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May 14, 2013 - News

Jack Ma reflects at Stanford during final days as CEO; says 'people bet I’d be a loser'

By Daniel Limón

Jack Ma spoke at Stanford University on May 4, 2013 at an event co-hosted by the Stanford Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SPRIE) and Alibaba Group.

Speaking without notes or visual aids on May 4th at Stanford University's NVIDIA Auditorium, founder and former CEO of Alibaba Group Jack Ma unspooled a farewell talk that at moments turned highly personal and deeply reflective: Ma spoke openly about his persistent failures in school, including spending seven years in elementary school and being rejected by Harvard ten times, and about his struggles to jumpstart Alibaba with only 50,000 RMB.

Less than two minutes into his talk at the event co-hosted by Alibaba Group and the Stanford Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SPRIE) of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Ma touched on the trials and travails he had faced early on as an internet and e-commerce pioneer in China. "Back in 1995," revealed Ma, "I felt I was a loner and people thought I was a cheater. They said I was trying to make something out of nothing.” In fact, added Ma, his first interview with CCTV was censored at the behest of the producer, who feared Ma's talk about giving the Chinese government internet access was "not a positive influence" and made Ma "look like a bad guy."

Ma's personal struggles, however, began well before he knew anything about e-commerce—in elementary school—where Ma confessed to being such a bad pupil that no school in his hometown of Hangzhou wanted him. In high school, he spent three years taking the college entrance exam before scoring high enough to enroll in a local teachers college. Harvard rejected him ten times. "Nobody said that I would be a very capable person that would do something significant or meaningful in the future," Ma admitted to a silent and still audience of about 100 people. Ma also recalled his father asking him to focus and do calligraphy. "I couldn't really do it—I didn’t have good penmanship," he said.

It's clear the former English teacher turned internet billionaire never let the doubts of his detractors or the rejections from Harvard spoil his high aspirations—in fact, Ma credited the Silicon Valley for inspiring him to bring internet innovation to China amid the setbacks: "I knew nothing about technology, but every time I came to Silicon Valley, on the weekends I would see cars fill each and every parking lot… I saw the lights were on at each and every office building. When everyone spoke, their eyes were filled with sparkles. They were really hopeful about the future. So I was really inspired when I went back to China—I thought that I should do an internet business."

So Ma did, founding Alibaba Group in 1999 with 17 other co-founders. Today, Alibaba is China's largest e-commerce firm, something Ma readily admitted exceeded his wildest dreams: "I never thought that Jack Ma would have, in the future, a day like today. I never thought that Alibaba or Taobao or any type of transaction developed by Taobao would have a day like today. I never thought the internet would have a day like today."

Midway through the speech, the 49-year-old seasoned entrepreneur also struck a philosophical and political chord, making tacit references to god, social conflict, war, and generational change. He encouraged the audience to be grateful for living in an era of great opportunity, adding "the worst thing is that mankind experiences war… if we can actually solve problems through economic development, we will not need wars and we can actually use economic development to influence many people." He warned, nonetheless, that in the next 30 years the world would face a host of unknown vicissitudes, including "lots of social conflicts," which Ma described as opportunities for young people. "If everything stays stable, we are not going to have any opportunities."

Ma also gave the audience his views on the state of China's present social milieu: "This is the best of times, this is the worst of times," remarked Ma. “Nobody is happy in China… there's a lack of trust and nobody is happy. The poor people are unhappy; the rich people are unhappy. The government doesn't trust media; the media doesn't trust government. We are in an era of constant change."

At least twice during his speech, the founder of China's most profitable e-commerce company also took spirited swipes at some of his personal critics. "You know, we are experiencing economic and political restructuring and they want me to commit suicide. Lots of people are asking, 'why are you not advocating for political restructuring?' I don't feel that's actually something that can be done. I feel that lots of people encouraging me to do that have foreign passports. And they aren't going to stay in China as long as they see the situation changing. They're going to flee the country." Ma also took to task those that ask why he runs a technology company if he knows so little about technology. He said it's like asking a real estate developer "you know nothing about constructing a house—how can you be a real estate developer?"

Fourteen years removed from when he founded Alibaba, Ma's personal belief is that one shows respect and admiration for technology and the people that develop it. "That you don't know about technology," said Ma, "doesn't mean you don't respect technology."

 

Daniel Limón is a senior in East Asian Studies at Stanford University and a research assistant for SPRIE.