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An interview was carried out by Bill George of the New York Times. Below are a series of questions and answers we have pulled together that are based on the interview. The article on which this is based is entitled “Changing China from the Bottom Up”, 23 September 2014.

Are values relevant to institutions and large corporations?

Alibaba is a Chinese values-led company. It went public in September 2014 on the New York Stock Exchange, with a capital value of US $167 billion. Seven hours later, its share value has risen by 38% to $231 billion. At the time of its launch, it was the largest initial public offering in history.

What is Jack Ma’s history?

Jack Ma founded Alibaba. He was raised in Hangzhou in the 1980s. This was a time of huge growth in China. Global trade had just started to boom, and Chinese manufacturers were at the heart of the growth. Jack Ma was an interminably failing student. He failed at school, and was rejected at every school and university he applied to. He could not pass his Maths exams. But between the ages of 12 to 20, he visited local hotels to find local tourists. He gave them free tours, and taught himself not just to speak English, but to understand Western culture and attitudes, learning a very different reality to what he was being taught in school.

Once he left school, his struggles continued. He could not get a job. He applied to Kentucky Fried Chicken, along with 23 other people. Of the 24 job applicants, 23 were successful. Jack Ma was not.

Are Alibaba’s values important to its success?

Jack Ma started Alibaba in the 1990s, from his home. It was based on helping businesses and people to buy through the internet. From the earliest days, he gave share options to his staff. He wanted everyone to be motivated, and to benefit from the company’s success. He quickly developed the company’s six values, on which its spectacular growth and success were based:

Customer first, teamwork, embrace change, integrity, passion and commitment.

These values provided a focus for success. The company developed in ways that were authentic, putting customers interests ahead of the company’s. The values motivated the company’s employees, the people who needed to put the customers first, and empowered them to do so. The focus on teamwork meant he was able to employ staff who were willing to try new things, without a constant fear of being judged by their employer on each individual decision or action they took.

What is Alibaba’s purpose?

Jack Ma’s purpose for Alibaba is to help people. He wants to “build an e-commerce ecosystem that allows customers and businesses to do all aspects of business online”. His vision is to “create one million jobs, change China’s social and economic environment, and make it the largest Internet market in the world”. But his emphasis is not on technology, it is on people. “I’m looking at technology with the eyes of my customers, normal people’s eyes”. His drive is to influence people and, in doing so, China’s development.

He notes the impact on his parent’s generation of Mao’s attack on Confucianism and other philosophies. He aspires to restoring values and a sense of purpose to the next generation.

His success is integrally tied with his ideals. “Our challenge is to help more people to make sustainable money that is not only good for themselves, but also good for society. That’s the transformation we are aiming to make”.

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