Living in China: Glimpses into Aliculture

“Knowing what you have, what you want, and what are you willing to give up?” — Jack Ma@ SHE conference 2017

Jack Speaking at the SHE Global Conference

Being especially fortunate to be on the AGLA programme, our first few months at Alibaba has been incredibly special. Whether you have lived in 10 + countries, speak multiple languages or you think you have seen the world…there is nothing quite like this yet.

Having the privilege to have afternoon-tea’d with Jack Ma in his office and hearing him speak to us on various topics almost daily for the first week, you can’t help but wonder… What drives the man who built a $400 billion dollar empire? What are the major themes of his and Alibaba’s story? And what does this mean for a company who wants to become a 102 years old?

AGLA Class 2 with Jack Ma & Brian Wong
Jack Ma & Optimism

Jack walks in on our opening evening for AGLA in simple clothes, he wears no expensive watches or shoes. If you had not known his face, it would have been impossible to know that this was the man who built the 6th largest internet company in the world.

Throughout his talks and speeches with us, one resounding theme which moved me personally was on optimism.

The physiological and health benefits of optimism have been well recorded, Harvard Medical School tells us that an optimistic outlook early in life can predict better health and a lower rate of death during follow-up periods of 15 to 40 years.

What I haven’t seen enough though are those highlighting the gravity, strength and infectiousness of this emotion.

Much like love, optimism cuts through terror, defeats anger and shines through in time of chaos and disorder.

There’s a chinese pop-culture term “打不死的小强”。 For those of you who might have seen the infamous 90s HK comedy which made the director of Kung Fu Hustle(Stephen Chow )famous.. you will understand. This is perhaps the chinese pop culture symbol of “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. Or in Latin: “Excelsior”- ever upward.

Working at Alibaba it seems, is often working amongst chaos, with an ecosystem of this size and in one of the fastest-paced industries in the world. It seems like projects and teams come and go with a rapid amount of fluidity. The ones who fit the macro-environment will thrive, the ones who do not make it will try again. But in this spiral of shift and change, it is constantly evolving and perfecting itself. Excelsior- Ever Upward.

Alibaba & “Martial Heroes” (武侠)

“Martial Heroes” is a genre of popular chinese novels which has influenced at least three generations of chinese society spanning from 1950s to the late 1990s. The most popular author of this genre- Jin Yong wrote 15 novels in less than 2 decades. Its popularity at its height could only be matched by something like Harry Potter.. (both Rowling and Yong are indeed OBEs).

The translation in english does not fully capture its essence, the word “Xia【侠】” has connotations of a knight or a swordsmen but to truly be a “侠客” carries a wider sense of servitude, justice and helping those weaker in society. Jack in his youth was a huge fan of 武侠, and the influence of this can be seen in many aspects of the organisation.

Upon enrolling as an official employee within Ali, each employee will pick a new “nickname” for themselves(花名), which will be used to address you for the rest of your time at Alibaba; often consisting of 2 different chinese characters(if you do manage to meet someone who has 3 characters, they are likely an important person). This first came about because of Jack’s reverence for the heroes within the 武侠 genre, and the names of the founders were often heroes who have fought for justice or changed the society for a greater cause.

The theme that resonates from this novel genre is Alibaba’s company mission: “To make it easy to do business anywhere”.

For the “Common Man”

The idea that the company is “for the common man”. It’s for the small medium businesses, for women, for rural people living in villages, for those who have not traditionally enjoyed privilege in a capitalistic society. The more time you spend here, the more you realise it’s an especially powerful theme that drives the company forward. And something that individual employees also embrace dearly.

At our AGLA opening evening I asked Jack: “What do you think makes Alicloud competitive in a field where US or european companies are traditionally seen as being more innovative? and what are our strategies?”

Jack’s reply was that for Alicloud it would be for the common man, it is for the students, the entrepreneurs, the designers and the creators. It’s the idea where people have easy access and can start their own ventures with as little as their bedroom and a computer. In 20 years’ time, Cloud would be as ubiquitous as electricity, and that’s where Alicloud will stand its ground.

Jack with some of the ladies of the international team of Alibaba Group

The 20 of us are here hopefully not just to connect china to the world and vice- versa, but more importantly, bringing access, perspective and value to those who need it the most.

For the common man.


Rilly Chen is a member of AGLA Class #2, she grew up in China, Singapore and the UK, and spent the last 4 years working in the ecommerce eco-system in Southeast Asia. She graduated from the University of Oxford and is very much enjoying her time exploring the new digital China. 

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