Jack Ma, the Founder of Alibaba Group, in this talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business on May 4, 2013 discusses why embracing change is critical for global leaders managing the fast turnover of technology. He spoke in Mandarin.
Jack Ma – Founder, Alibaba Group
Two years ago I came here. Last time I made a speech in English. So today I’m going to speak in Chinese.
I’m very grateful for the support from Stanford and everyone. So yesterday, actually I participated in this TMZ event in Los Angeles. These are the last few days of my being the CEO, so probably this may be the last event I’m going to attend.
So I feel that today’s event is really significant. I have seen a lot of old friends, some of the friends have been with us for more than 10 years. So while I was sitting with the audience I was reflecting upon the past, I feel this era is significant.
Actually Dr. Wang just shared with us an anecdote. That was a real story.
In 1995 or 1997, I was riding my bike to work and I saw actually some people were trying to steal stuff. They were small in stature. What I did is started running around to see whether I would see a policeman. You know in 5 minutes I wasn’t able to find the policeman.
I remembered that a kid actually fell into the hole so I thought that somebody had to stop them. So they looked at me and they charged ahead; they thought I was going to run away. I don’t know where I found courage but I said those people are thieves and those thieves should be stopped. I saw that I was being videotaped and I realized actually I was on TV, so it was just a test.
And then I realized I was the only person who passed the test in Hangzhou because nobody else tried to intervene. So I thought that it was really meaningful.
If you didn’t really take action to make a change, then the world is irrelevant. If you participate in the action, then you really make your life more meaningful. So actually the Hangzhou TV station broadcasted this event. So everyone was saying Jack Ma was a bad guy, the person trying to steal the stuff looked like nice people. And actually that was the first time I appeared on TV. I didn’t have any experience.
And then when it comes to the second time I appeared on a TV station was when CCTV interviewed me. I approached lots of ministries in China to help give them get access to the Internet, but I got declined. I remember that actually the producer of CCTV said, “We have to censor this because Jack Ma looks like a bad guy and it wouldn’t have a positive influence.” So nobody said I was capable, nobody said I was smart. Nobody said that I would be a very capable person that would do something significant or meaningful in the future.
I’m really curious why I would be able to come along such a long way and be able to still be so healthy. I think since I started back in 1994 or 1995, I have to say I’m the first one to do e- commerce. Earlier than [inaudible] When he had written something I had actually started my business six months earlier. He probably can’t recall this, but while I was in Beijing – and of course he had an office building for himself— I spoke with him for half an hour and said that the Internet is promising but the opportunity is not in his business.
I know that the thing that you have to do is to live longer than other people. Over the past few years I feel that I have been developing so fast, I’ve achieved so much, I’ve been doing so much and that’s because of the fast development of the Internet and because of the support from my friends. And Silicon Valley has given me lots of inspiration.
Back in 1995, I felt I was a loner, everyone thought that I was a cheater— that I was just trying to make something out of nothing. I knew nothing about technology, but every time I came to Silicon Valley, on weekends I would see cars fill each and every parking lot. When I got back home even on weekends, I saw the lights were on at each and every office building. When everyone spoke, their eyes were filled with sparkles. They were really hopeful about the future. So I was really inspired when I went back to China— I thought that I should do an Internet business.
And then I became bolder. In 2001 or 2002, I made a speech at Harvard. I thought that I was really successful because I received an invitation from Harvard and remember that when I made a presentation at an auditorium larger than this one in Harvard, I remember the event was 2001. Actually I felt the speech was a little bit naïve because you know that it was a little naïve in retrospect.
Let me tell you three reasons. First was that we didn’t have money. Second was that we didn’t know about technology. And third was that we didn’t do any planning. Actually the professors at Harvard were mad and the students were really happy about my speech. I feel that there may be records of my speech. The professor from Harvard said, “Could you please introduce yourself?” You know that one of the things that I didn’t mention in my bio was that I got rejected by Harvard 10 times and the only reason we survived was because I didn’t have any money.
As you know, that’s back in the old days I was an English teacher. And then I started my own business and I worked for the Ministry of Foreign Trade. My monthly salary was going to be about 4000 RMB so when I started my business I only had 50000 RMB. So my competitors at that time were superior to me.
Then I realized that the reason a lot of businesses went out wasn’t because they didn’t have money, it was because they had too much money. When people are trying to solve problems by money that brings you additional problems. Money isn’t an issue. Money is a means of solving problems. Lots of people say I have lots of money and I can do anything. Actually that is very indicative of failure.
As of now, Alibaba, not only in China but also in the world, has the cash reserves and we are going to continue in this tradition. I hope that we are going to be cognizant of the importance of having cash reserves. Cash is like the military of the nation. If we use our cash, we have to win the game. We can’t really use our cash reserve randomly.
And second, we don’t really have technology. I have no idea about technologies; even to this day I don’t know anything about coding. Even until today I didn’t know how the Internet was invented. I feel that two things are different: that you don’t know about technology doesn’t mean you don’t respect technology. Some people say we quarrel a lot. But actually we can’t have an argument with people who have a technology background. I feel actually the luckiest thing is if the CEO doesn’t know anything about technology. If the CEO knows a lot about technology, he will be able to micromanage, and as a result the engineers would feel so many constraints.
I always tell my engineers “I respect you a lot.” You can see that our technologies have been influencing people and China significantly. I have shown great respect and all our engineers who are here today are changing the world and if we can’t change the vision into reality, we can’t change nothing. We have to change our vision into reality.
So everyone thought that actually Alibaba didn’t have technologies because Jack Ma their CEO didn’t know anything about technologies. I know there was some truth to that argument. You know engineers in our company were unhappy. Some people asked me this question: Jack Ma, you know nothing about technology, why are you running an Internet business?