As someone who rose from being rejected from Harvard 10 times to becoming the second-richest man in China, Jack Ma’s rags to riches story is inspiring. Through persistence and experimentation, Ma built one of the most successful, record-breaking companies to date, the ecommerce giant Alibaba.
Of course, his success didn’t happen overnight, and his story is full of lessons in failure. Growing up, Ma struggled in school, constantly failing tests. When he finally got accepted to college, after he failed the college entrance exam twice and was rejected from Harvard 10 times, Ma eventually became an English teacher. However, once he was introduced to the internet during a work assignment in 1995, the rest was history.
Motivated to help the internet catch on in China, Ma launched Alibaba, an ecommerce site for small- to medium-sized businesses, in 1999. From there, it took years to build the site into the massive online wholesaler it is today, powered by Ma’s motivation and passion. Today, Ma is worth a whopping $39 billion, and since he stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO in 2013, he’s devoted much of his time and money to social causes.
There’s much to learn about the Chinese billionaire. Here are 20 interesting facts about Ma you probably didn’t know.
He wasn’t a great student.
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While one might assume Ma was a straight-A student, quite the opposite was true. Ma admits that he actually failed multiple times in school: "I failed a key primary school test two times, I failed the middle school test three times, I failed the college entrance exam two times.”
He began learning English when he was 12.
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At 12 years old, Ma was committed to learning English. Every morning for eight years, he would ride his bike 40 minutes to a hotel in Hangzhou, where he would volunteer as a tourist guide for visitors just to practice the language.
He was rejected from Harvard University 10 times.
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It usually takes only one rejection for someone to give up on getting into an Ivy League, but this wasn’t the case for Ma. During an interview at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in 2015, Ma admitted to being rejected from Harvard 10 times.
He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life after college.
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After graduating from Hangzhou Normal University, Ma applied for 30 different jobs, and he got rejected from each one. During the process of applying for these jobs, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he submitted his resume for a variety of unique positions, one even being a police officer.
One of the 30 jobs Ma applied for after he graduated from college was a position at the fast food chain KFC. Out of a pool of 24 applicants, KFC hired 23 -- and the one person who didn’t get a job was Ma.
He loves "Forrest Gump."
Jack Ma’s fictional idol is Forrest Gump. Like Gump, Ma also struggled in school, then went on to achieve success. "I've been watching that movie about 10 times. Every time when I'm frustrated I watch the movie," he shared with CNBC in an interview. "I watched the movie before I came to New York."
He became a teacher and made $12 to $15 a month.
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After graduating from Hangzhou Teachers University, Ma’s luck -- and career -- turned around. Ma was the only student of 500 to be chosen to teach at a university. Teaching English, Ma said he made what was then the equivalent of $12 to $15.
He was first introduced to the internet in 1995.
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In 1995, while on assignment as an interpreter in Seattle, a friend showed Ma the internet for the first time. His first search was on Yahoo for “beer.” However, it was through this search that Ma discovered there was no data about China, so he decided to launch a website called China Pages.
He was kidnapped and threatened with a handgun.
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During that same trip, which was his first time in the U.S., Ma also was assigned to go to Malibu, Calif., to collect debt from an American businessman on behalf of a friend. The businessman ended up locking Ma in his home and threatening him with a handgun. After a few days, the man brought Ma to Las Vegas with him when he was due to meet with a group of Chinese businessmen. Still without the money at this point, Ma won $600 on the slot machines in Vegas, bought a plane ticket to Seattle and left the scene.
His first entrepreneurial venture ended in failure.
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After borrowing $2,000 from friends to launch China Pages in an attempt to popularize the internet in China, Ma’s venture didn’t quite go as planned. It ran on a server with a dial-up connection in his small apartment, which made pages take more than three hours to load. At the time, his direct competitor was China Telecom, from whom Ma accepted an investment of $185,000 for a joint venture. In the end, however, Ma found he did not have much say in the business. Eventually, he left and took a job with China’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation.
He announced Alibaba in a videotaped meeting from his small apartment.
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By 1999, Ma was on to his next business idea for bringing the internet to China, and he had raised $60,000 from 18 friends to launch his ecommerce platform for small- and medium-sized businesses. Through a videotaped meeting that took place in his small apartment in Hangzhou, Ma introduced Alibaba.
The name “Alibaba” came from a children’s story.
Ma got the name Alibaba from the folktale series One Thousand and One Nights. He was inspired by the story of the poor carpenter Ali Baba, who came across an abundant treasure.
While growing Alibaba, Ma and his team made mistakes along the way.
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Ma’s journey wouldn’t make for a true entrepreneurial story if mistakes and hardship weren’t involved. He attributes three somewhat counterintuitive factors to the success of Alibaba: having no money, no technology and no plan. He’s said that having limited resources made his team more diligent -- especially when it came to money, because they had to use their limited funds carefully. Even as Alibaba grew, Ma admits the company tried to expand too fast, was stretched too thin and had to lay off a lot of people. By the end of 2002, Ma said the company had made just $1 in profits.
Alibaba holds the record for most money raised in an IPO.
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When Alibaba went public in 2014, its $25 billion IPO broke records for the largest IPO in history -- beating both Facebook and Visa.
But Ma wishes Alibaba never went public.
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In 2015, Ma admitted that if he could do it again, he would keep Alibaba private. "Now, after the IPO, it's much worse," he said in a speech to the Economic Club of New York. "If I had another life, I would keep my company private.” After Alibaba went public, it entered the spotlight and faced some scrutiny from investors, regulators and the media. Ma was playing on a bigger stage. "It's not only our people that watch us,” he said, “the globe watches us.”
He says he doesn’t know much about technology.
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In an interview with Charlie Rose, Ma admitted that he actually doesn’t know much about technology, despite owning one of the most successful tech companies in the world. “I know nothing about technology," he said. "The only thing I can use my computer [for] is [to] send [and] receive email and browse."
Ma loves to put on a show. In 2009, during Alibaba’s 10th anniversary party, Ma threw on a blonde wig and performed The Lion King onstage. At the 2017 anniversary party, Ma went all out and dressed up as Michael Jackson from the Dangerous World Tour. With a group of hired backup dancers, he performed “Billie Jean” and Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
He’s the second-richest person in China.
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As of September 14, 2017, Ma is the second-richest man in China, according to Forbes. He has a net worth of $39 billion.
He stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO because he felt he was too old.
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In 2013, Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO, saying, “I’m 48. I’m no longer young enough to run such a fast-growing business. When I was 35, I was so energetic and fresh-thinking.”
After stepping down as CEO, Ma refocused his efforts on social issues.
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In an interview with the Financial Times, Ma shared what he planned to do after leaving his executive position. “In China, because of problems in water, air and food safety, in 10 or 20 years, we will face a lot of health problems, like increased cancer. So that is one area where I will invest my money and time." Alibaba bought a stake in Citic 21CN in 2014, changing its name to Alibaba Health Information Technology Ltd. Since then, Ma has spent much of his time and money attempting to bring hospitals and pharmacies online.
That same year, Ma launched the JackMaFoundation, which focuses on education, the environment and public health. In 2015, Ma was recognized as China’s biggest philanthropist, having donated a total of $2.4 billion (after share options) to his foundation.
The multi-talented CEO will take his talents to the screen, starring in a kung fu film called Gongshoudao, which means "The Art of Attack and Defence." Starring alongside martial arts experts Jet Li and Donnie Yen, Ma will debut his skills in tai chi, a martial arts practice that he’s been studying since 1988.
He recorded a song with Chinese pop star Faye Wong.
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Jack Ma is a man of many talents. On top of a movie debut, Ma is also taking on the label of recording artist. In November, Ma shared a link on his Weibo account of a song he recently recorded with famous Chinese singer-songwriter Faye Wong.
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