Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma — the richest person in China — is retiring with a net worth of $38 billion. Here’s his incredible rags-to-riches story.

blank - Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma — the richest person in China — is retiring with a net worth of $38 billion. Here's his incredible rags-to-riches story.

Jack Ma

  • Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma announced that he would step down as the company’s chairman on his 55th birthday September 10th, Business Insider previously reported.
  • A former teacher, Ma said in May that he would return to the classroom upon his retirement from Alibaba.
  • Ma faced criticism after calling President Trump “open-minded” and saying that “China and US will never have a trade war” in 2017, Business Insider previously reported.
  • Ma is the richest person in China with a net worth of $38.5 billion, according to Forbes.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A new chapter is about to unfold in the incredible rags-to-riches story of China’s richest man.

Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma will step down as the online marketplace’s chairman on September 10, he announced September 9. The date is Ma’s retirement is also his 55th birthday.

Ma grew up poor in communist China, failed his university entrance exam twice, and was rejected from dozens of jobs, including one at KFC, before finding success with his third internet company, Alibaba.

Keep reading to learn more about how Jack Ma made his fortune.

Jillian D’onfro contributed to an earlier version of this post.

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SEE ALSO: How self-made billionaire Jack Ma used charisma and masterful speaking skills to build the Alibaba empire

Jack Ma — born Ma Yun — was born on September 10, 1964, in Hangzhou, southeastern China. He has an older brother and a younger sister.

Source: 60 Minutes, USA Today

He and his siblings grew up at a time when communist China was increasingly isolated from the West, and his family didn’t have much money when they were young.

Source: 60 Minutes, USA Today

Ma was scrawny and often got into fights with classmates. “I was never afraid of opponents who were bigger than I,” he recalls in “Alibaba,” a book by Liu Shiying and Martha Avery.

Source: USA Today, Business Insider

As a kid, Ma liked collecting crickets and making them fight, and was able to distinguish the size and type of cricket just by the sound it made.

Source: USA Today, Business Insider

After President Nixon visited Hangzhou in 1972, Ma’s hometown became a tourist mecca. As a teenager, Ma started waking up early to visit the city’s main hotel, offering visitors tours of the city in exchange for English lessons. The nickname “Jack” was given to him by a tourist he befriended.

Source: 60 Minutes

After high school, he applied to go to college — but failed the entrance exam twice. He finally passed on the third try, going on to attend Hangzhou Teachers Institute. He graduated in 1988 and started applying to as many jobs as he could.

Source: 60 Minutes

He received more than a dozen rejections — including from KFC — before being hired as an English teacher. Ma was a natural with his students and loved his job — though he only made $12 a month at a local university.

Source: Business Insider

At the World Economic Forum in 2016, Jack Ma revealed he has been rejected from Harvard — 10 times.

Source: Business Insider

Ma had no experience with computers or coding, but he was captivated by the internet when he used it for the first time during a trip to the US in 1995. He had recently started a translation business and made the trip to help a Chinese firm recover a payment. Ma’s first online search was “beer,” but he was surprised to find that no Chinese beers turned up in the results. It was then that he decided to found an internet company for China.

Source: Business Insider, USA Today

Though his first two ventures failed, four years later he gathered 17 of his friends in his apartment and convinced them to invest in his vision for an online marketplace he called “Alibaba.” The site allowed exporters to post product listings that customers could buy directly.

Source: Business Insider, 60 Minutes

Soon, the service started to attract members from all over the world. By October 1999, the company had raised $5 million from Goldman Sachs and $20 million from SoftBank, a Japanese telecom company that also invests in technology companies. The team remained close-knit and scrappy. “We will make it because we are young and we never, never give up,” Ma said to a gathering of employees.

Source: Business Insider

He was known for maintaining a sense of fun at Alibaba. In the early 2000s, when the company decided to start Taobao, its eBay competitor, he had his team do handstands during breaks to keep their energy levels up.

Source: Business Insider

When the company first became profitable, Ma gave each employee a can of Silly String to go wild with.

Source: Business Insider

In 2005, Yahoo invested $1 billion in Alibaba in exchange for about a 40% stake in the company. This was huge for Alibaba — at the time it was trying to beat eBay in China — and it would eventually be an enormous win for Yahoo too, netting it $10 billion in Alibaba’s IPO alone.

Source: TechCrunch

In 2014, Ma told Bloomberg he knew Alibaba had made it big when another customer offered to pay his restaurant bill. The customer, Ma said in the interview, had left Ma a note that read: “I’m your customer of Alibaba group, I made a lot of money and I know you don’t make any money. I’ll pay the bill for you.”

Source: Business Insider

Ma stepped down from his post as CEO in 2013, staying on as executive chairman.

Source: Tech Crunch

Alibaba went public on September 19, 2014. “Today what we got is not money. What we got is the trust from the people,” Ma told CNBC at the time.

Source: CNBC, NYSE

The company’s $150-billion IPO was the largest offering for a US-listed company in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. It also made Ma the richest person in China, with an estimated worth of $25 billion at the time. His net worth has now grown to $38.1 billion, according to Forbes.

Source: Forbes

Ma’s fortune comes from his 7.8% stake in Alibaba and a nearly 50% stake in payment-processing service Alipay.

Source: Forbes

Alibaba employees threw a big party at the company’s Hangzhou headquarters to celebrate the IPO. One employee even took the party as the perfect opportunity to propose. Ma told employees at a press conference that he hopes they use their newfound wealth to become “a batch of genuinely noble people, a batch of people who are able to help others, and who are kind and happy.”

Source:, USA Today

The biggest day in the calendar for Alibaba is China’s “Singles’ Day” — a retaliation to Valentine’s Day — which supposedly celebrates the country’s singletons. In 2016, the site recorded nearly $20 billion in sales in 24 hours.

Source: CNBC

The IPO may have made Ma an extremely wealthy man, but he has made very few flashy purchases, and he still has some pretty modest hobbies. “I don’t think he has changed much, he is still that old style,” Xiao-Ping Chen, a friend of Ma, told USA Today. He likes reading and writing kung fu fiction, playing poker, meditating, and practicing​ tai chi.

Source: USA Today

His big splurge was a vineyard and a chateau in Bordeaux, France, in 2016.

Source: Forbes, CNBC

In March 2013, Alibaba spent a reported $49.7 million on a Gulfstream G550, mostly for Ma’s use.

Source: China Daily

One of his greatest passions is the environment. According to Fortune, Ma developed an interest in environmentalism when a member of his wife’s family became sick with an illness that Ma suspected was caused by pollution. He sits on the global board of The Nature Conservancy and spoke during a session of the Clinton Global Initiative in 2015. He has also, according to Fortune, been instrumental in funding a 27,000-acre nature reserve in China.

Source: Fortune

Ma has largely kept his family life out of the spotlight. He married Zhang Ying, a teacher he met at school, after they graduated in the late 1980s. They have two children — a daughter and a son.

Source: Bloomberg

In 2017, Ma made headlines after meeting President Donald Trump. Despite Trump’s protectionist attitude towards trade, Ma said China and the United States were not about to be drawn into a trade war. “Give Trump some time. He’s open-minded,” Ma told a panel at Davos in January.

Source: Business Insider

Ma is something of a celebrity in China, and crowds of people show up to listen to him speak.

Source: 60 Minutes

The company also hosts annual talent shows, and Ma is a natural entertainer. At a company anniversary event, he dressed up as a punk rocker for a performance in front of 20,000 Alibaba employees.

Source: 60 Minutes

Company lore has it that Ma came up with the name “Alibaba” while sitting in a San Francisco coffee shop. In “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” a secret password unlocks a trove filled with unbelievable riches. Ma’s company has, in a way, revealed the potential of small and mid-sized businesses across the globe.

Source: Entrepreneur

Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman on, September 10, 2019, his 55th birthday. The company threw him a farewell party in an 80,000-seat stadium in Hangzhou.

Source: Business Insider

Ma picked Daniel Zhang, who has been the CEO of Alibaba since 2015, to replace him as chairman. According to CNN Business, Ma is now pivoting to full-time philanthropy.

Source: Business Insider, CNN Business

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