Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor Shannon Ebrahim sat down on the sidelines of President Cyril Ramaphosa's Investment Conference in Johannesburg on Friday with the legendary Chinese billionaire Jack Ma. In an unusual and far-ranging interview, she came to understand what drives him, the secret to his success, and what he believes is the true meaning of life.
Jack Ma is a true inspiration. But not because he is among the ten richest men in the world, or the founder of the world’s most impressive e-commerce empire which he started in China, but because of who he is. Jack Ma is a man who exudes humanity and simplicity. Never have I met someone who is so down to earth yet has every reason to be pompous and arrogant.
Ma had promised our President Cyril Ramaphosa that he would address the President’s gala dinner at the end of the much touted South Africa Investment Conference in Sandton on Friday. Thanks largely to the generosity of the Chinese Ambassador, I was afforded a lengthy and exclusive interview with Ma even though he had literally flown in to South Africa for exactly 24 hours. But even more of an honour was the fact that Ma gives very few interviews according to his Chief of Staff.
This is a man who is courted by CEO’s and Presidents around the world. I got to learn that first hand when I accompanied President Ramaphosa last month to the headquarters of Alibaba, Ma’s multinational conglomerate in his hometown of Hangzhou in China. Adorning the walls all the way down the main foyer of his headquarters are framed photos of Ma with every imaginable world leader from President Donald Trump to President Vladimir Putin and everyone in between. There is no question on anyone’s mind that Jack Ma is a legend.
What makes Ma’s story such an emotional one, a testament to the human spirit, is his emergence from very humble beginnings. He never went to a fancy school or had the material advantages that most kids enjoy today. He studied at a local Chinese university, and had struggled to find gainful employment. Ma has recounted in many global forums how he was rejected twice for a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and was also rejected by the police department when he applied to work as a policeman. That would have been enough to set most of us back for life, but Ma believed in himself and his ability to succeed.
His personal drive compelled him to do something most residents of Hangzhou had probably never considered. Ma decided to capitalise on the fact that many foreign tourists descended on the famous and serene West Lake in Hangzhou, with its beautiful surroundings and weeping willow trees. Ma not only learnt English by spending all his free time engaging with the tourists, but he even became their tour guide. He claims to have also learnt many things from books, and he quickly became an independent thinker.
“It all comes down to how we face failure and the challenges in our life,” Ma told me, “we may have a terrible beginning, but we learn, and ultimately have a better ending.” So Ma trained to become an English teacher. He also took the initiative to start the China Pages, the equivalent of what we know as the yellow pages, although he put it online. His appreciation of the value to the digital world was clear from a very young age.
Ma then went on to work for the Commerce Department in Beijing, but being a bureaucrat was far too slow for someone whose vision expanded beyond the horizon. It was in 1999 that he started Alibaba, which 18 years later was to become the most successful and lucrative e-commerce empire. Who would have thought that Ma’s humble initiative to create an online marketplace with a few friends from his apartment would burgeon into a world famous success story.
Ma tells how he and his team worked night and day pursuing a vision that they hoped would transform the lives of rural Chinese who couldn’t easily access shopping centres, and who had very little choice in what they could consume. “For the first three years we never made any money,” Ma has told audiences around the world. Less than two decades later Ma is said to be worth US$38 billion. “Nobody can work alone, you need to partner with people, so it needs to become “we,” and there needs to be trust in both each other and the future,” Ma told me.
Ma’s philosophy in terms of the type of people he surrounds himself with in his business life is that they should have a high IQ as well as EQ, but he has added an interesting third – a high LQ. In addition to intelligence and emotional intelligence, for Ma LQ is about love – the ability to care for others, without which he believes a business will never be successful.
Sitting in a restaurant in San Francisco, California, Ma was trying to come up with a name for his new business venture, and wanted a name that would be universally recognisable. He had asked the waitress what she knew about Alibaba, and she had said “Open Sesame.” That was exactly what Ma was trying to do in his business – open doors to new opportunities, so Alibaba was the perfect fit. Ma liked the name because in the story “Alibaba was a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village.” That was Ma’s goal, to make a difference to the lives of China’s rural poor, and that is exactly what he has done.
Alibaba offers a model for helping the rural poor as it has changed lives by enabling local producers to put their products on the internet. Farmers or local manufacturers who previously could only sell their goods within their local vicinity, were suddenly able to market their goods to millions of potential Chinese customers. It expanded local businesses beyond what anyone imagined, and later opened them up to the rest of the world. This is a model that Ma is now sharing with African entrepreneurs, who are eager to learn from invaluable experience.
Now at the age of 54, Ma believes that after working night and day for years, it is time to pass the torch to the younger generation, whom he has been grooming to take over the opportunities and challenges of his business. “I have been very lucky, but one may not be lucky all the time. So I am giving the challenge to those who are young and smarter. They may even do a better job than me!” he said.
While 54 seems a very young age to retire, Ma has a panopoly of causes he wants to take on, everything from combating poaching in Africa by capacitating rangers, to building a groundswell of continent wide entrepreneurs across the African continent.
But I was more interested in whether Ma was going to afford himself the luxury of relaxing and enjoying the natural things life has to offer. I told him my idea of fun was to go to the African bush and watch elephants drinking and frolicking at a waterhole - a prospect he greeted with great enthusiasm. "The important part of the plan after you retire is to have fun – to go into nature, drink some wine, look up at the sky and enjoy the stars. If you can’t enjoy life, then what example are you setting for other business leaders," Ma told me.
I pushed the boundaries even further by asking him whether he believes in a higher power, to which he promptly replied that he has great respect for, and has read the Bible. He also believes in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and certainly believes there is an after life. For Ma religion is a source of wisdom for human beings, and at the top, they are all the same. "Buddhism teaches there is a next life, and if we do well in this life it will be good for us in the next life."
But beyond his religious convictions, I was particularly eager to know what someone who is considered to be one of the richest men alive believes to be the true meaning of life. To this his answer was quite simple - “We only stay in the world for 80 to 100 years if we are lucky, and it is all about the people we meet and the tough days we have been through. I told the founders of Alibaba that it is more about how life was, not so much about how much we have achieved.”
The final words of wisdom Ma imparted to me will stay with me always: “It is not money I worked for, or reputation or fame, it is to feel happy, to do what’s right, and have fun.” If that isn’t inspirational then I don’t know what is.