Jack Ma: ‘What technology and entrepreneurship means to Asia’

Alibaba Founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma beams as De La Salle University officials don on his doctoral gown. (Photo: Screen shot from DLSU Facebook Page)

When a former English teacher visits a foreign university to receive an honorary degree in technopreneurship, you know that it’s more than just a local celebration within the confines of the often insular academic enclave.

Humanities and business do not always mix. The English teacher as a businessman is a scary proposition; him or her with less than stellar number skills, as far as the stereotype goes, and perhaps rightfully so (if you ask this writer who occasionally moonlights as a university lecturer).

And when that former English teacher who will receive the doctoral degree is one of Asia’s richest men, the mystique definitely deepens.

“There is always an air of excitement in the university whenever a world leader or a person of great influence visits our halls,” said De La Salle University (DLSU) President Bro. Raymundo Suplido, FSC, at the ceremony last October.

He emphasized that it is almost always the initiative of the university officials to invite people of such stature to inspire the young, but this time the honored guest was invited to the university on popular request by the students themselves.

The rock star treatment of Alibaba founder Jack Ma at the university (with students and faculty pouring tweets and posts saying they felt like paparazzi) is a sign of the times; we recognize the writing on the wall: tech minds and tech titans as celebrity.

Ma did not disappoint. Calling the DLSU students gathered at the Teresa Yuchengco Hall his “schoolmates” drew a thunderous applause.

“I am not a technical guy, I knew very little about technology. And I’ve never been trained to be an entrepreneur. And my English I taught myself when I was a kid. I never even got one-day training outside China for my language,” he said to a heartier applause.

This is where the road divides between what is a commonplace success story and a unique, authentic personal achievement. When you start with very little in life and got to a point where nobody expected you to reach, against all odds, against all bets — that is more meaningful.

It is easy to extol the achievements of a wealthy man, more so if he or she is a self-made man. But what does his success mean to the rest of Asia or even to the Philippines where the majority of the population live in grinding poverty?Technology is easy to appreciate if you can afford the smartest gadgets and devices that enable a digital life that is in step with the rest of the world.

I have been an IT journalist for more than a decade and I am still asking the question: what does technology mean for my people? Why am I writing about things meant for the enjoyment of the 1 percent? It’s true: artificial intelligence, blockchain, the internet of things (IoT) and other industry buzzwords are keys to a smarter life, smarter government — think smart cities, smart agriculture, smart traffic management, smart policing, smart everything. But what can smart technology do if your government doesn’t have the smarts to even understand what technology is for?

I am reminded of the state of affairs in my country as I recently attended my daughter’s own college graduation at the same university. The guest speaker and the school officials tried to encourage the spirit of volunteerism. They said there is more to life than making money. Our country’s overwhelming need calls for young people who can spare a little, care a little, invest a little in social causes.

Tough call. When you are young and raring to find your place in the sun, you are focused only on moving forward, not in looking or giving back. Take this from the young once whose idealism dissipated as soon as the graduation photos are tucked away for good, faced with almost limitless possibilities.

It is almost certain that a good number of these new graduates will join family businesses or the country’s top institutions. Not a few will also join the diaspora to every corner of the world that needs talent. There are already more than ten million overseas Filipinos and the number is growing. But there is also a fair chance that they may not.

Among the ranks of Asia’s ‘enlightened’ entrepreneurs is a growing move toward social responsibility. I heard many years ago from my former employer that one of the biggest achievements of the company’s stunning and steady growth over the years is not the revenue that finance people are so obsessed about, but the often overlooked aspect of that growth — employment.

Poverty reduction is a big word that even with all the technology in the world is still a tough one to crack in most developing countries. But if you are an entrepreneur and you can employ just one more person — ten or maybe even a hundred — in this country that is begging for opportunities, that is the real achievement.

“I believe that it is not technology that changes the world, it’s the dreams behind the technology that changes the world,” Ma said. “In the last two centuries, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to have money, relationships. Today or in the future, we have to solve the problems by the dreams we believe, by the technology we have.”

But how do you solve a problem like the Philippines? From his own account, 70% do not have bank accounts, 99.6% of businesses are SMBs, and less than 3% use credit cards. With over 7,000 islands, it is impossible set up bank branches everywhere. That alone is a big hurdle.

“I arrived last night and I tried to test the (internet) speed in the Philippines. It’s no good,” he said to a thunderous applause.

“But this is the potential. This is the opportunity,” he quickly bounced back. “I encourage governments, entrepreneurs, and everybody to work together to improve the speed and coverage of the internet.”

LMAO! I was falling off from my seat watching the live stream. My deep and dark cynicism about this country has taken over. How can you expect those people to run when they haven’t even learned to walk?

But perhaps that is the whole point of technopreneurship. If it isn’t built on the foundation of what is best for ‘the greater good’ there is no hope.

Journalist based in Manila, travel enthusiast, bookworm.