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How a former English teacher is about to become one of the richest people in the world

Lauren Lyster
Daily Ticker

Jack Ma went from English teacher to billionaire with Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce company he co-founded. Also the Alibaba chairman, Ma now has a higher net worth than U.S. moguls such as Google's Eric Schmidt (worth $8.5 billion) and Tesla's Elon Musk (worth $8.8 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Ma's expected to become even richer when his company goes public with a valuation estimated at $168 billion, an event that could happen in the next few months. (Disclosure: Yahoo owns a 22.6% stake in Alibaba.)

Related: Alibaba: 3 things you didn’t know about China’s largest e-tailer

Laura Marcinek, a reporter covering executive compensation at Bloomberg News, tells us that when Alibaba offers shares in the U.S., the IPO could make Ma one of the top 20 richest people in the world (because of his 8.9% stake in the company and the expectations for its IPO). Already No. 87 on Bloomberg's list of billionaires, Ma has seen his net worth triple just this year to $12.5 billion.

In recent years he has set records for things like paying the most per square foot for residential property in Asia — he purchased a five-bedroom, 7,088 square-foot Hong Kong penthouse for $38.7 million in November of 2007, according to Hong Kong’s Standard newspaper.

That’s a far cry from his earlier days. He failed his college exam twice (Ma was an English major), according to Fox News. He went on to teach at a local college and started his own translation company, while he moonlighted as a street peddler, selling flowers, books and flashlights to make ends meet. Ma originally learned English when he was younger, working as a tour guide and from the U.S. government-funded international news service, Voice of America.

Related: Why the Alibaba IPO could be bad for stocks

How did he go on to create what Marcinek calls the "Amazon of China,” the largest e-commerce business in the country, and by some measures, the world? According to Marcinek, Ma created the company with $60,000 in cash, gathered from 80 friends, back in 1999. According to The New York Times, Ma had no background in computing but was introduced to the power of the Internet in 1995, when he first used it to search “beer” and “China” (no results). He created a basic web page for a Chinese translation service with a friend, which received a global response within hours.

He then left teaching to set up an online business. After a failed attempt at a business index site called China Pages and a stint creating websites for the Commerce Ministry, he started Alibaba. The company’s first site was Alibaba.com, a business-to-business marketplace that remains part of the company today. Alibaba's main sites now include Taobao -- an online marketplace in China where eight million merchants sell goods -- and TMall, which sells higher-end branded merchandise.

Related: Facebook buys WhatsApp for $19 billion: Founder goes from food stamps to billionaire

When it comes to his leadership style, Ma holds a mass wedding annually for Alibaba employees (check out the video for pictures), and employees can apply for interest-free loans to buy first homes.

Correction: The video indicates that Ma’s net worth is higher that Rupert Murdoch’s. Since the video taping Thursday, Murdoch’s net worth has risen, placing Murdoch ahead of Ma in wealth, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

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