Most companies bear the imprint of their founders, but few more than Alibaba. Jack Ma’s outsize influence stems from his passion for teaching. Although he left the profession two decades ago, Jack has never really stopped being an educator. He used to joke that in his case CEO stood for “Chief Education Officer.” Fourteen years after founding the company Jack relinquished the title to become chairman. But the switch served only to heighten his authority. His chosen successor as CEO lasted barely two years in the job.
Jack is, without doubt, the face of Alibaba. Short and thin, Jack has been described in the media over the years as an “imp of a man,” “a tiny figure with sunken cheekbones, tussled hair and a mischievous grin,” his looks “owlish,” “puckish,” or “elfish". Jack has turned his distinctive looks to his advantage. At the launch of MYbank, which aims to sign up customers exclusively through facial recognition technology, Alibaba showcased the fact that Jack “who had been unable to live off his face was now going to live off his face.”
Some in China like to refer to Jack as “E.T.,” after a supposed resemblance to the lead creature in the Steven Spielberg movie. Even his Zhejiang-born billionaire friend Guo Guangchang has called Jack an “alien,” but only before dismissing himself as “just a normal guy…no one is as smart as Jack Ma.”
So, Jack doesn’t look the part of a corporate chieftain. He possesses all the trappings, including luxury homes around the world and a Gulfstream jet, but otherwise Jack doesn’t really act the part, either. One of the most circulated images of Jack on the Internet is a photo of him sporting a Mohawk, nose ring, and makeup, including jet-black lipstick. On that occasion, a celebration of Alibaba’s tenth anniversary, Jack sang Elton John’s Can You Feel the Love Tonight to a stadium full of seventeen thousand cheering employees and ten thousand other spectators.
Jack combines a love of showmanship with a relish for defying stereotypes. Where other business moguls like to talk up their connections or academic credentials, Jack enjoys talking down his own: “I don’t have a rich or powerful father, not even a powerful uncle.” Having never studied abroad, he likes to describe himself as “one hundred percent Made in China.” He stands out as a tech company founder with no background in technology. At Stanford University in 2013 he confessed, “Even today, I still don’t understand what coding is all about, I still don’t understand the technology behind the Internet.”
Jack has made a career out of being underestimated: “I am a very simple guy, I am not smart. Everyone thinks that Jack Ma is a very smart guy. I might have a smart face but I’ve got very stupid brains.”
Blarney meets chutzpah in China
His achievements have proved otherwise — this dumbing down is of course just a feint. Jack once explained that he loves the lead character of the movie Forrest Gump because “people think he is dumb, but he knows what he is doing.” In his early speeches promoting Alibaba, Jack referred so often to Forrest Gump that I came to think of his stump speech as his “Gump speech.” Much has changed for Alibaba, but Gump’s appeal endures. On the first day of trading of Alibaba’s shares, Jack was asked which person had most inspired him, Jack replied without hesitation, “Forrest Gump.” His interviewer paused, then said, “You know he’s a fictional character?”
Jack’s ability to charm and cajole has played an important role in attracting talent and capital to the company, as well as building his own frame. Jack has a unique Chinese combination of blarney and chutzpah.
One of his earliest foreign employees summed up for me his qualities in two words: “Jack Magic.” In this respect, Jack shares a characteristic with Steve Jobs, whose charisma and means of getting his way were famously described by a member of the original Apple Macintosh design team as a “Reality Distortion Field.”