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Jack Ma wants to empower entrepreneurs in Africa as he moves into retirement mode

Janet Ong
Finance Editor
In Conversation: Jack Ma talks to Steve Forbes at the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Singapore. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo Finance Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Jack Ma, philanthropist and founder of Alibaba, wants to empower entrepreneurs in Africa as he moves on to the next stage of his life after leaving the company he started 20 years ago.

Ma spoke at the Forbes Global CEO Conference on Tuesday night (15 October) at Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, where he was given the Malcolm S. Forbes Lifetime Achievement Award at the gala dinner.

Of his African venture, he said, “Most entrepreneurs in other countries, they always want to go IPO. These people, they want to change Africa, they want to change their lives. What I can do is to empower the young people, young entrepreneurs.”

This is the first public speaking engagement for the 55-year-old executive since he formally stepped down as executive chairman of Alibaba Group last month. He had chosen to retire on 10 September, on his 55th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the e-commerce company he started with 17 other partners in Hangzhou.

Handed over reins at Alibaba

He handed over his CEO reins at Alibaba to Daniel Zhang, in a transition that was announced a year earlier, but will continue serving on Alibaba’s board until its general shareholders’ meeting next year. He also remains a lifetime partner of Alibaba Partnership, a group drawn from the senior management ranks of Alibaba Group companies and affiliates.

Ma’s exit comes as Alibaba grew to become Asia’s most valuable listed company, with a market capitalisation of US$460 billion (S$631 billion). It employs over 100,000 people, and has expanded into financial services, cloud computing as well as artificial intelligence (AI).

Ma currently owns a 5.3 per cent of Alibaba’s stakes worth US$24.6 billion – about 10-fold the US$2.6 billion his 7.4 per cent stake in 2012 was worth, according to a Bloomberg report.

He told attendees at his farewell event last month that he hopes to see Alibaba shoulder more responsibility to improve society amid the changes brought about by technologies like big data and 5G.

He said he will devote his time to philanthropy, especially in rural education. He was re-appointed as UN Sustainable Development Goals advocate in May.

Ma will be visiting Africa next month to give out the first Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative, which is led by his Jack Ma Foundation. The Foundation will be giving out 10 awards, of which at least three must be given to women entrepreneurs, Ma announced.

“In Africa we need 3 Es — e-government, to make the government transparent; entrepreneurs, make them heroes; and education, to make the people know what they want and what they don’t want,” he said.

Ma said he could empathise with the African entrepreneurs who reminded him of his early days when few people gave help while he was starting out.

“Today I have the capability, I have the money. I have the resources. And I want to go there, empower the entrepreneurs. If we can be able to discover and help more Jack Mas, more Bill Gates, more Warren Buffetts, more Steve (Forbes), Africa will be different.”

“It is my great honour to be there and do something,” he said. “We may not be successful, but at least we try.”

Education close to Ma’s heart

Another issue close to Ma’s heart is education. He was a former English teacher in Hangzhou before starting Alibaba.

Ma said he had build a kindergarten, primary school and middle school, and he has been working with teachers in rural areas in China for five years.

“I got ideas, but I still need another year to think it through, to visit to more countries, more schools, more teachers,” he said.

Ma said he wants to change the current education system, a legacy of the industrial period where children sit in classrooms and passively receive knowledge.

He insisted that more must be done to revamp the education system, so that children can be taught to be independent and critical thinkers who are innovative and creative, so that “they can survive the AI period”.

He added that, beyond subjects like maths and physics, the study of arts — music, panting and dancing — is equally important as it teaches children to use their heart and imagination.

He believes that children should be taught wisdom, which comes from life experiences, and not just knowledge.

One such wisdom Ma wants to impart to young people is to learn from failures. He recalled giving out to his staff case studies of companies who failed, as “going into business is like going into a battlefield and only those who survived, win”.

“So when you make these mistakes, you know how to face these mistakes, how to solve it and challenge it. This is wisdom and this is what we should teach our kids,” he said.

Ma said it is very important to trust the young people as the world enters a new era.

“Working with most of the successful people, they only talk about yesterday,” he said. “There are no experts of the future, there are only experts of yesterday.”

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