What Alibaba’s Jack Ma Learned from Forrest Gump

By Mark Stone, Contributor

For Alibaba founder and executive chairman Jack Ma, the only sign of failure is giving up. As the richest person in China, one might assume Ma’s life has consisted of a series of successes and celebrations. In fact, the Chinese business magnate, whose net worth is estimated at $37.6 billion USD (at the time of this article), is no stranger to monumental failure.

As a young adult, Ma failed the Chinese entrance exams for college three times before he passed. Once applications were sent, he was turned down by Harvard—ten times.

Upon graduating from university, Ma was one of 24 applicants who applied to the newly- arrived KFC in China. Twenty-three of those applicants were accepted, leaving Ma the sole reject. Shortly following, he applied to the police where he was again the only one turned away.

As it turns out, Ma racked up more failures in his early years than his favorite film, the 1994 Oscar-winner, “Forrest Gump,” did accolades. The question was, would he, like Forrest, find his stride and take off?

A Not-So Lucrative Box of Chocolates

Embracing rejection is part of Ma’s core ethos, however, his grit has not come without moments of insecurity and self-doubt from setback. When the dot com bubble burst at the end of the 1990s, Alibaba, now the world’s largest e-commerce company, had zero revenue to show for its first three years. Not only was it not profitable, it was on the verge of bankruptcy.

It was around this time, after watching “Forrest Gump,” that Ma had an epiphany. “When I [saw] him, I [said], ‘This is the guy we should learn from.’ Believe what you’re doing. Love it, whether people like it, don’t like it. Be simple,” he told Charlie Rose during the Gateway business conference in Detroit in 2017. To grow the company, Ma would need to learn from his failures and get creative.

A Prototype for Persistence

Since banks were unwilling to work with Ma, one of Alibaba’s greatest roadblocks was figuring out how to secure its online payments. In the absence of institutional support, Ma built his own payment system, transfering payments in various currencies to buyers and sellers of different countries, and named it Alipay.

“So many people I talked to at that time about Alipay, they said, ‘This is the stupidest idea you’ve ever had,'” he told Rose in an earlier interview. “I didn’t care if it was stupid as long as people could use it.”

Today, 520 million people use Alipay, and Alibaba is the world’s largest internet marketplace with over 700 million users. Ma estimates his business has created 15 million jobs in China on top of the 30,000 people it formally employs.

More Than His Job

While Ma’s hard work has undoubtedly gotten Alibaba to where it is in 2017, he attributes something else to his global success. In order to sustain perseverance in the face of failure, Ma subscribes to a healthy work-life balance, whereby he enjoys the challenge of business, but doesn’t let himself get consumed in it. Life is, after all, unpredictable.

“I always tell myself that we are born here not to work, but to enjoy life,” he said early on in his success. “We are here to make things better for one another, and not to work. If you are spending your whole life working, you will certainly regret it.”

It may not apply to everyone, but Ma’s formula of balance, persistence, and fortitude in the face of obstacles certainly mimics the another character whose story has become an emblem of Western culture.

“Life is like a box of chocolates,” Ma reminded Charlie Rose at the World Economic Forum in 2015. “You never know what you you’re gonna get.”