Jack Ma
Jack Ma speaking during his visit at the Vivatech startups and innovation fair in Paris last year. Source: Philippe Lopez / AFP

This famous businessman was reportedly rejected by dozens of employers, including KFC. Today, he has an estimated net worth of over US$40 billion.

He’s no other than business magnate Jack Ma, who co-founded Alibaba Group, one of the world’s largest e-commerce businesses today.

The tycoon from the city of Hangzhou is from humble beginnings, working as an English teacher before his foray into business.

Ma’s road to success is one paved with many failures … and lessons for international students to make it in this globalised world.

Here are just some of the pearls of wisdom by the billionaire or lessons we can learn from his experiences:

Resilience maketh a man

Jack Ma

His parents’ combined income when Ma was a young boy was US$6 a month, he said during his speech at the University of Nairobi in 2017. Source: Philippe Lopez/AFP

Ma was not “set up for success” in the traditional sense – according to reports, he grew up in humble circumstances in communist China. He learned to speak English from tourists, in return for giving them tours in the city.

He failed his entrance exam for the Hangzhou Teachers College twice, but succeeded on his third try, eventually graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in English

Things would have panned out differently if Ma had given up on enroling in university after failing on his try.  

So while things may not always work out on your first go, it’s worth emulating Ma. Learn from your mistakes and keep trying until you succeed. 

Get used to rejection

After graduating from university, Ma faced many rejections in the job hunt, including failing to join the police force and even KFC.

But if Ma had allowed those rejections to serve as “proof” that he was not good enough, it’s unlikely to result in him being where he is today.

The lesson here is: In life, it’s important to get used to failure.

That doesn’t imply that international students shouldn’t aim high in university and beyond. Rather, it’s to remind that when setbacks occur, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture and to keep going until you get that “yes”.

Things may not come to fruition at this moment, but it helps to trust in your struggle, dig deep and carry on.

High EQ is important for success

Are good grades a prerequisite to future success? Not necessarily. 

At a talk he gave at the University of Nairobi in 2017, Ma said he was “not a good student”, adding that when he started Alibaba, he had no formal knowledge about doing business. 

While intellectual knowledge is important, Ma opined that having a high EQ (emotional intelligence) is important for success, adding that “a person with a high EQ knows how to work with the people, how to understand the people [and] how to support people”. 

Howard Gardner, an influential Harvard theorist, was quoted saying by PsychCentral that: “Your EQ is the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.”

Ma had plenty of opportunities to build his EQ skills while in university. He was elected chairman of the student union at his university and later became the chairman of the student unit of his city, which had over 100,000 students as members.

In his role as chairman, Ma said he learned how to work with people, an attribute which contributed to his success as a business magnate. 

So, as an international student in university, don’t forget to join student associations, build your network and learn to work and communicate with diverse groups of people. These can serve you well into the future. 

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