BEIJING – Jack Ma was a cash-strapped Chinese entrepreneur and former English teacher when he convinced friends to give him $60,000 to start a Chinese e-commerce firm called Alibaba in 1999.
Almost two decades later, Alibaba is an internet juggernaut and Ma is among the world’s richest men, with a net worth of more than $40 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
But the company’s chairman is now retiring, telling The New York Times that he plans to step down on Monday — his 54th birthday — to devote his time to philanthropy focused on education.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV released on Friday, he had hinted at his retirement plans, saying he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, one of the world’s most generous philanthropists.
Ma has long shown an admiration for Gates, who has donated vast amounts of his wealth to philanthropic causes.
Like Gates, he has created his own eponymous foundation — the Jack Ma Foundation — which he says will push his original calling: education.
“There’s a lot of things I can learn from Bill Gates. I can never be as rich, but one thing I can do better is to retire earlier,” he said.
“I think some day, and soon, I’ll go back to teaching,” he said, adding he had been preparing philanthropy plans at his foundation “for 10 years.”
Ma is part of a generation of billionaire entrepreneurs who made their fortunes as China embraced the digital age, creating some of the country’s largest and most successful companies in the space of little more than a decade.
Huge conglomerates like Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and JD.com are to China what Facebook and Google are to the United States.
Alibaba Group includes Tmall.com for business-to-consumer transactions and Taobao, China’s most popular online consumer marketplace, with hundreds of millions of products and services listed.
The company has now become a player in online payments and films, and it has been pouring investment into an array of ventures, including brick-and-mortar retail, cloud computing, meal delivery and advertising.
It owns a stake in China’s hugely popular Twitter-like Weibo platform, and in 2015 it bought the South China Morning Post newspaper.
The company, still headquartered in his hometown of Hangzhou, initially allowed businesses to sell products to each other online but soon morphed into China’s largest online retail market.
It transformed how Chinese people shop and pay for things, especially through the now-ubiquitous Alipay digital payment service.
Ma is the first of his generation of superwealthy tech CEOs to retire, an unusual move in a country where successful business leaders often run their empires well into their 80s — Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing only retired in May at the age of 89.
Ma, whose Chinese name is Ma Yun, has often described himself as something on an accidental entrepreneur, giving up his university teaching for the hustle of trade after discovering the internet.
“The first time I used the internet, I touched on the keyboard and I find, ‘well, this is something I believe, it is something that is going to change the world and change China,'” Ma once told CNN.
Seeing an opportunity for small businesses to buy and sell their goods online, he started Alibaba, initially running the company out of his apartment in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
He has inspired strong devotion among his employees and users, drawing comparisons with the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs — although he practices a more open management style.
He is one of the most colorful of China’s growing crop of billionaires. He performed a Michael Jackson-inspired dance routine at the company’s 18th anniversary celebration last year and has starred in his own kung fu short film.
A devotee of tai chi, he has made references to Chinese martial arts in both business strategy and corporate culture.
Porter Erisman, a former Alibaba employee who made a documentary about the firm, “Crocodile in the Yangtze,” said, “What Silicon Valley is known for, he embodies a lot of that with Chinese characteristics — that spirit of openness, risk-taking, innovation.”
Ma likes to recount his stories of rejection, such as the time he was turned down for a job at the KFC fast-food chain and of having been rejected by Harvard University “10 times.”
Ma’s success was evident after Alibaba’s Taobao bested eBay in China, forcing the U.S. auction site to largely withdraw from the country in 2006.
He retired as Alibaba’s chief executive in 2013, eventually handing the reins to protege Daniel Zhang, but he remained active within the company, providing strategic direction as chairman.