Jack Ma with his parents. Image Credit: Ma’s family album

Jack Ma was a cash-strapped Chinese entrepreneur and former English teacher when he convinced friends to give him $60,000 to start a Chinese e-commerce firm called Alibaba in 1999. Almost two decades later, Alibaba is an internet juggernaut and Ma is among the world’s richest men, with a net worth of more than $40 billion.

Born on September 10, 1964 in Hangzhou in China, Ma began studying English at a young age by conversing with English-speakers at Hangzhou International Hotel. His real Chinese name is Ma Yun.

Ma would ride more than 100km on his bicycle to give tourists tours of the area to practice his English for nine years. He became pen pals with one of those foreigners, who nicknamed him “Jack” because he found it hard to pronounce his Chinese name.

Ma has often described himself as something on an accidental entrepreneur, giving up his university teaching for the hustle of trade after discovering the internet. Seeing an opportunity for small businesses to buy and sell their goods online, he started Alibaba, initially running the company out of his apartment in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

He has inspired strong devotion among his employees and users, drawing comparisons with late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs - although he practices a more open management style.

He is one of the most colourful of China’s growing cop of billionaires, performing a Michael Jackson-inspired dance routine at the company’s 18th anniversary celebration last year, and starring in his own kung fu film. He likes to recount his stories of rejection, such as the time he was turned down for a job at KFC and being rejected by Harvard 10 times.

Ma has long shown an admiration for Microsoft founder Bill Gates who has donated vast amounts of his wealth to philanthropic causes. Like Gates he has created his own eponymous foundation, the Jack Ma Foundation, which he says will push his original calling: education.