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An Interview with Jack Ma

Jack Ma — one of China's most influential business leaders and one of the 100 people who "most affect our world," according to Time magazine — is an increasingly outspoken advocate for the environment.

Ma is the founder of Alibaba Group, a holding company that includes the world's largest business-to-business e-commerce platform (Alibaba.com) and the premier consumer-to-consumer auction website in China (Taobao.com).

But Ma has become more than just an incredibly successful businessman — he is now a staunch advocate for corporate social responsibility and personal action to improve China's environment, from boycotting food products made of shark fins to fighting water pollution and supporting the Conservancy's China Global Conservation Fund.

Ma is also a members of the Conservancy's Board of Directors. He sat down with Charles Bedford, Regional Managing Director, to talk about China's changing attitude toward its environment and philanthropy, the country's formidable environmental problems and his populist vision for tackling those problems.  
"We have the ability to deal with the issue. We have the knowledge. We have the technology to solve our environmental problems. But if we don't take them seriously, we're going to pay a huge, huge price later."

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group

Charles Bedford:

You've incorporated social responsibility into Alibaba, and you've also focused on bringing the Nobel Peace Prize winning microlending institution Grameen Bank into China. You've got a longer term vision than what is typical in the corporate world. Given that, what do you see long-term for China's environment? Where do you think China's environment will be in 10 years or 20 years?

Jack Ma:

I think one thing's for sure — China's environment will get better in 10 or 20 years. Business people like myself are beginning to pay attention to social issues including the environment and taking action and really treating this issue very seriously. And we're doing it not for P.R. reasons, but because we know it is important. We know it is serious and that if we don't take action, it will hurt ourselves, our children and our families.

I think that, in a way, this growing awareness of the environment as an issue now is good timing. Ten or 20 years ago, China would never have been aware of this kind of problem. Back then, people were focused on how to survive. Now, people have better living conditions and they have big dreams for the future. Now we have the ability to deal with the issue. We have the knowledge. We have the technology to solve our environmental problems. But if we don't take them seriously, we're going to pay a huge, huge price later.

The most fun part of business, at least to me, is to contribute to the future. It's not just about making money — it's about making healthy money, enabling people to enjoy their lives. I think the important thing is to wake people up and let them know that our environmental issues need to be addressed. Positive thinking is key: The future is always beautiful.

Charles Bedford:

Building on that a bit, how do you see or how could you help or how can other corporate leaders in China get beyond that quarterly-report mentality of profits and into a longer term sustainable future vision?

Jack Ma:

As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we always have to ask ourselves: Why did we build this business? As companies grow and become public, most start to forget about their initial dreams, about why they built the company in the first place, which was to contribute to society and to help customers. Those are their real dreams, and not to produce good quarterly results. Good quarterly results are good, of course, but that's not the purpose of business. That is the by-product and result.

For successful business leaders, if their goal is to be rich, they can become very rich. But then what's the point of having all that money? When you have 100 million U.S. dollars, I think that's more than enough for you and your children. Once your net worth exceeds a certain point, that's not your money anymore. It is society's money. It is the money society has given to you, and you should take responsibility to allocate the money in a good way. I started thinking about this issue just two, three years ago. One day I suddenly woke up and wondered, "What's next?"

Charles Bedford:

"What's next?"

Jack Ma:

Yes. "What's next?" What was the initial dream you had? Go back and think about it. You know, reboot it. You have to reboot your brain, your machine, your computer to run faster, right?

Charles Bedford:

Yeah.

Jack Ma:

When there is so much software installed, your machine is very slow. Therefore, we all have to reboot and revisit that initial dream we had and why we built our businesses. Was it really to please shareholders? It is best to forget about the quarterly results. It's just one part of the business – it's not the purpose of the business.

I believe that customers are number one, employees are number two and shareholders are number three — always in that order.

Charles Bedford:

You mentioned that, over the last couple of years, environmental awareness has become a bigger focus in your life. Specifically, you have restricted trading of shark fin products in the platforms that you work in, and you personally have made a public call for rejection of shark fin products.

Jack Ma:

Yes.

Charles Bedford:

Is that when your interest in the environment and sustainability began, or is it a result of a natural evolution? How did you get involved? Where did you first find I guess we would say in the United States, "find religion" on the environment?

Jack Ma:

Well, honestly speaking, before [the shark fin issue] I had never thought about the environment. That was the first environmental issue I dealt with. In the beginning, I did not understand those anti-shark fin guys because I had never given much thought to where shark fin came from and thought it was cultivated.

Charles Bedford:

What did you think about it?

Jack Ma:

I didn't know what it was because I'm not fond of food and ate it purely because it tasted good. To me, it was like having noodles. But on the day I discovered where it came from, I made a promise to never eat shark fin. I did not see the point of eating fins of sharks from the ocean.

The incident inspired me to think about our business model and how it interacts with the environment. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to know about what's happening to the environment, climate change and everything.

I feel proud that the knowledge was integrated into our work, especially because I didn't force the Alibaba team to remove shark fins from our site. My colleagues and staff asked me about it and we exchanged ideas. The young people in my company sat down and discussed it amongst themselves. They came to their own conclusion and said, "Let's take down this thing." I am proud of the transformation that resulted through education and thoughtful discussion.

It's very interesting that so many people, especially those born in '80s and '90s, support this action. I am proud of these young people. They care for the environment more than my generation ever did. If you want to change the future, get the young people on board. If you want to understand young people, you have to think like the young people do and care for the environment.

It's a good transformation for me. Next: Jack Ma talks about applying his "small is beautiful" philosophy to addressing environmental issues.

Charles Bedford:

Can you trace your interest in environment and sustainability to that realization, or were there other issues that—

Jack Ma:

There are many other things that have inspired me. When I visited the river where I learned to swim as a kid (I almost drowned in there when I was 12 years old), the water was full of garbage. The water use to come up to my chest and now is just barely above my ankle. It has almost completely dried up. I thought to myself, “Oh my God, what's going on?”

Also, my wife keeps telling me: "Be careful of the water that you drink. There is something wrong with it." My father in law had recently died of cancer, which has made me re-evaluate a lot of things. I look around and see so many people dying. The more I think about the environment, the more I start to realize and wake up to the issues.

Alibaba has helped a lot of small business owners make money through our platforms. But now our challenge is to help more people to make healthy money, “sustainable money,” money that is not only good for themselves but also good for the society. That's the transformation we are aiming to make.

Charles Bedford:

You've spoken a lot about the idea that small is beautiful in the economic world and small businesses are the future.

Jack Ma:

Yes.

Charles Bedford:

How do you think that applies to helping protect China's nature, China's environment? How can those innovative sources in small businesses or that type of business aid in the protection of China's environment?

Jack Ma:

The Nature Conservancy is doing a great job to help preserve huge amounts of beautiful land and is an expert in this area. My thinking is that everybody can do something and each person makes their own small contribution to the environment.

People can look at their own community, their own neighborhood, their own lake in front of them and think about what they can do to help. My belief is that small is beautiful and it is about everyone contributing their small part. For me, it is about caring for the river in front of me. It is about caring for the small garden in my neighborhood. This is the movement I want to inspire. I want everybody to take action — do simple and easy things that don't require money but will as a whole make a big difference.

And I want to encourage all the grandmothers, grandfathers, those who are retired and living in the community, to challenge those companies who are the source of environmental damage and polluting the water. If you are really committed, you can take action. You don't have to cross mountains in order to address climate change. Being ambitious is good, but every tiny action, every tiny contribution is beautiful. I respect the grandmothers and the young kids who do things in their own neighborhood. This is what I want to encourage in everyone.

Charles Bedford:

So that would be a platform that you could create for that individual action and meaningful local action towards improving water, air, natural values, forests?

Jack Ma:

Yes. Thirty years ago, you can throw rubbish in Hangzhou’s West Lake and nobody would care. But try doing that today and the local people will throw you into the water for littering!

Charles Bedford:

Yeah.

Jack Ma:

What we want to build up is consciousness and awareness among people. We want people to take these issues seriously so that they think polluting is just as bad as committing a murder. Because, ultimately, it is. Business is important, but it is just as important to take action on these environmental issues as well.

I'm not an extremist. We're just taking a stand on what we believe is good for ourselves and our children. And I don’t want people to do it merely because they are told it is a responsibility. I hate the word "responsibility." I am taking action because this is something I believe in. It is a way of thinking and a part of my philosophy.

Charles Bedford:

Although the government here in China isn't monolithic — there are actually complex relationships among the national and the provincial and the local governments — government as a whole is certainly a major actor here and plays a big role, and business is the other huge sector that's come on in the last 15 and 20 years in China. But one of the sectors that's noticeably missing is the NGO, the charitable, the social civic culture. What role should entrepreneurs and businesses play in helping to create that civil culture?

Jack Ma:

We need to give them some time. I think China is making progress. But keep in mind that government people are all human beings, and people should be self-reliant instead of depending too much on government. Second, don't complain about what government should and should not do while you remain passive and are not acting.

What we want to do is to raise awareness among as many people as possible on the seriousness of the environmental situation in China, and let them know that everybody can contribute something to make things better. The better we educate people on the issues, the more will happen. With more and more young people joining the government, they will bring an understanding on the importance of the problem and take action. So it is about influencing a whole system.

I think we are in the process to building it up right now. We cannot expect change overnight. We need to create the change over time, say five or 10 years. That's called a long-term strategy, and is necessary for sustainable action and results.

Charles Bedford:

The Sichuan earthquake of 2008 was a catalytic event in this country, something that really changed mindsets and changed people's sense of their ownership of the collective China, beyond the government role. You yourself have been very active in Sichuan. You're still active.

What was behind that shift? Was that just the right time and right place sort of thing to spur Chinese philanthropy, to spur consciousness about those things?

Jack Ma:

I think this earthquake made some changes in China that have been happening over the past decades transparent to the Chinese people. A lot of Chinese people who have become rich recently have started to think about others and about the environment. I think many hundreds or millions of people were already doing that every day, but that earthquake suddenly forced everyone to focus on one thing.

Chinese people did not start caring from this event. It is more a culmination of the past 10 or 20 years, when everyone was doing small things for each other. When this event occurred, it created a focal point that brought together everyone’s attention and focus. It's not like the event suddenly changed China or the Chinese people in their care and love for their neighbors. China is and had already been changing. [The Chinese people have] been recovering the love [for each other] for the past 10, 20 years now. Now is a chance that everybody will start to move, take action. Whether these actions are right or wrong or good enough or efficient enough, we will see. It’s improving.

So when I complain about these environmental disasters in China, I'm actually being positive towards China. If I can understand and realize what other people can’t realize, it’s because they have not had a chance to think about it. So let's tell them. Let’s communicate our message to them.

Charles Bedford:

I love that phrase, "recovering the love." It's a really lovely phrase.

Jack Ma:

Now what we want to do is plant seeds of love and responsibility, and 20 years later, they will blossom. If we only complain and do not plant, do not invest in a good fertilizer, do not have land, then it is hopeless. There is love in the heart of every individual. We should “plant” facts, culture, education that cultivate love, and foster appreciation and understanding of others.

Charles Bedford:

I have two questions kind of spinning out of that, Jack. First, what you've described sounds a lot like what the Buddhists call "Right Livelihood" or a right focus on participation in society. Is that a social value in China? Is it a personal value? Is it both?

Jack Ma:

I'm not strongly religious, but I am fascinated by religion. I love Christianity. I love Buddhism. I love Taoism. I respect all religions and am curious about them.

China is largely a Buddhist culture — it's genetic for us. It's been embedded in our culture for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, today, the land has been polluted by so many chemicals that it makes it hard for the Buddhist culture to grow. But the seeds are there.

Charles Bedford:

The second thought about that is, as you know, I work for The Nature Conservancy, and it's obviously a global organization. It's mainly based in the United States, and it's focused on biodiversity and nature conservation around the world.

The United States has felt an obligation to the rest of the world, I think, where many people feel they have to support NGOs that work not just in our country but internationally. Do you see a China version of that movement in the future? How do you see Chinese working to save the planet not in China? What's the obligation? What's the path for Chinese entrepreneurs who care about Brazilian rainforests or Indonesian rainforests or global water quality or climate change?

Jack Ma:

China is a developing nation, and for nature conservation, China is not fully developed in this area yet. The U.S. is pretty developed.

I think most of the Chinese people did not realize how terrible the environmental situation is in their own country. They are only now just beginning to think about what can be done about to address the problems. It is not easy for them to travel and see what is going on outside of their own community. For you, travelling is merely a matter of getting a visa and finding time. For Chinese people, many have never travelled to a neighboring province, let alone visit a different country. Of China's 1.3 billion people, most are still farmers and have not left the countryside.

The Chinese people really care about environmental protection in China. That will be their greatest contribution to the world. For me, I have the luxury to think about doing more for Africa. But how many people are like Jack Ma? How many Chinese people have the resources, the opportunity to develop a bigger world view, and have the luxury to see the outside world? Obligation to the world is good, but I think the Chinese people will say they have an obligation to take more action to take care of their own environment. If you don't or can’t care for yourself, I don't think you can care for others.

Charles Bedford:

That's a great way of putting it. China's contribution to global conservation is working on China.

Jack Ma:

China's gas consumption. China's pollution. These can have devastating impact on the world. If the Chinese people solve these issues, they would be making a tremendous contribution to the world.

Charles Bedford:

I know from other sources that you're also interested in environmental or organic farming. How are you going to sort of pursue those? Where are you heading with those things?

Jack Ma:

I want my team to tell me. I want our young people to tell me and get me involved in it. I don't want to be telling them what to do. If I tell them, it's just going to be another job assignment that they have to complete. I want them to think about it and do research. I want them to come to me and say, "Here's an issue which is destroying the environment and these are the things that we think we should do about it."

We should trust the young people. They're smart enough. The good thing is they are waking up to the issues. They have started to think and do research. They are influential because they work for this company and this city. When they go home, they talk to their parents, relatives, classmates and exchange ideas.

I think you have to manage philanthropy like the way you manage a business — you always have to be smart. You need to find out what works, what doesn't, what is needed, and what is good.

My thinking is very simple. Let's plant the seeds of love everywhere. When spring arrives, we will see green shoots. In five years, they become the trees. I say we start planting.

Charles Bedford:

You've mentioned a couple of times how you work with your team. You have a unique and interesting leadership style with the team you get together to work through these tough issues. How do you do that? What's the mechanism to say: "Hey, guys, you've got to resolve this"?

Jack Ma:

I trust my team. They know I will not betray them. We will do anything for the sake of the team, for the sake of the company, for the sake of the customers. Our decisions are based on those priorities: customer, team, and shareholders — in that order. I think they — the employees — should feel a sense of ownership in the business.

Charles Bedford:

Well, it's not a very typical management or leadership style. It seems to have worked pretty well for you.

Jack Ma:

I like the way things have worked out. I am busy, but 70 percent of my time nowadays is not focused on business. I am busy developing peoples' minds. The more I can inspire my team's minds and the more I share with them, the more they will develop.

Charles Bedford:

What has attracted you to The Nature Conservancy? What's the connection for you, and what role do you think the Conservancy can play in assisting entrepreneurs and government people in China to conserve the environment?

Jack Ma:

Originally, I had thought TNC was too remote from me. However, on my recent U.S. trip, I started thinking a lot about environmental protection and was lucky to have talked to the right people. My friends were very aggressive in pushing me to work with TNC, to the point where I would feel guilty if I didn’t accept the opportunity. I was convinced and said, let’s go for it.

Now that I am involved with the organization, I feel so proud because TNC is doing some really great work. Now I look back and wonder why I did not get involved sooner.

I think TNC should take more on in China, specifically in cultivating Chinese business leaders and other community leaders. I have two key tasks. One, I will be helping TNC raise environmental awareness, so they can engage in conservation in a professional way. Two is promoting that "small is beautiful" concept, encouraging people to make their own individual contributions to saving the environment.

TNC can do conservation professionally. They can do bigger. They can do better. They can save more. And nobody had let me know that before. I thought it was just another NGO. There are too many NGOs around. Every day I get hundreds and hundreds, thousands of NGOs talking to me about this and that.

You know, I felt really proud yesterday when I told my colleagues that I had just attended a meeting of the trustees committee for TNC/China. My Alibaba colleagues started clapping to show their support and approval. They felt proud of me. I've been sitting on the board of many organizations, but this is the first time they have applauded me for joining a board. This is good. This is very good.

Charles Bedford:

Final question: Alibaba is new media. We talked about a platform for the many small things that people can do, and I'm assuming you're sort of thinking about that from a new-media tools perspective and looking to your team to produce that kind of plain blueprint for people to participate through new media in saving the environment.

Jack Ma:

Absolutely. I'm going to pursue a lot of tough things, including shining a light on those companies that do not care for their society and community. I'm going to use the power of the Internet and my wonderful platform to let the whole world know about companies that are polluting rivers. I think raising awareness will make hundreds of people start to challenge the companies’ unethical behavior and banks will stop their funding. There is so much power in education and raising awareness.

We will also offer prizes for the small and medium size companies that are taking action and bettering their community. I want to highlight good actions and encourage people to do good constructively. I am really looking forward to this and think this will become part of my fun activities every year.

Charles Bedford:

Well, thank you very much. It's really great to talk to you about this.

Jack Ma:

You're welcome. It is my pleasure. I love this topic.


(December 2009)


About the Interviewee

Jack Ma (above) is the founder, president and CEO of the Alibaba Group and a member of the board of trustees of The Nature Conservancy's China program.

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