Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma — the richest person in China — is retiring with a net worth of $38 billion. Here’s his incredible rags-to-riches story.

Jack Ma grew up poor in communist China, failed his university-entrance exam twice, and was rejected from dozens of jobs, including one at KFC, before finding success with his third internet company, Alibaba.

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Jack Ma grew up poor in communist China, failed his university-entrance exam twice, and was rejected from dozens of jobs, including one at KFC, before finding success with his third internet company, Alibaba.
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VCG/VCG via Getty Images

  • Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma announced that he would step down as the company’s chairman on his 55th birthday September 10th, Business Insider previously reported.
  • A former teacher, Ma said in May that he would return to the classroom upon his retirement from Alibaba.
  • Ma faced criticism after calling President Trump “open-minded” and saying that “China and US will never have a trade war” in 2017, Business Insider previously reported.
  • Ma is the richest person in China with a net worth of $38.5 billion, according to Forbes.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A new chapter is about to unfold in the incredible rags-to-riches story of China’s richest man.

Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma will step down as the online marketplace’s chairman on September 10, he announced September 9. The date is Ma’s retirement is also his 55th birthday.

Ma grew up poor in communist China, failed his university entrance exam twice, and was rejected from dozens of jobs, including one at KFC, before finding success with his third internet company, Alibaba.

Keep reading to learn more about how Jack Ma made his fortune.

Jillian D’onfro contributed to an earlier version of this post.


Jack Ma — born Ma Yun — was born on September 10, 1964, in Hangzhou, southeastern China. He has an older brother and a younger sister.

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Jack Ma, Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, speaks at the WSJD Live conference in Laguna Beach, California October 27, 2014.
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REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Source: 60 Minutes, USA Today


He and his siblings grew up at a time when communist China was increasingly isolated from the West, and his family didn’t have much money when they were young.

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Hangzhou, China, where Ma was raised.
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rongyiquan / Shutterstock.com

Source: 60 Minutes, USA Today


Ma was scrawny and often got into fights with classmates. “I was never afraid of opponents who were bigger than I,” he recalls in “Alibaba,” a book by Liu Shiying and Martha Avery.

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YouTube, Life News

Source: USA Today, Business Insider


As a kid, Ma liked collecting crickets and making them fight, and was able to distinguish the size and type of cricket just by the sound it made.

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Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma attends Alibaba Group’s 11.11 Singles’ Day global shopping festival in Shenzhen, China, November 11, 2016.
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REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Source: USA Today, Business Insider


After President Nixon visited Hangzhou in 1972, Ma’s hometown became a tourist mecca. As a teenager, Ma started waking up early to visit the city’s main hotel, offering visitors tours of the city in exchange for English lessons. The nickname “Jack” was given to him by a tourist he befriended.

Source: 60 Minutes


After high school, he applied to go to college — but failed the entrance exam twice. He finally passed on the third try, going on to attend Hangzhou Teachers Institute. He graduated in 1988 and started applying to as many jobs as he could.

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WEF

Source: 60 Minutes


He received more than a dozen rejections — including from KFC — before being hired as an English teacher. Ma was a natural with his students and loved his job — though he only made $12 a month at a local university.

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Reuters

Source: Business Insider


At the World Economic Forum in 2016, Jack Ma revealed he has been rejected from Harvard — 10 times.

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REUTERS/Jason Lee

Source: Business Insider


Ma had no experience with computers or coding, but he was captivated by the internet when he used it for the first time during a trip to the US in 1995. He had recently started a translation business and made the trip to help a Chinese firm recover a payment. Ma’s first online search was “beer,” but he was surprised to find that no Chinese beers turned up in the results. It was then that he decided to found an internet company for China.

Source: Business Insider, USA Today


Though his first two ventures failed, four years later he gathered 17 of his friends in his apartment and convinced them to invest in his vision for an online marketplace he called “Alibaba.” The site allowed exporters to post product listings that customers could buy directly.

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FILE PHOTO: The logo of Alibaba Group is seen at the company’s headquarters in Hangzhou
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Reuters

Source: Business Insider, 60 Minutes


Soon, the service started to attract members from all over the world. By October 1999, the company had raised $5 million from Goldman Sachs and $20 million from SoftBank, a Japanese telecom company that also invests in technology companies. The team remained close-knit and scrappy. “We will make it because we are young and we never, never give up,” Ma said to a gathering of employees.

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Screenshot / The Crocodile in the Yangtze

Source: Business Insider


He was known for maintaining a sense of fun at Alibaba. In the early 2000s, when the company decided to start Taobao, its eBay competitor, he had his team do handstands during breaks to keep their energy levels up.

Source: Business Insider


When the company first became profitable, Ma gave each employee a can of Silly String to go wild with.

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Dollar Tree

Source: Business Insider


In 2005, Yahoo invested $1 billion in Alibaba in exchange for about a 40% stake in the company. This was huge for Alibaba — at the time it was trying to beat eBay in China — and it would eventually be an enormous win for Yahoo too, netting it $10 billion in Alibaba’s IPO alone.

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HYSTA

Source: TechCrunch


In 2014, Ma told Bloomberg he knew Alibaba had made it big when another customer offered to pay his restaurant bill. The customer, Ma said in the interview, had left Ma a note that read: “I’m your customer of Alibaba group, I made a lot of money and I know you don’t make any money. I’ll pay the bill for you.”

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Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Source: Business Insider


Ma stepped down from his post as CEO in 2013, staying on as executive chairman.

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REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Source: Tech Crunch


Alibaba went public on September 19, 2014. “Today what we got is not money. What we got is the trust from the people,” Ma told CNBC at the time.

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Alibaba Group Holding Ltd founder Jack Ma arrives at the New York Stock Exchange for his company’s initial public offering (IPO) under the ticker “BABA” in New York September 19, 2014.
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REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Source: CNBC, NYSE


The company’s $150-billion IPO was the largest offering for a US-listed company in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. It also made Ma the richest person in China, with an estimated worth of $25 billion at the time. His net worth has now grown to $38.1 billion, according to Forbes.

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Jack Ma after his company’s initial public offering (IPO) under the ticker “BABA” in New York September 19, 2014.
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Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Source: Forbes


Ma’s fortune comes from his 7.8% stake in Alibaba and a nearly 50% stake in payment-processing service Alipay.

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Alipay logo is seen at a train station in Shanghai.
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Thomson Reuters

Source: Forbes


Alibaba employees threw a big party at the company’s Hangzhou headquarters to celebrate the IPO. One employee even took the party as the perfect opportunity to propose. Ma told employees at a press conference that he hopes they use their newfound wealth to become “a batch of genuinely noble people, a batch of people who are able to help others, and who are kind and happy.”

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QQ.com by Tencent

Source: QQ.com, USA Today


The biggest day in the calendar for Alibaba is China’s “Singles’ Day” — a retaliation to Valentine’s Day — which supposedly celebrates the country’s singletons. In 2016, the site recorded nearly $20 billion in sales in 24 hours.

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Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma looks back at a giant electronic screen showing real-time sales figures on the “Singles’ Day” online shopping festival.
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REUTERS

Source: CNBC


The IPO may have made Ma an extremely wealthy man, but he has made very few flashy purchases, and he still has some pretty modest hobbies. “I don’t think he has changed much, he is still that old style,” Xiao-Ping Chen, a friend of Ma, told USA Today. He likes reading and writing kung fu fiction, playing poker, meditating, and practicing​ tai chi.

Source: USA Today


His big splurge was a vineyard and a chateau in Bordeaux, France, in 2016.

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Ma’s vineyard not pictured.
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Wikimedia Commons

Source: Forbes, CNBC


In March 2013, Alibaba spent a reported $49.7 million on a Gulfstream G550, mostly for Ma’s use.

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Dean Morley / Flickr

Source: China Daily


One of his greatest passions is the environment. According to Fortune, Ma developed an interest in environmentalism when a member of his wife’s family became sick with an illness that Ma suspected was caused by pollution. He sits on the global board of The Nature Conservancy and spoke during a session of the Clinton Global Initiative in 2015. He has also, according to Fortune, been instrumental in funding a 27,000-acre nature reserve in China.

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Shannon Stapleton / REUTERS

Source: Fortune


Ma has largely kept his family life out of the spotlight. He married Zhang Ying, a teacher he met at school, after they graduated in the late 1980s. They have two children — a daughter and a son.

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Flickr/aidanmorgan

Source: Bloomberg


In 2017, Ma made headlines after meeting President Donald Trump. Despite Trump’s protectionist attitude towards trade, Ma said China and the United States were not about to be drawn into a trade war. “Give Trump some time. He’s open-minded,” Ma told a panel at Davos in January.

Source: Business Insider


Ma is something of a celebrity in China, and crowds of people show up to listen to him speak.

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Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

Source: 60 Minutes


The company also hosts annual talent shows, and Ma is a natural entertainer. At a company anniversary event, he dressed up as a punk rocker for a performance in front of 20,000 Alibaba employees.

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Steven Shi / REUTERS

Source: 60 Minutes


Company lore has it that Ma came up with the name “Alibaba” while sitting in a San Francisco coffee shop. In “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” a secret password unlocks a trove filled with unbelievable riches. Ma’s company has, in a way, revealed the potential of small and mid-sized businesses across the globe.

Source: Entrepreneur


Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman on, September 10, 2019, his 55th birthday. The company threw him a farewell party in an 80,000-seat stadium in Hangzhou.

Source: Business Insider


Ma picked Daniel Zhang, who has been the CEO of Alibaba since 2015, to replace him as chairman. According to CNN Business, Ma is now pivoting to full-time philanthropy.

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Alibaba

Source: Business Insider, CNN Business