The beauty and power of persistence. This is the story of Jack Ma told by Vika Abramova, the country head of Mars Poland. It’s another business story to tell.
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Tags: persistence, failure, China, Jack Ma
You may not be familiar with China in the early 1960s, during the rise of the Communist Party, but there’s an intriguing story from that time that has piqued my interest. It’s the tale of a boy named Ma Yun, born in 1964 in the bustling city of Hangzhou, located in Eastern China. His parents were music teachers, indicating their family wasn’t among the most affluent in a city of 10 million inhabitants.Young Ma, or ‘Jack’ as we’ll call him – a name given to him by a tourist who found it challenging to remember Chinese names – was quite a curious boy. He was interested in music, certainly, but his real passion was with languages, particularly English. Jack would spend countless hours listening to his small pocket radio, teaching himself English.
At the age of 12, he would cycle about 27 kilometres to a city hotel that attracted foreign tourists, so he could practice speaking English. He even offered tour-guiding services around his beloved city. Despite his curiosity and determination, Jack wasn’t a particularly successful academic student. He failed his primary school exams twice and his middle school exams thrice. Yet, his failures never deterred him from pursuing his dreams.
At 18, Jack attempted the national Chinese college entrance exam. His score was a dismal one point in mathematics. Undeterred, he tried again the following year, scoring 19 points – a far cry from the passing score of 95. Despite his family’s opposition and the discouragement he faced, he persisted and scored 89 in his third attempt – still insufficient to pass, but reflective of his unyielding spirit.
Luck wasn’t on Jack’s side, even outside academia. When KFC came to his city, they recruited 23 of the 24 student applicants – Jack being the one exception. Similarly, when he applied for the police service, he was the only one among four applicants who was rejected. But regardless of these rejections, Jack never relinquished his dreams.
Eventually, due to his remarkable proficiency in English, he gained acceptance to his local university. Despite his university success, he faced additional challenges. He applied to Harvard Business School ten times, only to be rejected each time. Throughout these trials, Jack remained steadfast, his mantra: “We keep fighting, we keep changing ourselves, and we never complain.”
In 1995, Jack visited the United States for a government highway construction project. It was during this trip that he encountered a computer and the internet for the first time. Both were novelties in China at that time, being both costly and rare. Intrigued, Jack searched for ‘beer’, only to find no search results related to China. He then searched ‘China’, with the same result – nothing.
This experience lit a spark within him to bring the internet to China. After returning home, he assembled a group of 17 friends, fervent supporters who were willing to invest in his new e-commerce venture. That marked the birth of Alibaba.
Starting in Jack’s apartment, Alibaba grew to become an e-commerce colossus, with Jack as its founder and a key stakeholder in Alipay. Now, he stands as one of China’s wealthiest individuals. Alibaba is valued higher than Facebook and processes more goods than eBay and Amazon combined.
Eventually, Jack did return to Harvard Business School, not as a student, but as an invited guest speaker. It’s a testament to the power of perseverance and a reminder that even the most humble beginnings can lead to extraordinary endings.
About Anecdote International
Anecdote International is a global training and consulting company, specialising in utilising storytelling to bring humanity back to the workforce. Anecdote is now unique in having a global network of over 60 partners in 28 countries, with their learning programs translated into 11 languages, and customers who incorporate these programs into their leadership and sales enablement activities.