Jack Ma: “To win in the 21st century, you must empower others.”

Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd. and Founder Jack Ma As Company Files for U.S. Initial Public Offering of E-Commerce Giant

Jack Ma (马云) wants to connect the world through trust and e-commerce.

The whimsical and passionate Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, a multi-billion dollar e-commerce start-up, dropped some wisdom in a recent interview at the World Economic Forum. Jack spoke of humble origins, rejection and failure, and an unwavering commitment to hard work and innovation that led to success.

“I was rejected from Harvard 10 times…so I told myself someday I should go teach there.”

Jack Ma had a rough start, but he has plucky persistence and entrepreneurial curiosity about the world that served him well. He jokes that when KFC came to his hometown in Hangzhou, 24 people applied to work there. Of those applicants, 23 were accepted and he was the 24th. He’s learned through these rejections that sometimes you have to create your own opportunity. On his first visit to America he started doing just that:

In 1995 on a first visit to America and using a computer and the internet for the first time: “I searched for beer first…maybe because it’s easy to spell…and I saw beers from Germany, beers from America, but none from China. Then I tried searching for China…nothing, no data…so I thought, why not add my own page?”

What Jack claims to be a “small, ugly webpage” with basic information about China set in motion a chain of events that would spark the idea for Alibaba. Jack Ma decided to make the world a smaller place through the internet.

In the early days of Alibaba, there were 18 friends in a small apartment and a dream. Now, the company has expanded to employ 30,000 people across four enormous campuses. In the first three years of operation, Alibaba was making zero revenue, but Jack didn’t give up. After several instances in which he was approached and thanked by people whose lives had been changed by his company, he felt committed to the mission of the company.

“We’re crazy, but we aren’t stupid.”

Jack Ma loves the movie Forest Gump. Even though everyone thinks he’s crazy, Forest never gives up and touches the lives of many in a positive way. Of himself and Alibaba, Jack says, “We are crazy, but we aren’t stupid.” When you are trying to change an industry, there are bound to be roadblocks. One major roadblock preventing Alibaba of reaching its full potential was certain aspects of Chinese law. Next steps for the company’s growth could not be taken without some risk, to which Jack said:

Switzerland Davos Forum
Jack Ma, being interviewed at the World Economic Forum.



“…I didn’t know what to do, because launching (alipay) would be illegal, but if I didn’t launch it, nothing could happen. Then I listened to a leadership conference at DAVOS. Leadership is about responsibility. After I listened to that panel, I called my friends back at the apartment and said ‘do it NOW’. If somebody has to go to prison, Jack Ma will go to prison. It is so important for China and the world to build this trust system”




So we know how the story goes. Inspired by the words of so many young leaders who had come together to discuss global issues and solve global problems (sound familiar?), Jack and his little team of 18 people in an apartment pushed the limits and changed the face of the industry. Not to ‘stick it to the man’, but because they saw an opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of many people, and felt a responsibility to show the government that potential to help.


 “We may not have the answers…but young people will.”

It is evident that Jack Ma has managed to retain several of his core values with Alibaba’s meteoric rise. He speaks humbly of his success, and is quick to express gratitude to those he says have helped him and his team along the way. Alibaba was founded on the idea of creating trust, and it seems like that is still a guiding factor in Ma’s leadership strategy:

“When you have a million dollars, that’s your money. When you have ten million, you have problems. When you have a billion dollars, that’s not your money; that’s the trust that society has placed in you…”

So Pengyoumen, let’s heed these wise words and learn from Jack’s story. Be courageous in your efforts, but also respectful. Work hard and chase the values that you hold dear. In all things we do, we can build bridges between cultures. Be students, entrepreneurs, and diplomats and remember that even a few people in a tiny apartment can create something of enormous positive impact.


Check out the full video interview here


Image Credit: lifehack.org

Sources: 15 of the best quotes from Jack Ma’s interview at Davos, Tech in Asia

Forbes Profile: Jack Ma, Forbes.com