first business was a translation agency. It wasn’t until 1995 when he traveled to the United States that Ma saw a computer for the first time.
In 1999, from a lakeside apartment bought for him by an Australian family he met as a 16-year-old, Ma borrowed US$2,000 and convinced 17 friends to invest US$50,000 into a new business. The online marketplace, called Alibaba, would connect importers with exporters -- building a link between manufacturers in China and buyers in the rest of the world. Just months after it was launched, the group managed to raise US$5 million.
Naming the company for a character who discovered a fortune proved fitting: Within two years, Alibaba had more than 1 million users. In 2003, Ma introduced Taobao, a Chinese shopping site for small sellers and individual buyers. It beat out eBay’s China operation, and in 2005, Yahoo offered Alibaba US$1 billion for 40 percent of the firm. Today, more than 500 million monthly active users are shopping on Taobao and its sister site Tmall.
In late 2015, Ma made an ambitious foray into media, buying the South China Morning Post, a 112-year-old English language newspaper in Hong Kong. (Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post.) The purchase sparked questions about whether the paper, which has covered issues sensitive to authorities in mainland China such as the 2014 Umbrella Protests in Hong Kong, would be pressured to shift its editorial direction. Ma said he wanted to present a fair and balanced portrayal of China to the world.
“Sometimes, people look at things purely from a Western or an Eastern perspective – that is one-sided. What the Post can do is to understand the big ‘why’ behind a story and its cultural context,” Ma said. “With its access to Alibaba’s resources, data and all the relationships in our ecosystem, the Post can report on Asia and China more accurately compared with other media who have no such access.”
Ma is never one to shy away from the limelight. Celebrating Alibaba’s 18th anniversary in 2017, he dressed up as Michael Jackson and danced to Billie Jean. For the company’s 10th anniversary, he donned a mohawk wig and sang a song from The Lion King.
The multibillionaire isn’t afraid to air his opinion. He told the South China Morning Post in 2013, “I think the Chinese government is terrific. Many foreigners say the government controls the internet. If it is true, China’s internet censorship is very advanced, because China still has 600 million internet users and has three or four of the world’s top 10 internet companies.”
Ma stepped down from his role as Alibaba chairman on his 55th birthday in 2019 -- exactly 20 years after the beginning of that legendary entrepreneurial journey that started in a tiny apartment on the lakeshore of Hangzhou.