The amazing Jack Ma

Jack Ma

By Frederick Mordi


Jack Ma, the founder and Executive Chairman of the Alibaba Group, a China-based business-to-business marketplace site, and Ali Baba, the poor stonecutter in the popular ‘Arabian Nights’ tale: ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,’ seem to have something in common.

Both dreamt of greatness when they were young men and worked hard to achieve their aspirations. The fictitious Ali Baba achieved his dream when he found treasure in the thieves’ den. Ma discovered his own treasure in Information Technology. While Ali Baba’s magical words: ‘Open Sesame,’ gave him access to the treasure trove, Ma’s knowledge of the web did the trick.

Ma had always wanted to be rich and famous when he grew up. Knowing how far one can get in life with the right connections, he started to learn English, a language that he believed would open doors for him. To practice his English, Ma would ride his bike each morning to a hotel to chat with foreign tourists, who often stayed there. He would volunteer to guide them around the city for free to test his language skills. That way he improved on his English language. He fell in love with the language so much that he eventually read English in the university. He later taught English in the university before he ventured into his first love—business.

Having picked keen interest in Information Technology, Ma started building websites for some Chinese companies with the aid of his networks in the United States. In 1995, he founded China Yellowpages, which is said to be that country’s first Internet-based firm. He later managed an IT company set up by the China International Electronic Commerce Center, a department of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. He resigned from the company to found his own business from his small apartment with an initial capital of $60,000 in 1999.

It is pretty obvious that Ma had read a lot of ‘Arabian Nights’ tales while learning English as he named his company Alibaba. The Alibaba Group is now a holding company with nine major subsidiaries. On September 19, 2014, Alibaba, which is often referred to as ‘China’s eBay,’ made history when its initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), was ranked the world’s biggest IPO. The listing greatly boosted Ma’s fortunes. Bloomberg puts his current networth at $26.5billion. In just 15 years, Ma has grown to become the richest man in China!

A shrewd businessman, Ma is not resting on his oars. He is spreading his tentacles to developing countries such as Nigeria and the Philippines that have infrastructure deficit. Alibaba’s proposed entry into Nigeria, could create serious competition for top local players like Jumia and Konga.

Despite his larger than life image, Ma mixes with freely with his workers, breaking hierarchical and social barriers. For instance, he reportedly presides over mass weddings of his workers at Alibaba headquarters. This year alone, he has married about 700 couples that work for him. When asked by a Western journalist why he does what most CEOs in other climes would find quite absurd, Ma quipped: “They should learn and they should make their employees happy.”

Ma also has plans to reinvest the $3billion he set aside from the IPO for philanthropy in environmental and educational projects in China, as part of his contributions to the society. The man who once made $20 a month, taught himself English, and started a multi-billion dollar company from home, added proudly in a book: “I never had one day of education in the United States. I’m 100 percent made in China.”

Ma has won a number of laurels in recognition of his contributions to the society. A few of them include his listing among the “25 Most Powerful Businesspeople in Asia” by Fortune in 2005, Businessweek’s “Businessperson of the Year 2007,” and “Time 100 Most Influential People in 2009. He made the Time list again this year.

Summing up his impressions about this eccentric Chinese entrepreneur and philanthropist, Adi Ignatius, former Time senior editor and editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review, was once quoted as saying: “Meeting Jack Ma, you might be forgiven for thinking he’s still an English teacher. The Chinese Internet entrepreneur is soft-spoken and elflike — and he speaks really good English.”

Indeed, the amazing story of Ma shows how far one can get in life with determination. He turns 50 on October 15.






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4 responses to “The amazing Jack Ma”

  1. Abayomi says :

    Jack Ma’s story is an insipring one. Fred’s description of Ma’s intellectual biography is quite commendable. Revealing the enabling environment that helped pushed Alibaba to the top of global business ladder is another good aspect of the blog, which serves to energize a willing and open mind. As a business initiate myself, I find Ma’s story highly plausible when he declared himself “100 percent China-made.” I hope one day, we too will be able to say “We are 100 percent Naija-made.” One more thing: Ma superintended the wedding of many of his employees and urged employers, globally, to emulate him by making their employees happy. This seems like a missing virtue among some Nigerian employers. Here, an employer is a tin god. He believes he’s doing the employees a favour. I’m not surprised why businesses fail here despite initial ‘runaway’ success but thrive in other climes many years after the founder might have died. Many Nigerian employers are afraid of their long-serving employees and they scheme to kick them out at the slightest opportunity. So much talk about loyalty and appreciating those who helped build your dream. Congrats to Jack Ma on his 50th birthday! I wish him and his Alibaba conglomerate many more successful years ahead.

  2. MCO says :

    determinations and focus are key to surmounting any obstacles

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