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Inside the mind of Jack Ma

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I am very taken by the articulate and charismatic Jack Ma. Not because he’s one of the richest men in the world, but more because of his experiences and beliefs. If you haven’t listened to his interviews and thoughts at this years World Economic Summit, then I’d recommend you take the time out to do so. Here’s his 60 minutes Q&A with the future leaders:

Four key things stood out for me from his thoughts. One is what I talked about yesterday, in that Alibaba and the other platform companies are now the governments of knowledge, commerce, relationships and money.

The second is that you should never doubt yourself. Never give up. Giving up is the greatest failure, according to Jack. He illustrates this by talking about the fact that he couldn’t get a job anywhere. After college, Ma applied for 30 jobs in his home city of Hangzhou, China. He was rejected from every one. He couldn’t even get a job in a fast food chain. When 24 people were interviewed for KFC in Hangzhou, 23 got the job. The only one who didn’t was Jack. The same thing happened when he tried to be a cop. This time four of five applicants were hired, all except Ma.

This happened to him many times in his 20s, and look at him now. From unemployable to one of the richest men in the world. Amazing and I think this reflects how digitalisation has changed the world. In the industrial era, Jack would probably still be unemployed or in teaching. In the digital era, anyone can become an entrepreneur and find success if they look for it. I was reminded of this again when I met Vijay Shekhar Sharma whilst researching my new book. Vijay is the founder and CEO of PayTM, one of the fastest growing mobile wallets in the world, which makes him one of the richest guys in India. Yet, ten years ago, he was homeless and had to choose between getting to a job interview by bus or walking, so that he could afford to eat. This is the digital era transformation where anyone can achieve and succeed.

A third part of that transformation is diversity. Jack talks about a journalist asking him how come Alibaba employs so many women. He hadn’t realised this was exceptional, but detailed how 49% of their workforce and a third of their leadership are women (should this be half?). It’s because women nurture the business and bring the emotional intelligence. You need that balance.*

Finally, he talks about children and education. There is something wrong with our education right now.

And Jack, as a former teacher, knows something about this. The core statement he made is that our children are learning the wrong things. Children are learning facts, history, languages, math, geography and such like, and yet these subjects will be irrelevant by the time they grow up. The point he makes, with which I agree, is that children should learn the things that machines cannot learn. After all, as AI and machine learning matures over the next decade, all the knowledge-based subjects will be taken over by them. Everything from law to medicine to accounting to trade will be dominated by learning machines. It is the things therefore that machines CANNOT learn that we need to focus upon. Machines will never be human, so it is the things that make us human which we should focus upon teaching our children. That includes things like relationships counselling, mental health support, empathy, creativity and self-actualisation. We need to push our children to the highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and then some. In fact, if you have a only a few minutes and don’t want to listen to all, just watch this summary of Jack Ma’s views at Davos:

In fact, the World Economic Forum concurs with this thinking, writing recently about how "humans bring three dimensions to the job market: physical, cognitive and emotional. Machines have surpassed us in both the physical dimension (less and less manual work is necessary) and the cognitive dimension. This leaves the emotional domain where humans still have the upper hand ... American psychologist Daniel Goleman defined the four domains of emotional intelligence as: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and relationship management." And goes on to talk about the need for developing emotional intelligence in children in the future, the one thing the machines have not learnt yet.

Meanwhile, I think that Jack is one of the most visionary and engaging people in our world and so, just for the record, here is a collection of some other favourite quotes he made around the Davos circuit:

On the impact of technology

“We are very lucky because the world is in a big transformation because of technology. This new technology will create a lot of successful people, interesting careers but honestly every new technology will create social problems.

“If we don’t align together, human beings are going to fight each other, because each technology revolution makes the world unbalanced.”

On the key to success

“To gain success a person will need high EQ; if you don’t want to lose quickly you will need a high IQ, and if you want to be respected you need high LQ - the IQ of love.”

On the future of globalization

“I think globalization cannot be stopped - no-one can stop globalization, no-one can stop trade. If trade stops, the world stops. Trade is the way to dissolve the war not cause the war.

“Global trade must be simple and modernised; it must be inclusive so everyone has the same opportunity. The next generation of globalisation must be inclusive.”

On the impact of artificial intelligence

“Artificial intelligence, big data is a threat to human beings. I think AI should support human beings. Technology should always do something that enables people, not disable people.

“The computer will always be smarter than you are; they never forget, they never get angry. But computers can never be as wise a man. The AI and robots are going to kill a lot of jobs, because in the future it’ll be done by machines. Service industries offer hope - but they must be done uniquely.”

On learning from failure

“Learn from your mistakes - no matter how smart you are you will learn from them. We must share the mistakes with others.

“My thinking is that - if you want to be successful, learn from the other peoples’ mistakes, don’t learn from success stories. The book I want to write is “Alibaba: 1,001 Mistakes”.

On the value of teamwork

“You don’t need to know a lot of things, but you need to find the people who are smarter than you are. My job is to make sure smart people are working together.”

“The best way to promote your company is through your product or services, or employees.”

On the education challenge

“A teacher should learn all the time; a teacher should share all the time. Education is a big challenge now - if we do not change the way we teach thirty years later we will be in trouble.

“We cannot teach our kids to compete with the machines who are smarter - we have to teach our kids something unique. In this way, 30 years later, kids will have a chance.”

On the responsibilities of tech giants

“Google, Facebook, Amazon and AliBaba - we are the luckiest companies of this century. But we have the responsibility to have a good heart, and do something good. Make sure that everything you do is for the future.”


* Jack talks in-depth about the role of women in business and this was a standout moment. Here’s what he said:

Four years ago, a journalist entered the office of the Alibaba Group to meet its founder and executive chairman Jack Ma, and looked around wearing a rather puzzled expression. Out of sheer bewilderment, he blurted out a question - and Jack Ma countered it with an even more bemused answer, for he could not fathom what the journalist found amiss. They question, Jack Ma informs the intrigued audience at Davos, was, ”Why’re there so many women in your company?”

“I didn’t even realise we have so many women – so I wondered, is there anything wrong with us?” he quips.

Close to 49 percent of the employees in the company are women, and when it comes to the higher management, the proportion is a healthy 37 percent. “It’s not on purpose – I just think they are great in helping us grow,” said Jack Ma, addressing the crowd at the World Economic Forum 2018 at Davos.

World over, the gender gap is far from being closed - as women are still denied entry into the workforce, curbed from climbing up the corporate ladder, paid lesser, made to perform unpaid informal labour, and compelled to rear families without being granted a choice. In such circumstances, Jack Ma revealed the ingredients of the  “secret sauce” they followed at Alibaba, that ensured that their success is sustainable and scalable.

1. Having a Service heart

Pointing out that ecommerce is a service based industry – Jack Ma stated that to serve better one must have ”a serving heart.” “We find that women do a much better job at it than men,” he says.

For Jack Ma, the tenets he follows running an ecommerce major are simple - the customer is number one, the employees are number two, while his shareholders are number three. Women adhere to this principle much better, while men tend to be aggressive. Women respect these priorities, and even as men get aggressive, women would ordinarily be able to intervene and reason it out, and figure out a way to serve the customer’s needs, noted Jack.

2. EQ versus LQ

Analysing the buying patterns of their own customers, Jack Ma noted a stark trend -  women make a lot of purchases, but they are all diverse and more often than not, for their husband, their kids, and their families -in contrast to their male customers, who only ever shopped for themselves. “When you care – that makes all the difference,” he says, adding, “In my company, women care for others much more than men.”

3. More muscle, vicar?

In the last century, people could be beaten with muscle. However, this century is not about brawn, but about the sheer prowess of your brain.

“Women - balance-wise -  they’re the best. If you want your company to be successful; if you want your company to operate with wisdom, with care, then women are the best,” says Jack.

“If a person wants to be successful, they should have a high EQ. If you don’t want to lose quickly, you should have a high IQ. If you want to be respected, you need to have LQ – the Q of love. Those three Qs put together are key. Lot of men have High IQ but very tiny LQ. Women strike the perfect balance here as well -  so, if you want your company to be successful; if you want your company to operate with wisdom, with care, then women are the best,” he states.

A company full of men cannot be sustainable, cannot keep growing, noted the tycoon. “Part of the ‘secret sauce’ of our success is because we have so many women colleagues. Women sacrifice more – they love it, they believe in it, they continue to do it.” he says, signing off.




Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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