Closed minds, not Internet, destroy businesses and jobs: Jack Ma

Closed minds, not Internet, destroy businesses and jobs: Jack Ma
Mr Ma says that women generally care more for the big picture while men tend to put their own career as top priority.
PHOTO: AFP

Alibaba has evolved into an e-commerce behemoth - but only after a mountain of rejections and mistakes.

"If I were to write my autobiography, I would call it Alibaba 1,000 Mistakes," Jack Ma, its founder and executive chairman, said at a global forum on transformation in Kuala Lumpur this week.

The serial entrepreneur, after spending five years on primary education, failed to get into key mid and high schools, and didn't make it to university.

He was spurned by the police force and even KFC turned him down.

That rejection was all the more painful because out of 24 applicants, he was the only one denied.

"I failed many, many times," he said.

Huge in tenacity and self-belief, Mr Ma considered each rejection or failure as an opportunity to do better the next time.

"I took every rejection as a training course. Every mistake or setback trained me."

Even the thought of imprisonment did not deter him from his goals: Establishing Alipay, which was then not approved by the Chinese authorities, was a big risk.

But it is the can-do attitude that underlines successful people, he said, pointing to Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Usain Bolt as examples.

"They are optimistic and they never complain."

Those who are quick to grouse do not see the opportunities while those who can solve the problems that people complain about put themselves in the driver's seat.

In a globalised world that is fast changing, whether one experiences it as the best or the worst of times is up to the individual.

"It is not the Internet that is destroying businesses or jobs, but closed minds."

Machines will increasingly replace workers as there are many functions where they outperform humans, such as data analysis.

But wisdom, creativity and imagination are harder to replicate.

That's why Mr Ma suggests that parents cultivate those traits in their children through music, arts and sporting activities.

Asked if it was true he did not like doing business with the Chinese government, he replied: "Anything that is easy won't last long. And if there's dirty money, it's even worse. That's why we decided to focus on customers and be market-driven."

While entrepreneurs do not need to know technology, they must know how to leverage it.

To this end, Mr Ma aspires to see a more inclusive global economy, one that also empowers small businesses and the young.

He has proposed a global trading platform, called eWTP, to link up such businesses from all over the world, and was in the Malaysian capital to ink a deal that is expected to see Alibaba establish a regional e-fulfilment hub in Kuala Lumpur that will provide SMEs with the opportunity to trade more efficiently.

Even so, Mr Ma remains coy about the amounts Alibaba will be investing in the hub.

"Monetary investments, how large it is, it's a last century concept," said Mr Ma, whom Malaysia appointed an adviser on the digital economy.

"The Malaysian government gave us a big piece of land to develop the e-hub," he said of the 20 acres at KLIA in Sepang, where businesses are expected to be ultimately managed by Malaysians.

Mr Ma implied that what Malaysia needs is more knowledge - technical know-how and how to better leverage technology.

While Alibaba has its issues, including complaints of counterfeit merchandise, its relevance is evident in its humongous US$270 billion (S$376.33 billion) market capitalisation.

Forty-seven per cent of the workforce of the NYSE-listed company are women, and they make up a third of senior management.

Mr Ma said women generally care more for the big picture while men tend to put their own career as top priority.

"So if you want your company to be more successful, please hire more women."

On the talents in the company of 50,000 employees, he said: "I tell my friends that if we applied for a job in Alibaba today, we would never get it."

Those who are interested to learn and can work as part of a team stand a better chance of being hired than those that walk into his office claiming to be "the best".

Mr Ma, who is in his early 50s, sees himself retiring in 10 years.

Besides spending more time with family and friends, he sees himself supporting environmental and educational causes after retiring.

And he will not miss the constant glare of the limelight.

"I regret the loss of privacy because I was not made for this," he said in reply to an entrepreneur who, having expanded regionally, had asked for advice on how he could take his company to Alibaba's level of success.

Many at the forum clamoured for a selfie with Mr Ma but his top selfie choice was track star Usain Bolt, a fellow participant at the annual event that received a RM15 million (S$5 million) subsidy from Putrajaya.

Other speakers included American stockbroker Chris Gardner, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, former Formula One racer David Coulthard and mountaineer Chris Bonington.


This article was first published on March 28, 2016.
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