He may be the richest man in China, but Jack Ma is stepping back from his e-commerce empire to return to his roots as a teacher.

Bright future? Jack Ma wants to head back to the classroom
Image: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

On his 54th birthday, the founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group wrote to his employees, customers and shareholders that he would be stepping down on September 10, 2019, the company’s 20th anniversary.

The former English language teacher wrote: “I still have lots of dreams to pursue… I want to return to education, which excites me with so much blessing because this is what I love to do.”

In a follow-up interview with Bloomberg, he said: “I think some day, and soon, I’ll go back to teach, go back to education. This is something I have more confidence [in]… I think I can do much better than being Alibaba’s CEO. This is something I want to devote most of my time to when I retire.”

At this year's World Economic Forum meeting in China, he said he was looking forward to life after Alibaba.

"This is a big step in my life. I hope I'll have more time for education, environment, entrepreneurship."

Education, education, education

 Alibaba HQ in Jack Ma’s hometown Hangzhou
Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Worth an estimated $40 billion, Ma has been working on the Jack Ma Foundation, a philanthropic organisation dedicated to education, since 2014.

He spoke passionately about the challenges for the future of education at the World Economic Forum in 2018, saying: “A teacher should learn all the time; a teacher should share all the time. Education is a big challenge now - if we do not change the way we teach 30 years later we will be in trouble.

"We cannot teach our kids to compete with the machines who are smarter - we have to teach our kids something unique. In this way, 30 years later, kids will have a chance."

‘Professional disease’

 Alibaba Group’s fortunes have skyrocketed over 20 years
Image: Statista

Ma, who built up Alibaba over 20 years to be worth $420 billion, told Bloomberg he got into business “by accident” and “misses” teaching, adding “education is critical for the future”.

In the interview, he also confessed he felt compelled to “share” his experience with others, joking, “maybe it’s a professional disease I’ve got, teaching”.

He began his teaching career in 1988 in his hometown of Hangzhou, after graduating from Hangzhou Teacher's Institute with a BA in English. According to Crocodile In The Yangtze, a documentary about his life, he earned just $12 a month as a teacher, and once told the Economics Club of New York it was the “best life I had”.

School of hard knocks

 Jack Ma receives an honorary degree from the University of Hong Kong
Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

For someone so successful, Ma famously struggled to get into Harvard Business School, revealing in an interview at the World Economic Forum in 2015 that he had been rejected 10 times.

He admits he was “not considered a good student” when he was younger, also failing China’s national university exam twice.

But those experiences didn’t put him off achieving his business goals and now he’s going to channel his experiences and love of “learning all the time” into his education foundation.

“Having been trained as a teacher, I feel extremely proud of what I have achieved,” he wrote to his colleagues and shareholders.

“Teachers always want their students to exceed them, so the responsible thing to do for me and the company to do is to let younger, more talented people take over in leadership roles so that they inherit our mission ‘to make it easy to do business anywhere’.”