Jack Ma never went to Harvard: Setting the story straight about Asia’s richest man

  • Books
  • Saturday, 02 Jul 2016

Jack Ma speaks during the 2016 Global Smart Logistics Summit in Hangzhou, China, on June 13, 2016. Photo: Reuters

Earlier this month, China had its yearly bout of examination fever when about 9.4 million students sat the two-day nationwide university entrance examinations known as the gaokao.

Three decades earlier, a lad named Ma Yun from Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, took that test. He scored 1/120 for mathematics on his first try, 19/120 on his second and 89/120 on his third.

Despite the improvements, his overall score – gaokao’s other subjects include English, history and physics – waned with each attempt.

No matter. Today, the 51-year-old is better known as Jack Ma and he is Asia’s richest man, with a reported personal worth of US$29.1bil (RM117bil) last year.

Ma spotted the Internet’s potential early and, in April 1995, founded China’s first online phone directory, which he called China Pages. He is now founder-chairman of the Alibaba Group, the world’s largest collection of e-commerce websites, including multibillion-dollar Taobao.com, which even provides counselling services for wives with cheating husbands.

Alibaba is now worth more than US$300bil (RM1.2tril) and is often seen as China’s equivalent of Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.com.

Former investment banker Duncan Clark befriended Ma in September 1999, just after Ma set up Alibaba with Yale-trained Taiwanese lawyer Joe Tsai. Clark recently released Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, his first book.

Clark, who has called China home for 22 years, is chairman of the Beijing-based investment advisory firm BDA China, which he founded with mainlander Zhang Bohai in 1994.

In an interview last month on the sidelines of a banking conference in Singapore, Clark shared how he came to meet Ma.

Clark wrote a column in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper in the early 1990s on technology developments in China. “My colleague said, ‘Hey, go meet Jack’. I did, and was impressed with this individual who was saying crazy things such as, ‘We are going to defeat all these Western companies’.”

Ma now owns SCMP.

Jack Ma speaks during the 2016 Global Smart Logistics Summit in Hangzhou, China, on June 13, 2016. Photo: Reuters
Jack Ma speaks during the 2016 Global Smart Logistics Summit in Hangzhou, China, on June 13, 2016. Photo: Reuters

Clark and Ma were soon travelling around China together and spoke at the same events at American universities Harvard and Stanford. Today, Ma is so well regarded that US President Barack Obama broke with protocol last November and moderated a session with him at the Asia-Pacific Eco-nomic Cooperation chief executives’ summit in Manila.

Clark, a first-time author, says that he wrote the book partly to correct the many myths that swirl around Ma, whom he calls “ambitious but humble, and very kind”.

For one thing, many people think that Ma is a Harvard alumnus, when his alma mater is actually the much humbler Hangzhou Teachers College, where he met his wife, Cathy Zhang, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. Ma’s only Harvard connection is speaking there, and even then, Clark says, Ma told Harvard students: “You’re kind of wasting your time here”.

Also, Wikipedia has Ma’s parents as musician-storytellers. This error bears correcting because Clark says Ma’s slick communication skills, which charmed American search engine pioneer Jerry Yang into investing billions in Alibaba, likely came from his parents’ love of pingtan, or the Chinese folk art of storytelling through singing and comedic sketches. But they weren’t practitioners – Ma’s father, Ma Laifa, was a photographer, and his mother, Cui Wencai, a factory worker.

Clark wrote Alibaba in 12 months, on an advance of US$200,000 (RM800,000) from publisher Harper Collins. He had come to know the editors through good friend Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club (1989).

Though Ma is also his friend, Clark says that the entrepreneur did not help him write the book.

In a more recent interview, Clark says, “Jack had already said many times that he was not going to help anyone write his book. He said, ‘I need to write my own book one day and I’m going to call it 1,001 Mistakes’.

“Then last year, he said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to be objective enough to write that book’. So I thought, ‘Well, if he’s not going to write it, somebody should.’”

The genial 46-year-old author has winning candour. He says about Ma, “I know less about him personally now than I did when I first met him in 1999, in the sense that even though he’s the same person, he’s surrounded by layers of security and trying to get to him is not easy.”

What does Ma think of his effort then?

Well, for one thing, Alibaba’s global head of public relations, Jennifer Kuperman, told Clark at the book’s April launch, “Jack loves your book”.

Clark adds, “Then Alibaba started retweeting some of my tweets so that was a good sign. And Jennifer got promoted shortly after that.”

At the outset, Kuperman told Clark that Alibaba would give him access to its employees, but would not check his manuscript. Later, after Clark sent printed copies of his book to Alibaba’s San Francisco office, he learnt that the company had 12 teams poring over each of the book’s 12 chapters, to report to their bosses what he had written.

An economist by training, Clark used to pitch telecommunications deals to Singaporean telecommunications company Singtel when he was a banker at Morgan Stanley there in the early 1990s. He left in 1994 to set up BDA China.

Clark is now a sought-after commentator globally on developments in China, having chaired the British Chamber of Commerce in China from 2011 to 2012.

Asked what it was like writing his first book, he says, “Day One, getting the book deal, was the most exciting. Day Two was the scariest.

“My journalist friends in China, who are lovely, cynical people, said, ‘There you go, taking three years off to write it’ and when I said, ‘No, I’m looking to finish this in 12 months’, they said, ‘You’re nuts.’”

But he did just that, thanks largely to Alibaba’s “very helpful” vice-chairman Tsai.

The book has since been lauded by, among others, the Financial Times and The New York Times. – Straits Times/Asia News Network

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