Jack Ma is one of China’s most influential entrepreneurs in history. His charisma and vision have captivated the world. But how did an English teacher become one of China’s most successful business leaders?
In this new alumni series, we track down CKGSB’s most influential graduates, many of whom have gone on to lead unicorn companies – privately held companies valued at USD $1 billion or more. According to CB Insights – a global platform which provides authoritative and up-to-date information on the world’s billion-dollar private companies – China has created a total of 217 unicorn companies between 2017 to 2021. Thirty-nine (or 18%) of these companies are run by CKGSB alumni, including 35 companies where CKGSB alumni are founders or co-founders, and 4 companies where they serve as the chairman, CEO or president.
As China’s leading business school, it’s not surprising that CKGSB has been able to produce so many business leaders playing a pivotal role in China’s economic development. More than 18,000 successful entrepreneurs, industry leaders and executives of multinational corporations have chosen to study at CKGSB for the original China insights, world-class faculty and peer-to-peer learning with China’s movers-and-shakers. More than half of CKGSB’s alumni are at the CEO or Chairman level and, collectively, lead one-fourth of China’s most valuable brands.
How Alibaba achieved unicorn status
From the start, Jack Ma showed entrepreneurial skills. In 1994, he used his experience as an English teacher to set up his first company, the Haibo Translation Agency. After first encountering the Internet on a trip to the US in 1995, he saw a gap in the market for Chinese websites. He subsequently created China Pages, a company which created website content for Chinese businesses.
Later in 1999 he headed to his hometown of Hangzhou to start Alibaba. This project, which started in a shared apartment with 18 friends, would come to revolutionize the e-commerce industry.
How Alibaba achieved unicorn status
His business model for Alibaba was simple but revolutionary. Instead of charging buyers for products, Alibaba charged sellers membership fees, thereby allowing many small and medium sized enterprises to thrive.
After stabilizing the business-to-business (B2B) market in China, Jack Ma looked to the customer-to-customer market (C2C). Thus in 2003, he set up Alibaba’s subsidiary Taobao, which provided a platform for entrepreneurs and small businesses to sell to the Chinese market. Taobao’s advantage over competitors, like eBay at the time, was that Alibaba did not charge customers transactions fees. Instead, it earned money from online advertising.
Alibaba developed quickly. In 2003 he saw further potential in online payment systems and set up Alipay, which provided third-party payment transactions. In 2005, Yahoo bought a 40% stake in the company, and in 2007, USD $1.7 billion dollars were raised in its first public offering in Hong Kong.
By 2007, Taobao had a market share of 67% and had solidified its unicorn status. Alibaba’s IPO was the largest in US history in September 2014, raising USD $21.8 billion for the company and its investors. It was also around this time that Alibaba’s Alipay was rebranded to Ant Group – China’s largest digital payment and money market companies serving over one billion users.
Jack Ma’s importance in China
Jack Ma has always aimed to provide a solution before the market identified the problem. He set out to change the consumption habits of those in China and led the transition away from the traditional brick-and-mortar marketing towards online e-commerce. He was a leader in this movement that led to significant economic growth in China. His work with Ant Group has given young people and small companies greater access to capital, as well as advocating ownership of bank accounts across China.
The rise of Alibaba’s Taobao has completely transformed China’s retail sector, revolutionizing e-commerce and creating a number of new sectors such as express delivery, cloud computing, and livestream advertising.
Jack Ma is also dedicated to philanthropic and social causes. In 2014, he set up the Jack Ma Foundation, focusing on entrepreneurship, education, women’s leadership, medical support and environmental protection. The foundation is committed to cultivating future-oriented rural educators and entrepreneurs; helping rural children, young entrepreneurs and women’s development and growth, and making the world more inclusive, green, sustainable, healthy and happy. As such, the foundation has set up and implemented the Jack Ma Rural Education Initiative, Jack Ma Education Fund, Africa Entrepreneur Prize Initiative, China National Women’s Soccer Team Support Program, as well as other environmental protection and medical support projects.
In 2020, Alibaba donated RMB 3 billion to help fight the COVID-19 epidemic in China, and the Jack Ma Foundation, in partnership with the Alibaba Foundation, have donated RMB 200 million in epidemic prevention equipment such as test kits and face masks. Forbes named Jack Ma China’s most charitable entrepreneur in 2020.