How in the world does one introduce Dr Jack Ma? I thought about this for some time and wondered: do I introduce Dr Ma as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his generation? I certainly could because Jack Ma has helped revolutionise the way hundreds of millions of people around the globe shop, travel, bank, make payments and use the internet. Jack Ma is the public face of Asia's emerging digital economy and an emblem of China's economic transformation over the past twenty years.
Alternatively, I could introduce Dr Jack Ma as one of the business world's greatest optimists who, behind that unmistakable smile, inspires inclusiveness and nurtures young entrepreneurs across the globe. Whether it is a local start-up such as GoGo Van, supported through the Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund, or future innovators in Africa, through a new African entrepreneur training program and African Entrepreneur Award, Dr Ma has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to support the next generation of visionaries and potential unicorns.
Another option was to introduce Dr Jack Ma as the only person out of a group of twenty-four applicants who was rejected for a job at KFC. Can you believe it? KFC! I could have chosen any of these introductions because they all illuminate important aspects of Jack Ma's remarkable life and career: a life forged through perseverance, propelled by optimism and defined by achievement through helping others to succeed.
What profession embodies all of these attributes? Well, teaching of course-the only profession for which Dr Jack Ma has received any formal training. Indeed, when I asked Dr Jack Ma what factors contributed to his myriad successes-as a CEO, as an entrepreneur, as an innovator, as a communicator, as an e-commerce visionary - his response was humble and moving. He replied, "I never learned how to be a CEO." "I perform the role of CEO in the same way as if I were a teacher." Indeed, he often refers to himself as Chief Education Officer. "Being a teacher," he added, is just so "unique." Ladies and Gentlemen, colleagues, Honourable Chancellor, please let me introduce Dr Jack Ma, one of the world's most inspiring and successful teachers.
Of course, Jack Ma was not always a teacher. Born Ma Yun in Hangzhou in 1964 he was the middle child in a family of three and grew up in a very modest household. From an early age, Ma demonstrated remarkable resilience and an unyielding determination to gain knowledge and acquire skills. Whenever possible, Ma would rise early, often as early as 5am and venture to Hangzhou's largest hotel that accommodated tourists near the city's famous West Lake. Once there, the young Ma offered foreign visitors guided tours of the city asking for nothing in return apart from the opportunity to practice English. One day in 1980 he met the Morley family from Newcastle, Australia. This chance encounter would have a lasting impact on Ma's early life trajectory. Ma and the Morley's kept in touch from that point on, with Ma often posting double spaced letters to Australia so that Ken Morley could correct his English and return the letters to Jack. Jack Ma's first overseas trip, in fact, was a month-long visit to the Morley's in 1985. Even this seemingly simple journey required Jack Ma to persevere: his VISA application to Australia was rejected seven times before being approved.
Challenges were common in Jack Ma's early life. Each challenge, he believed, provided another opportunity. Difficulties helped instil in him the belief that an important component of success is the ability to learn from your failures and the failures of others. After failing his college entrance examination twice, Jack Ma passed on his third attempt and thereafter enrolled in the Hangzhou Teachers Institute. In his first job teaching English after graduation, Jack Ma earned the equivalent of fourteen US dollars per month. However meagre this seems today, it is clear that he was a passionate teacher. His students then, much like his employees now, not only respected Jack Ma as a teacher, they adored him. He proved himself to be a gifted instructor who could not only explain problems to students effectively, but also encourage and empower students to find answers and solutions on their own. It is not surprising that a large number of the original eighteen co-founders of Alibaba were Jack Ma's friends and former students.
While working as a teacher, Jack Ma honed his entrepreneurial spirit and started his first company - a translation company that sought to help local small businesses in Hangzhou. In 1995, he visited America. On part of this trip he stayed with relatives of an English teacher he had befriended in China, and it was there in Seattle that Jack Ma was introduced to the internet. It was a revelation. Jack Ma returned to China with a bold idea - Open Sesame.
In February 1999, Jack Ma along with seventeen co-founders created Alibaba-a company founded on a remarkable, yet remarkably simple premise: to provide an online platform for businesses in China to find overseas customers. No one could facilitate this like Jack Ma: he exhibited passion, optimism, and an indefatigable determination to succeed with Alibaba. And succeed he did! Within months he secured financial backing from Goldman Sachs and Japanese multinational, Softbank Group. To state that Alibaba took off and grew would be an understatement of extreme magnitude. Today, Alibaba employs close to 70,000 individuals across nearly 250 countries and territories. It has a current market valuation of just over $500 billion US dollars. In its 2014 initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, Alibaba raised a record $25 billion. Under Dr Jack Ma's leadership, Alibaba did not just get bigger, it got smarter and expanded to encompass consumer-oriented exchange and marketplace sites (Taobao) (Tmall), electronic payment services (Alipay), shopping search engines, cloud computing services (Alibaba Cloud) and an online travel platform (Alitrip). In less than a decade, Alibaba Group had become a titan of global e-commerce.
As one of the most successful entrepreneurs on the planet, Dr Jack Ma has been recognised in so many significant ways that there is no way I can list all of his accolades tonight. But, I want to highlight a few. Dr Jack Ma has been named: a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (2001); "Business person of the Year" by Business Week magazine (2007); one of the World's 30 Best CEOs by Barons magazine (2008); Time magazine's "World's 100 most powerful people" (2009); one of "Asia's Heroes of Philanthropy" by Forbes Asia (2010); 2nd on Fortune magazine's, Worlds 50 Greatest Leaders (2017); 3rd on KPMG's list of Global Tech Innovation Visionaries (2017).
With all of these successes and achievements, Dr Jack Ma has never lost his passion for teaching, inspiring youth, or championing young entrepreneurs. This is such an important part of who Dr Jack Ma is, and has always been as a person. If anything, he has now grown more committed to assisting future generations and protecting the environment, which they will inherit. Along with supporting young entrepreneurs around the world through the Jack Ma Foundation, he has also established a $45 million fund to assist rural teachers in China, provided $20 million dollars worth of scholarships for students at the University of Newcastle, $3 million to support the Queen Rania Foundation on education for the Arab world, and has been named a United Nations Special Adviser on Youth Entrepreneurship and Small Business.
One of his "greatest passions in life", Dr Jack Ma informed me, is "believing in the future, believing in young people". Indeed, Dr Jack Ma places enormous faith in the next generation to accomplish even greater innovations and declared that this is why he works tirelessly to help "young people succeed". As scholars, teachers, and an institution committed to future generations - assisting them to learn and succeed here in Hong Kong and around the world - this is not only a vision that we applaud, but also a hope that we share.
Honourable Chancellor, it is my great honour and privilege to present to you Dr Jack Ma for the award of Doctor of Social Sciences honorius causa.
Citation written and delivered by Professor J Charles Schencking, the Public Orator of the University.