Jack Ma is known as the founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, a social media and e-commerce giant in China and, increasingly, the entire globe. (See also: Jack Ma’s Worth and Influence.) He was born Ma Yun in 1964 in Hangzhou during China’s Cultural Revolution, during which his family was persecuted because of his grandparents, who were members of the Nationalist Party. If Jack Ma’s background, education, and path to success to can be distilled into a few characterizations, they might be failure, rejection, determination, resolve, hard work, agility, and vision. All throughout Jack Ma’s life, from childhood until his experience building a multibillion-dollar global e-commerce technology giant, he has failed many times, been rejected and called crazy. Ma’s father was among his prominent detractors when he cautioned Ma about his unique and “dangerous” ideas. For an earlier generation, these ideas might have led to imprisonment.
Jack Ma learned more from his and others’ failures than through the traditional channels of education. As he declared in an interview with Charlie Rose in Davos, “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 and when I graduated, I was rejected for most jobs I applied for out of college.” Ma was the only one out of five applicants to the police force to be rejected and the only one of 24 applicants to be a KFC manager to be rejected. “I applied for Harvard ten times, got rejected ten times and I told myself that ‘Someday I should go teach there.’” In the late 1990s, after starting Alibaba, Ma tried to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley for Alibaba and got rejected for running an unprofitable business model. He eventually went back to China without funding. (See also: Top 10 Chinese Entrepreneurs.)
Unlike many idolized college drop-outs turned successful entrepreneur, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, Jack Ma earned his MBA from Cheung Kong University while already building Alibaba in the early 2000s. Though critical of traditional teaching practices, especially at business schools, Ma is fond of academics. He was a university English teacher himself, and he talks about teaching again someday in the future.
Ma struggled academically, especially throughout his early years in primary and secondary schools, where he failed repeatedly. However, he excelled in the things that he was passionate about, and he managed to teach himself English. During these formative years, Ma thought that, as long as he kept his resolve and worked to achieve his objectives, he had a chance to succeed. Ma said, “if you never tried, how do you know there’s no chance?” Eventually, Ma was admitted to Hangzhou Teacher’s College. (See also: What’s Next For Alibaba?)
When one listens objectively to Ma’s speeches about his early, formative years, one can observe that Ma learned most by experimenting, observing and questioning the status quo. As an adolescent, he taught himself English and polished it by becoming an unofficial tour guide to foreign tourists. Through those tourists, pen pal relationships he cultivated with some of his tourist clients and his interaction with some relatives in Australia, Ma learned much about the outside world (especially the Western world). More importantly, he developed a level-headedness that prompted him to question the world around him.
That ability to question and reexamine issues helps him to look at situations from various angles and see opportunities where most see only problems. For example, when most people feared conducting e-commerce in China due to an unreliable and untrustworthy payment system, Ma got Alibaba to build Alipay without approval of Chinese banking authorities and at the risk of his personal freedom. Now Alipay facilitates more business globally than PayPal, as measured in U.S. dollars. (For more, see: How Counterfeiting Affects Alibaba’s Business.)
Ma his MBA from Cheung Kong University. He is heavily influenced by martial art teachings, especially Tai Chi, which he claims helps him to find balance that he applies to both his personal and business life.