Alibaba is often described as the "Chinese Amazon". Do you see Jeff Bezos as your competitor?
Absolutely not. I have been asked this question for ten years, but since Alibaba exists, we have never said that Amazon was our competitor. Our approaches are different. Amazon is an e-merchant. They buy, store and resell products trying to clear a margin. We, our mission is to provide tools to traders, and especially to SMEs to enable them to sell. Amazon is between the company and the end customer. We are a tool for the company, so that each of them can become an Amazon. We want to make e-commerce possible by offering solutions to sell, deliver and get paid. We are the infrastructure of commerce. The proof that we are not rivals is that Amazon is doing well. And Alibaba too. But they are no longer a version of e-commerce 1.0. They try to be more and more powerful. We want to help our customers be more powerful.
Can you, like Amazon, internationalize your success?
We are born of nothing in China and we have survived. We have achieved this feat that makes us proud, especially because our success has created nearly 40 million jobs! And we are convinced that the help we have given to Chinese companies can be useful elsewhere. Wherever there are companies, and especially SMEs looking to trade, Alibaba can provide solutions. We have a model that works and that can be exported. After that, you have to take the time to do things in stages. We developed in China, we then conducted tests in Asia and we push our activities further and further. We can start by helping companies in the countries in which we are setting up to access the Chinese market. A small, resource-poor company can be given resources to export as easily as a large group with an international presence. But when we thought about our global vision in 2002, we knew that our globalization was not going to take a year or two. It's a work of about twenty years.
What are your ambitions in France?
Our ambition is twofold. We want to help French companies export their know-how, and there are plenty of companies here who have a history and quality products. And we also want to develop tourism by pushing more Chinese to come here and consume here. We have entered a new phase of globalization. A globalization that must be and will be more inclusive. With multinationals who pay their taxes and help create local jobs. A globalization that works in both directions.
You are still young and yet you have decided to step back by leaving your operational duties at the head of Alibaba. Why ?
I am especially one of the ten oldest employees of Alibaba! I have been preparing for this transition for ten years now with the conviction that the company belongs above all to the younger generations. It's probably a legacy of my teaching culture. I have always considered that my mission was to train and foster the development of young people. Today I am surrounded by a team in whom I have total confidence. They will take Alibaba further. And I do not intend to die in my office.
What is your new personal ambition?
I do not want to start another business, but I still have a lot of things to do. I am lucky to have time and not have to worry about money issues. In particular, I want to devote time and energy to education issues. The machines do not stop progressing. We must therefore give men and women training so that they too can develop skills. The digital revolution, the artificial intelligence will not kill jobs, but they will change the world of employment. The advantage of being human is that it has meaning, intuition … But it must be trained. This will be my first priority. I also want to share and convey my entrepreneurial experience. There are some basic rules valid for all that I retain from the last twenty years and they may be valid for others. Rely on a team, define a vision and a mission, choose its key performance indicators … I want to be in the experience sharing. And finally, I want to promote female leadership. A world in which more women will have more responsibilities will be a better world. More in peace. I am convinced of it.
And on a geographical plane?
The inclusive digital transformation will fail if it does not include everyone. I say this with particular reference to Africa. When I go there today and meet young entrepreneurs, I find them better armed than myself or the Chinese entrepreneurs of twenty years ago. They have everything to succeed. Energy, ideas, a young generation … Technology can be a chance for Africa. The Internet can do more than many of the development aid programs imagined in the past. What I can do, through the Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative, is to pledge $ 10 million over ten years to help young entrepreneurs. Africa needs models that succeed and inspire. To change, Africa must rely on the rule of three E: entrepreneurs, e-government and education.
This increasingly technological world is worrying some people. Does technology scare you?
No. You have to trust. Each innovation can cause problems, but problems are made to be solved and we have proven throughout our history that we are overcoming the problems. The train was scary at first. He killed the diligence. But he has made an extraordinary contribution to the creation of many jobs. Some also had reservations when the electricity or the car started to be developed … The truth is that it is the old people who are worried about innovation and change. Young people are much more serene. Technology certainly threatens some jobs, but admit that there are also painful or boring tasks that men should stop doing.
Is it not too late to undertake?
My belief is that if I and the 17 people who accompanied me at the beginning were successful, that means that 80% of the Chinese can become entrepreneurs. We had no money, no technological baggage and yet we succeeded because we had great ambitions but we moved step by step. You have to be ready to get out of your comfort zone, you have to look for customers and you also have to say that relying on partner companies like Alibaba, it is for many actors easier to launch. today than twenty years ago.
Can we succeed in start-ups if we are not an engineer at the forefront of technology?
I was a college teacher without any technological knowledge. I still do not know how the Internet works or a computer or how to write software. But what I see is that we have all become more and more technophiles. Today almost everyone knows how to use a smartphone and today's smartphones are much more powerful than the computers of twenty years ago. Technology is not an end in itself. It is a tool.
What advice would you give to a start-up who gets started?
Do not be afraid. Try. And if you fail, you say that you will still learn lessons and that in life it is better not to have succeeded than to regret not having even tried. The other key is to surround yourself well. If you want to lead, choose the people you want to work with. And if you want to work for someone, choose your boss. The key is to have envy, dreams and not to give up easily.
By entering the Alibaba Stock Exchange five years ago, did not you have to give up some form of freedom?
Some people told me that once in the stock market, I would have to change. It's wrong. The stock market is like a gas station. This is a place where you go to refuel, to find the energy to run the engine. But that's not a final destination. We have not changed. Our priority is to serve our customers. Then our employees. And finally our shareholders. If you reverse everything and worry too much about the shareholders, you will end up losing your customers and you will have lost everything. On the other hand, if your clients follow you, your results will follow and the stock market will follow. In a company, you do not have to have a three-month strategy. What matters is the ten-year vision. The results of the last quarter are only the consequence of the decisions taken two or three years earlier. These results are important, but they should not cloud you. We must not worry about today but tomorrow.
Alibaba is on a growth rate of 50%. You will eventually reach a plateau?
I do not care. My problem is not growth. Innovation and passion are the engines of growth. The market is there. There is a huge demand and loads of needs. In logistics, payment, we can offer many solutions to solve problems. That's where our priorities must be. My job is to inspire.
You have become a star. What changes what?
It's not easy every day, but the important thing is not to change. It is to remain oneself, true to one's values. I'm human, I'm not perfect, but I know that to be happy I must not try to be someone I am not.
What does Emmanuel Macron inspire you?
It is someone who wants to make reforms. All countries must do it. It's easy to be a politician. What is difficult is to be a politician who wants to change things. He wants to reform and he must continue.
Jack Ma is more than a Chinese boss. It's a real star. In his country as outside the Chinese borders. Born in 1964, this child of the cultural revolution is the most emblematic of the self-made-men of new China. Speaking English he will teach in high school, the young Jack travels to the United States in 1995. He will thus discover the Internet, which will push him to launch in 1999 Alibaba, which will become via different sites the number one of e-commerce in the Middle Kingdom. Listed on Wall Street in 2014, his highly diversified group has made him a billionaire at the head of a fortune estimated at more than 40 billion dollars. Not bad for the son of a worker and a photographer who is virtually defined as a self-taught. As Jeff Bezos bought the "Washington Post", he offered himself the "South China Morning Post", Hong Kong's prestigious English-language daily.
At the age of 54, last September, Jack Ma announced that he would step back and entrust Alibaba's operational keys to Daniel Zhang this year. He will devote himself to philanthropy and play an inspiring role for a group that has not finished growing. Last year, the revenue of this digital empire has indeed increased more than 50% to $ 56.2 billion, for a net profit of 13 billion. The group, which is based on a base of 645 million active customers, has developed into e-commerce, physical commerce, payment, cloud, transport … A real digital conglomerate.