Jack Ma: Innovation and Optimism

“Never give up! Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine. If you give up tomorrow, you will never see the sunshine.”

Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, is one of the richest men in Asia and ranked No.2 in the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list by Fortune in 2017. Today, he’s one of the world’s most influential businessmen and inspirational philanthropists, and his rags-to-riches story is testament to his belief that you must “never give up.”

Early Innovator

Born in Hangzhou, China in 1964, Jack’s parents made ends meet by working as traditional performing artists. There was little money in the family and Jack recognized that education would be his way to get ahead in life. After a visit from President Nixon in 1972, Hangzhou grew into a popular tourist destination, bringing lots of English-speaking visitors into the area, an opportunity that an already innovative Jack took full advantage of in his teenage years. Each day, he would ride his bike to the Hangzhou hotel, some 40-minutes from his home, where he offered his services as a tourist guide in exchange for the opportunity to learn and improve his English. It was one of these tourists who nicknamed him “Jack” after struggling to pronounce his actual name, Ma Yun, becoming pen pals after the visit.

Jack continued to give free tours for nine years while struggling to get ahead with his formal education. He failed the entrance exam for college twice, finally succeeding on the third attempt – an early indication of the resilience and perseverance that would shape his extraordinary life. He graduated from Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute in 1988 with a B.A. in English and began applying for jobs, only to find himself faced with yet more failure and rejection. The police force rejected him, saying, “You’re no good,” and then even KFC turned him away with Jack famously quoted as saying, Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy…”

Internet Discovery

He eventually found employment as a lecturer of English at Hangzhou Dianzi University, but on a trip to the U.S. as a translator in 1995, Jack got his first hands-on experience of the internet, something essentially unheard of back in China. He typed “beer” into the search engine and was fascinated to discover that no Chinese beers appeared anywhere on the results pages. It was this discovery that inspired him to set up an internet company for China, a venture that would fail, but he didn’t give up.

In 1999, Jack and a group of 17 friends raised enough money between them to found Alibaba – effectively China’s answer to Amazon – with the intention of helping Chinese companies reach an international market. That group of 18 in Jack’s apartment has grown to a workforce of 30,000 over four large campuses, and while many mistakes were made in the early years, Jack recalls saying, “We will make it because we are young and we never, never give up.”

Crazy Jack

Jack is now globally recognized as a true innovator, yet in the past his ideas have been branded as “crazy”. Crazy or not, his success story demonstrates the enormous power of an optimistic attitude and relentless perseverance. He has said, “If you never tried, how do you know there’s no chance? If you don’t do it, nothing is possible. If you do it, at least, you have the hope that there’s a chance.” Well, Jack Ma has certainly gone ahead and tried; he didn’t give up when tomorrow got tougher, and he’s now enjoying the sunshine.

In a letter written to his employees after the company filed for its IPO (initial public offering), Jack said: “We know well we haven’t survived because our strategies are farsighted and brilliant, or because our execution is perfect, but because for 15 years we have persevered in our mission of ‘making it easier to do business across the world,’ because we have insisted on a ‘customer first’ value system, because we have persisted in believing in the future, and because we have insisted that normal people can do extraordinary things.”

You may see yourself as an ordinary person today, but what extraordinary things might you achieve if you don’t give up tomorrow?

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