Small agricultural city in the middle of the country, big river running through the middle, homegrown international business figure who emphasizes the long-term and a values-laden corporate culture, a global network of followers who hang on every word and pronouncement. Sound familiar? Warren Buffett, right?
Nope, I’m talking about Jack Ma, 10 years ago an English teacher at a local technical college and today the head of the Alibaba Group, which contains China’s largest internet companies. Alibaba, which created the genre of business-to-business internet commerce, and Taobao, the consumer-to-consumer platform which chased Ebay out of China, are his creations.
But let’s start at the beginning, I came to Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered, to do an interview with Jack because he recently joined the board of trustees for the Conservancy’s China program — and because he’s become a fierce advocate for corporate social responsibility and individual Chinese action to improve the country’s environment…a populist ethic he thinks could pay dividends for the entire planet.
Like all Chinese cities, Hangzhou is fast growing — partly because it has become a hub for internet businesses following Alibaba’s success. It’s in the lower Yangtze River valley, and it’s known for its beautiful lake, hills, gardens, agriculture and tea.
Dragonwell tea, formerly the exclusive tea of the imperial court, is grown near here. And now the Internet. Jack Ma grew up here and created a business sensation over the last 10 years — outperforming the market during the tech bust and returning good profits over the last rough economic year.
But there are two things that are particularly interesting about Jack’s story. First. he has, as he describes it, “awakened” to the environmental problems of this country — and the need to mobilize its businesses, entrepreneurs and citizens to solve those problems. When he went to his childhood home recently, the deep river he learned to swim in (and nearly drowned in) is now only ankle high—if you cared to submerge your bare skin in the pollution.
And a couple of years ago, he also made the connection between shark’s fin soup (a term he thought was merely words, not a literal meaning) and the trade that has wastefully decimated the ocean’s shark population. His response? To swear off shark fin products forever. These two experiences have galvanized in him a passion — which he calls love — to make a difference in environment over the next phase of his life.
So he’s decided to do what he’s always done when confronted with a challenge, something that harkens back to his roots as a teacher. At Alibaba, he’s brought a bunch of young people together (Alibaba employees’ average age is 26) to see what dreams they can come up with; then they all run forward in the same direction to make that dream happen.
He told me that over the next year he will focus his creative team’s research in two areas. First, working with the Conservancy to effect change, to bring the right science, planning, and expertise to China’s air, water, and natural-resource challenges. And second, using the Alibaba/Taobao platform, model and network to empower individuals, entrepreneurs and small businesses to make the next big step on China’s environment.
One other great thought he expressed during our conversation: that companies need to remember their initial dreams — and remember why they started the business in the first place, not just pursue money for its own sake. We need to concentrate on making “healthy” money, he said, not a profit that pollutes.
Given his success so far in business, his magnetic optimism and the energy of the employees I saw on the campuses (a condition of employment for Taobao is that they be able to hold a headstand for 30 seconds!), I walked out after the interview into China’s always-polluted air with, ironically, a new sense of hope, for our ability to help our globe withstand the human-caused stresses that threaten our future.
As we parted on the street, I asked Jack Ma what contribution Chinese entrepreneurs would make to global conservation.
“Our contribution to the world will be to improve China’s environment,” he said. “And soon.”