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The curious case of Jack Ma

The technology industry has had many great leaders. Visionaries who have transformed the industry into the enabling force that it is today.

Businessmen such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Tim Cook have all been lauded for their vision and dedication to transforming an industry that was seen as the devil by some and an industry full of T9000s by others to an industry that bought us the internet, mobile phones, and mobile tech devises that have transformed our lives.

Even Jeff Bezos has been regarded as one of the biggest tech visionaries of all time. No longer does a person have to stand in department store long ques on Black Friday with their lives being threatened by a Wall Mart madman who is prepared to stab people for a $400 saving on a television. Through Amazon, you can get your Christmas shopping done without even changing out of your underwear. I online shop in my tighty whities all the time. My significant other digs it! Groovy baby!

Like Bezos, Jack Ma took Alibaba from a mere concept to Amazon’s competition in the Chinese market. And with the worlds second largest economy moving from a production-based economy to a consumer based one, Alibaba could be the cornerstone of this change. But can we fully buy into Ma’s business philosophy?

Cracking the whip.

China has long been characterised by sweatshops and a workforce that slave away for a pittance. A recently published article on News24  (which referenced a Bloomberg article) added fuel to this fire.

The article pointed out that Ma again encouraged tech workers to embrace the industry’s extreme-overtime culture, defying a growing social media backlash.

He once more endorsed the sector’s infamous 12-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week routine as de rigueur for passionate young workers. In a lengthy Sunday blog post, China’s richest man expanded on comments from last week, in which he dismissed people who expect a typical eight-hour office lifestyle.

“As I expected, my comments internally a few days ago about the 996 schedule caused debate and non-stop criticism,” Ma told Bloomberg. “I understand these people, and I could have said something that was correct. But we don’t lack people saying correct things in the world today, what we lack is truthful words that make people think.”

Work-related deaths.

The article pointed out that Ma’s earlier comments stoked a fierce ongoing debate over tales of programmers and founders dying from unrelenting stress.

Chinese tech workers protested labor conditions on the online code-sharing community GitHub in March under the banner 996.ICU, which quickly became the site’s most popular topic. The term 996 refers to a 09:00 to 21:00, six-day a week work schedule.

The article added that, beyond Ma, several of China’s most prominent industry figures have also weighed in on the controversy. Richard Liu, chief executive of Alibaba arch-foe JD.com Inc., said in a recent post on his WeChat moments that, while he would never force staff to work a 996 schedule, people who slacked off were not considered his “brothers.” On Sunday, Ma said forcing employees to work grueling hours was “inhumane” — but that some wanted to do so.

“Those who can stick to a 996 schedule are those who have found their passion beyond monetary gains,” Ma wrote.

You will do as you are told.

One of the biggest signs of a leader is that they take their business philosophies and apply them to their own businesses. It seems as if you will be shown the door if you expect the ordinary from Alibaba.

Again referencing a Bloomberg article, News24 pointed out that Ma told an internal meeting that Alibaba doesn’t need people who look forward to a typical eight-hour office lifestyle, according to a post on Alibaba’s official Weibo account. Instead, he endorsed the industry’s notorious 996 work culture – that is, 09:00 to 21:00, six days a week.

“To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss,” China’s richest man said. “If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining.”

The article added that China’s tech industry is littered with tales of programmers and startup founders dying unexpectedly due to long hours and grueling stress. The comments from Ma elicited some intense reaction.

“A load of nonsense, and didn’t even mention whether the company provides overtime compensation for a 996 schedule,” wrote one commenter on the Weibo post. “I hope people can stick more to the law, and not to their own reasoning.”

“The bosses do 996 because they’re working for themselves and their wealth is growing,” another comment read. “We work 996 because we’re exploited without overtime compensation.”

Representatives for Alibaba didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Significant protests.

The article points out that Ma’s comments come amid fierce debate. Programmers in China protested their labor conditions on the online code-sharing community Github in March under the banner 996.ICU, a topic that quickly became the site’s most popular, with more than 211 000 stars.

“By following the ’996’ work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU,” according to a description posted on the “996.ICU” project page.

The creator, whose identity is unknown, called on tech workers to come forward with examples of companies abusing staff by demanding uncompensated overtime. Alibaba and its financial affiliate Ant Financial were both named.

Military precision.

Whether you like Ma or not, there is no denying a few attributes that he exudes in abundance. He is charismatic and he runs his company with military style precision. These are two attributes that will bring success to any company.

Ma is so charismatic that he even got invited to deliver a leadership lecture at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The article points out that  Jack Ma gave his own answer today on the question: What is leadership? Below are the main qualities Jack Ma believes leadership should have:

  • Leadership is determined by the mission. “For most people, they see and believe. We believe, and then we see. For leadership, we have to see things that other people don’t see.”
  • The world today needs leadership. Not to prove how good you are, but to enable mankind to solve problems together. We need to work for a better future by creating more value. A leader should do things that other people haven’t thought about and things that are necessary for society, consumers and people. A leader needs to be smart and also wise. “Smart people can live happily, but wise people can live longer because they know what to give up. Leaders need to have the courage and be brave. By being brave, it’s not because of muscles, but because of love.”
  • Today, we have the most powerful technology in history, the best equipment, and resources, but not the best leadership. Technology improves, but leadership doesn’t. “You can imagine if weapons become more advanced but leadership doesn’t, it’s a threat to you and the whole world.”
  • “Don’t be evil” should not be the goal of tech companies, that’s the bottom line. “We need to create more value and take responsibility. If people are worried about losing jobs, high-tech companies should create jobs,” said Jack Ma. “As leaders, you need to think more than other people.”
  • Jack Ma told the senior management as well as cadets of West Point that the first technology revolution caused World War I, the second technology revolution caused World War II. Now we’re entering the third technology revolution. “It should be a war on poverty, disease, and pollution.”

Dedicated to success.

You do not have to like the man, but you do have to respect the fact that he is genuinely interested in philanthropy and giving other tech startups a chance to realize their own dreams or being the best that they can be.

The article points out that any person remotely business-minded knows that the name Jack Ma, the executive chairperson of the Alibaba Group, is instantly synonymous with entrepreneurial royalty.

He’s living proof that starting, scaling and sustaining a business is one of, if not the, toughest jobs in the world.

The journey is often riddled with frustrations, challenges, and failures.

And that’s before you’ve even cashed your first pay cheque.

The article adds that, therefore, I reckon Ma created a fantastic philanthropic initiative called the Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative (ANPI) worth $10 million (R144m), which focuses on supporting the continent’s start-ups.

To put Ma a little more into perspective, in his book, The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, Scott Galloway, an entrepreneur and professor at New York University Stern School, provides a perceptive analysis of the four-horse race to become the first trillion-dollar company (if memory serves, I think Apple did hit it sometime last year, but then dropped off again).

Uncovering truths.

The article points out that, with a casually incisive style, he uncovers how each of these companies has deployed iconic leadership, technology, fearless innovation, and lightning execution. Galloway positions Alibaba among a few other companies as the possible fifth in the race.

The history of Ma’s perseverance and dogged, a never-say-die attitude which led him to success is truly remarkable, starting with shortcomings in school to a barrage of rejected job applications, which I’m sure many of us have probably also faced, yet perhaps lacked his entrepreneurial tenacity.

Now, research into the entrepreneurial space questions the validity of necessity-driven entrepreneurs.

But the fact is that they exist and, most times – if these entrepreneurs couple a deeper understanding and a bigger picture vision of the opportunity they are pursuing – are what the world needs more of – more Ma’s. I bet the world needs both necessity and opportunity driven entrepreneurs.

I argued differently in my 2013 MBA thesis, but knowledge and experience over the past six years have advanced my current views.

Growth investment.

The article adds that every year for the next 10 years, the ANPI will host a pitching competition across Africa, after which 10 finalists will compete for $1m in prize money.

The initiative aims to support and inspire the next generation of African entrepreneurs across all sectors, who are building a more sustainable and inclusive economy for the future.

The ANPI has banded together a strong ecosystem of players to support both technology-driven and traditional businesses.

The ANPI Structure:

* The ANPI is led by the Jack Ma Foundation in partnership with:

* Nailab – an East African accelerator in Kenya and a lead partner in the ANPI.

* NINE – a West African partner and the largest incubator network in Nigeria.

* RiseUp – a North Africa partner and a platform that connects with resources.

* 22 on Sloane – a Southern African partner and the largest start-up campus in Africa.

The advisory board of the ANPI includes Ma, Graça Machel, the chairperson of the Graça Machel Trust Board and Ban Ki-moon, the 8th secretary-general of the UN.

The Jack Ma Foundation is a charitable organization founded in 2014.

The foundation aims to promote human development in harmony with both society and the environment, while its mission is to work towards a world of bluer skies, cleaner water, healthier communities, and more open thinking. By 2030, the ANPI hopes to identify and shine a spotlight on 100 African entrepreneur heroes who will inspire the continent. From day one, its approach has been community-based and focused on inclusiveness; to be true for Africans and by Africans.

ANPI Core Application Criteria:

* Open to entrepreneurs who are nationals from any of the 54 African countries.

* Open to all industry sectors.

* The youth and women entrepreneurs are strongly encouraged to apply.

ANPI Key Activities and Dates:

* Applications Launch: March 27, 2019.

Deadline for applications: June 30, 2019.

* Announcement of the top 50 regional finalists: August 2019.

* Announcement of the final 10 finalists: October 2019.

Grand Finale pitch event: November 2019.

* 22 on Sloane is proud to be launching the Southern African prize Initiative at its campus on Wednesday, March 27 at 12.30pm. To attend the launch, please visit: https://anpi.22onsloane.co

Kizito Okechukwu is co-chairperson of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) Africa. 22 on Sloane is Africa’s largest start-up campus.