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Jack Ma's story is not complete yet

By Colin Speakman | China Daily | Updated: 2014-10-30 07:52

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, is the richest man in Chinese mainland with his net wealth increasing to $19.5 billion this year, according to Forbes. His fortune exploded after Alibaba's record initial public offering in New York which raised about $25 billion.

Many have asked: When will the world see the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who exemplify the American dream of success, wealth and influence by individuals starting from modest beginnings, and will China see such a home-grown role model? Ma represents that role model and will influence the way Chinese people realize the Chinese Dream in the next decade.

Ma's story reads like a fairy tale: He was born in an ordinary family, studied at an ordinary primary school in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and earned his first money as an undistinguished English teacher. Ma says he is still proud of those days and his $20 a month earnings. His rise up the social ladder should make people realize the importance of learning from the happenings in the rest of the world.

Although China had achieved 20 years of stellar economic progress by turn of the last century, when Ma founded his company 15 years ago, he knew that his country lagged behind the US in technology and commercial know-how. He taught himself English and researched American business models to understand what eBay, Amazon and PayPal were achieving. He tested the name Alibaba with strangers on the streets of San Francisco and got the right answers: The name conjured up images of "open sesame" and was expected to give people access to all kinds of treasures. An inspired branding followed, as did the riches.

Yet, unlike Gates (and Jobs), we did not see the term "innovator" being used for Ma. He saw what others were doing and found ways to do them better - he was not afraid to take on more established brands and beat them at their own game. He also saw opportunities for integration of services, with Alibaba becoming a China-focused combination of eBay, Amazon and PayPal. When his company launched the retail website Taobao in 2003 to compete with eBay in China, he was unfazed about going up against the US giant, famously saying: "eBay is a shark in the ocean. We are a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we will lose. But if we fight in the river, we will win." In 2006, eBay shut down its China site handing Ma a major victory.

Ma has done what some future role models in China could do to help realize the Chinese Dream - use their expertise of China. The Chinese market alone can support a huge number of Chinese enterprises in future-focused, technology-driven industries, including communications, smartphones and e-commerce.

Thinking about the future is what really connects Ma to the Chinese Dream. Speaking about success, Ma once said: "We got successful today - not because we did a great job today. We had a dream 15 years ago that the Internet could help small businesses."

But the Chinese Dream is a collective dream. Some will say that Ma, with his exposure to the US, has followed more of an American dream. Yet they can be reconciled. Ma shares two things in common with Gates. Like Gates, Ma has stood down as the CEO of his company to allow others to lead, and has vowed to also focus on other matters that benefit society. The Gates Foundation is known for its charitable work and Ma is in the process of establishing a charitable trust, which will reportedly receive 2 percent of Alibaba's share options value, that is, up to $3 billion. This way, Ma could further contribute to the achievement of a broader Chinese Dream and become a catalyst for increased donations in China. The Jack Ma story is not yet complete.

The author is director of China Programs at CAPA International Education, a US-UK organization that cooperates with Capital Normal University and East China Normal University.


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