Meet Alibaba’s Jack Ma


Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Roughly 10 years ago, a publicist arranged for a Chinese entrepreneur to come to the New York offices of the business magazine where I worked at the time. Expecting the standard PR routine, I was hardly prepared for the charismatic yet impish figure who sat before me, explaining how he started the company in his apartment and spouting wildly aggressive goals for beating eBay in China. There was so much energy, so much ambition, so much fire inside this scrappy little man, it was hard to know quite what to make of him.

That man was Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma.

About a decade later, his ambition turned out to not be so wild after all. Ma did indeed beat eBay in China — and handily. The company is thought to have a market capitalization somewhere between $150 to $250 billion, which puts it in the leagues of Facebook, Oracle and IBM. It is China's, and potentially the world's, largest online commerce company. And it has now filed its initial public offering in the United States, which could become the largest in history.

But despite achieving those goals and being in many ways China's first global CEO, Jack Ma hardly has the name recognition stateside as, say, Mark Zuckerberg. Here are key details to know about the man behind the big upcoming IPO, known as the "godfather" of China's entrepreneurs:

He was originally an English teacher who learned the language as an unpaid tour guide in Hangzhou. Ma, whose parents were traditional theater performers, twice failed university entrance exams, but became a teacher after entering the local teacher's college. He has said he was rejected from Harvard 10 times and that he was turned down as a secretary to a Kentucky Fried Chicken general manager. During a trip to Seattle in 1995, he went online for the first time, and saw how little information existed about Chinese companies. That prompted him to start China Pages, one of the first Chinese Internet companies.

Ma professes to know very little about high tech. For the leader of one of the world's largest Internet companies, Ma concedes he knows very little about technology. He has said he knows little more than how to send and receive email and cannot write code.

When Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang visited China, it was Ma who showed him around. While working for China's Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, he was assigned to take Yang on a tour, the Financial Times reported. Several years later, Yang would put a $1 billion stake into Alibaba, a move that even after Alibaba later repurchased part of the investment is paying off in huge ways for Yahoo now. 

He's weathered some scandals. Alibaba Group may be wildly successful, but Ma has managed through some bumps in the road. In 2012, the U.S. government publicly called out Alibaba-owned site Taobao for the counterfeit goods in its marketplace. Though the company has invested heavily in eliminating them and has been removed from the government's list, reports say it's still an issue. And in 2011, the group's business-to-business e-commerce site Alibaba.com shared details about a fraud scandal involving some suppliers. The site's CEO and COO resigned, even if they weren't connected to the charges. "We must send a strong message that it is unacceptable to compromise our culture and values," Ma said at the time.

He sings at soccer stadiums in front of crowds of 40,000. Though he gave up the CEO job last year, Ma remains chairman of the company and is still the heart, soul, face and voice of the company. He has sung Chinese pop songs and "Lion King" favorites in front of crowds of thousands. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that he has blessed hundreds of Alibaba newlyweds in wedding garb at an annual company event. All of this isn't just the antics of "Crazy Jack" — Ma says he explicitly manages in a way that puts customers first, employees second and shareholders last.

The scrappy fighter is a huge fan of kung fu. The Financial Times, in naming Ma its Person of the Year in 2013, also reported that Alibaba employees, or "Alipeople" as they are called, each take nicknames from characters in kung fu novels. Ma's is "Feng Qingyang,” and refers to a swordsman who was "unpredictable and aggressive."

He's an environmentalist. Ma has joined the board of the Nature Conservancy, established a philanthropic foundation and has interests (tai chi, traditional medicine and poker) far outside of business. "Once your net worth exceeds a certain point, that's not your money anymore," Ma, now a billionaire, said in a Q&A with Nature Conservancy executive Charles Bedford. "It is society's money. It is the money society has given to you, and you should take responsibility to allocate the money in a good way."

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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