Jack Ma was destined to live an ordinary life. He failed the Chinese university entrance exam several times before being accepted by the worst school in Hangzhou, and he was rejected from a dozen jobs – even selling chicken at KFC. Ma was ready to settle into a quiet life as an English teacher in eastern China, a position with few advancement prospects, when, during a trip to Seattle in 1995 working as a translator for a trade delegation, everything changed.
A friend showed Ma the internet. He placed a toe on to the information superhighway with a one-word search – “beer” – and, two decades later, Ma is the richest man in Asia, head of an e-commerce and finance empire that includes Alibaba, one of the largest retailers in the world.
Now Ma has once again set his sights on the US. In a high-profile meeting with Donald Trump before the inauguration, Ma promised to create 1m jobs in the US, and has wasted no time ingratiating himself into Trump’s inner circle. He has dined alone with Ivanka Trump, and last week commerce secretary Wilbur Ross sat next to Ma at a meeting of US and Chinese businessmen. Those political connections may benefit him as he seeks to acquire American companies in a country that is increasingly wary of big Chinese investment.
For Trump, the headlines of Ma’s job-creating scheme may be more important that any actual jobs created.
“As a merchant, it’s about knowing your customer, and Trump doesn’t care about anything that’s not huge,” says Duncan Clark, a longtime friend and author of Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built. “He figured a million is a good number to get Trump’s attention. “Realistically, without a major acquisition, I fail to see how that’s possible,” he adds. “In the US context, it’s a very big number.”
For years, Ma has been pushing his vision of US small businesses…