'Others innovate for success; Israel innovates for survival'

Alibaba founder says in Israel, innovation is as natural as water

Speaking at Tel Aviv conference, e-commerce giant leader Jack Ma lauds the country: ‘Small is beautiful, and small is powerful’

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Jack Ma, Chairman of Ali Express, speaks at the Israel - China Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation in at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv, on October 25, 2018.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Jack Ma, Chairman of Ali Express, speaks at the Israel - China Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation in at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv, on October 25, 2018.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Jack Ma, the founder of China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, said on Thursday at a conference in Tel Aviv that he has learned two things about Israel during his two trips to the country: it has innovation, and it has chutzpah, “the courage to change.”

“In Israel, innovation is everywhere, like water and food, it’s so natural,” the business magnate and philanthropist told an audience of local and foreign tech entrepreneurs, investors and government officials who gathered for the Prime Minister’s Innovation Summit.

Even if you don’t have anything, he said, “if you have brain and a heart, you can make everything possible.”

When knowledge — IQ — meets emotional intelligence, or EQ, “that is called innovation.” he said. “Israel has all of these things.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shakes hands with Alibaba founder Jack Ma on May 2, 2018. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

“Israel knows that the most precious resource in the world is not oil, gas — it is the human brain,” he said. And Israel innovates not only for itself, but for the world.

“Most people innovate for success, but I find Israel innovates for survival,” he said. “You don’t have diamonds, but you have the biggest diamond exchange in the world. You don’t make cars, but you have the best car technology in the world. You don’t have water, but I heard that you are one of the biggest exporters of vegetables and fruits to Europe. That is amazing.”

He said that when Alibaba made its first investment in cloud technology nine years ago, people questioned his decision, saying he knows nothing about technology. “That is true, I know nothing about technology,” he said. “I am scared of technology, so I was the first product tester of my company, because I said if I can use it, 80 percent of people can use it.”

He added that if Alibaba had not invested in cloud computing nine years ago the firm would be bankrupt today, because it would not be able to withstand the cost of using other firms’ cloud platforms to meet the high demand of its users. “So, we had to innovate, design a technology that is simple enough and cost effective” for Alibaba and millions of small businesses.

On November 11, the largest shopping day in China, last year “18 million people came in (to the website) in the first second,” he said, and in one day the company sold products for a total of $24 billion.

Being a little crazy, and believing

Ma said that as he founded Alibaba in 1999, over 30 VC in the US funds told him the idea was “crazy” because at the time China had no internet, no credit cards and no deliveries, and did have censorship. They thought it was “impossible,” he said. “But we believed China has the future, we believed that internet is going to change China… and we believed in small businesses.” And being a little bit crazy and believing, and having a group of people who believe like you do, are key to succeeding, he said.

Governments, he said, should use their power to protect innovation, not control it, and the best investment for the future is in education.

“In the next 20 years, we will make machines like people,” he said. “Like it or not like it… this thing is coming. What should we do to change our education systems to teach our kids to do the things the machine cannot do: this is the thing that every family and every government should pay attention to.”

People shouldn’t worry too much about robots taking over human jobs, he said.

“Human beings are much smarter than machines,” he said. Machines only have chips, and human beings have hearts. “Don’t worry about the future,” he said. By using innovation even small businesses can compete with anyone in the world. “And this is just like Israel, where small is beautiful, and small is powerful.”

“My view is: rely on the young people, rely on the small businesses, believe in the future. Be optimistic. The world is beautiful. Today is just the beginning. Like anything, remember, this is my philosophy of life for the past 20 years, today is difficult. Tomorrow is much more difficult, the day after tomorrow is beautiful. Most people die tomorrow evening,” he concluded, to the enthusiastic applause and laughter of the gathering.

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