Signs of greatness can be seen early on – or not?
Many would agree that childhood influences how we turn out as adults, but in what way? What were those tech bosses like when they were young, and how did that lead to what they are today? Here we will unfold some childhood stories of these tech tycoons, based on Chinese media coverage of their lives.
Jack Ma, 51, founder of Alibaba
Jack Ma was never a math genius, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the richest businessman in China.
Once his math teacher asked him, “What would happen if you move the decimal point in 1.230 one place to the right?” Ma responded without hesitation, “That would be lunch time!”
The only subject in school that Ma was good at was English. Why? “When my father scolded me, I would talk back at him in English. And while it felt great seeing that he could not get it, I found it interesting learning the language too,” Ma recounted later.
Apparently, Ma’s lowest math score was when he took the college entrance exam for the first time: he scored one point. That is, one point out of a total of 100 possible points!
What he lacked in mathematical skills, he made up for in perseverance: on his third attempt, his math score totaled 89 points, enough to make it to a modestly-ranked college.
Jack Ma is now arguably the most influential businessman in China. His efforts pioneering e-commerce in China have transformed many aspects of business and society in China, earning him a net worth of US$23.7 billion in the process. Last November he was interviewed by president Obama at the APEC summit.
Lei Jun, 46, founder of Xiaomi
Lei Jun grew up in the underdeveloped countryside of Hubei province. Lei, called “the smart kid” by his neighbours, was fond of inventing things. The “smart kid” once made an electric lamp with two batteries, a bulb, a self-made wooden box, and some wires. It was the first electric lamp in his village. He used to carry it, following his mom to help her with housework in the evening.
His parents were busy and were not around most of the time. Lei took care of himself but received good grades at school.
His intelligence and creativity later helped him build Xiaomi, the tech startup with highest valuation in the world. Lei has been heralded as the “Steve Jobs of China”.
Xiaomi has such a strong presence in the world of electronics that it is easy to forget that this multi-billion dollar company was founded as recently as 2010.
Robin Li, 47, founder of Baidu
Robin Li was born into an average-income family with four other siblings in central China’s Shanxi Province.
Li’s father always took him to Chinese operas, which always enchanted him. With the bed as a stage, a stick as a spear, and the bed sheet as his costume, he would perform shows of his own.
When the local opera troupe recruited students, he was chosen for his handsome appearance.
Li’s interest for opera didn’t last long. When his elder sister went to college, Li decided to follow her steps as well.
Even though no one considered him as an academic type of guy, he made it all the way to the prestigious Peking University, before winning a scholarship as a computer science major to study in the US.
In 2000, he founded Baidu with some friends. The company now has China’s largest search engine, and offers 57 search and community services. According to Baidu, its revenue reached over US$2.4 billion in Q1 2016, with businesses covering healthcare, education, and cutting edge technologies, including driverless cars and deep learning computing.
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Pony Ma, 44, founder of Tencent
Pony Ma was a well-behaved boy, not causing any trouble, just wanting to communicate with stars in the sky. Ma was obsessed with astronomy and was subscribed to the magazine Amateur Astronomy for over 20 years – even till now.
Once, the 10-year-old Ma bumped into a book at his neighbour’s and started reading it in seclusion, forgetting about lunchtime. His family searched for him and found the little compulsive reader immersed in a book in a corner of the kitchen.
His teacher told him that few people who study astronomy could work at an observatory or a space station, and that most of them ended up as a geography teacher. At the same time, Ma was getting to know about computers, and spending most of his time on the Internet.
This obsession has led to today’s successes. His company, Tencent, has been a dominant feature of the Chinese Internet landscape for years, launching popular applications like QQ and Wechat. Wechat is now the dominant communication app in China, with an active user base of 700 million people. Tencent brought in revenue of over US$100 billion last year.
Liu Qiangdong, 42, founder of JD.com
Liu wanted to become a singer when he was little, but his mother stifled that dream in the cradle by bluntly telling him, “But you’re tone-deaf!”
A mischievous boy with “a head for business”, he used to trick his younger sister out of her small savings, so that every time their father gave them change he reminded the sister, “Be careful not to be tricked by your brother again.”
Growing up in a poverty-stricken village, Liu’s favorite food was “rice with lard”. Sweet potatoes and corn were all that has family had to eat for all three daily meals.
Liu would catch small fish after school and sell them on the market to help his family. Knowing that a small quantity wouldn’t sell well, he collected what he and his friends had and sold them together, before allocating the money earned.
With a head for business, Liu ranked first among students in his region in the high school entrance exam. The e-commerce company he founded later is now listed on the NASDAQ with a valuation of over US$33.25 billion.
What was your childhood like?
Ke Jin is a writer at AllChinaTech. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a Master’s Degree in English and has worked on projects with Ipsos MORI and SDI Media. She’s particularly intrigued by China’s thriving technology scene and is eager to write about this flourishing industry. Feel free to email her at email@example.com should you have any questions 🙂
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