Jack Ma (马云), “Chief Teaching Officer” of Alibaba, Holds “Class” in Detroit

Question: What do you get when a teacher of modest origins envisions, develops, and leads an e-commerce behemoth with $500 billion in annual sales (projected to surpass $1 trillion by 2020) that dominates the most populous country in the world??

Answer: A unique (“独一无二”) “classroom” to study e-business growth and innovation strategies to tap the “exploding” consumer marketplace in China.

To a great extent, Alibaba’s inaugural national conference and exhibition on June 20-21 in Detroit, Michigan – “Gateway ‘17” (#Gateway17, @Gateway17) – lived up to this expectation by offering a rare, star-studded, two-day “deep-dive education” for North American SMEs.

Jennifer Kuperman (@jennikuperman), Head of International Corporate Communications at Alibaba, noted in media interviews that Detroit was chosen as the venue for this year’s first national conference due to its mid-west proximity to both a high concentration of US farms and small business product marketers. However, for China-watchers who well understand the underlying symbolism always inherent in both Chinese political and business culture, the selection of Alibaba’s conference venue in Detroit obviously held deeper significance: Just as locals in Detroit confirm that the city is in the midst of an era of “economic renewal,” Alibaba’s core message to the conference attendees focused on how the company’s platforms can re-energize (or “renew”) business growth for American enterprises, both big and small.

The pivotal character of this first US-based Alibaba national conference was underscored by the “Who’s Who” line-up of the most senior Alibaba executives who personally attended the conference. Foremost was Alibaba’s visionary founder, Jack Ma (马云), the second richest man in China with an estimated net-worth of $22.7 billion, for whom this event was billed as his only scheduled public appearance at a conference in the US during 2017. Other top Alibaba executives in attendance at the conference included Joseph Tsai - Alibaba Group Co-Founder & Executive Vice Chairman; Michael Evans - Alibaba President; Brian Wong- Alibaba’s Vice President of Global Initiatives; Alvin Liu – General Manager – Alibaba – Tmall Global, and many other global and regional Alibaba executives. A similar line-up of prominent North American top journalists, celebrities, and corporate executives participated in the conference keynotes and presentations including the CBS journalist Charlie Rose (@charlierose), the publisher and entrepreneur, Martha Stewart (@marthastewart), CNN journalist Lisa Ling, Bill Partyka – President & CEO of Gerber (Nestle), and David Abney – CEO UPS, among others.

Besides the most prominent participants at the conference, the Gateway ’17 Exhibition showcased a very wide variety of third party sellers - e.g. category-specific companies that can act as “middlemen” to bridge the cultural and linguistic divide between American SMEs and Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao selling platforms - as well as a marketplace of American and foreign businesses already directly leveraging Alibaba’s infrastructure to drive their own business growth in China. I attended a particularly compelling presentation by Sam Wolf – Founder & “Chief Wellness Spreader” of LuckyVitamin (www.luckyvitamin.com), who shared his positive experience as a relatively new seller of his products on Alibaba beginning in the last six months.

To be sure, Jack Ma held the “star role” at the conference, expounding on the history of Alibaba’s evolution and his “philosophy” of how enterprises can grow and thrive in the new economy. In China, Jack’s wisdom is the topic of countless books and videos that aspiring entrepreneurs study as they build their own enterprises, and his simply-worded knowledge is neither superficial nor hollow. Rather, in his typical self-deprecating manner, he rejoices in his origin as a technology “outsider” who simply recognized an opportunity in his home market, and subsequently assembled a team to make his vision a reality. Jack’s sound-bytes are genuinely worthy of collection, reflection, and integration into business growth and enterprise organizational planning. Among the many insights he shared in his two keynote presentations at Gateway ’17 in Detroit:

-Focus on people below the age of 30: these are the “digital natives” who understand the power and potential of the internet. Younger people represent the future. Seniors spend time on e-mail now, but younger people use APPs and social media.

-Facilitate growth for companies with less than 30 employees – companies with both the ‘hunger’ and drive to succeed.

-Focus on WOMEN: Jack notes that women are Alibaba’s “Secret Sauce,” currently comprising 48% of Alibaba’s employees, and 38% of senior management. Jack’s recommendation: “Hire as many women as possible!”

-The 20th century was characterized by the application of “muscle”; but “wisdom” will dominate in the 21st century.

-As for the growth of AI, machines are smarter, but human beings are wiser. While AI development is critical, invest in the right people with the right ideas for your business.

-The China market will be a key catalyst for global business growth in the coming decades.

Given that China has evolved in the last 30+ years from a large, global political entity that was, in the early 1980’s, (at the time of China’s earliest economic opening to the West - 中国改革开放的早期), economically backward, to now become the second largest economy in the world, Jack’s philosophy may, in fact, be worthy of eventual summary and publication via a new “Little Orange Book” - a modern-day Alibaba economic “manifesto” that would be an “echo” of the “Little Red Book” that dominated China’s political culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

So, what’s at stake for US SMEs that may seek to take the step to collaborate with Alibaba??

A famous Western saying fantasizes about selling one Coca Cola to every person in China – a country which now has a population of 1.4+ billion people. However, in the last 30+ years of China’s rise and commercial “opening,” the promise of selling to Chinese consumers has largely been the province of large, global brands – companies who have had the financial foundations to establish manufacturing, distribution, and marketing operations in China.

Today, Alibaba is changing the game by “democratizing” access to the Chinese market. So, whether you are a global corporate brand, a small network of stores and distribution points, or a solo-practitioner entrepreneur marketing an interesting and innovative product, Alibaba’s interfaces allow you to achieve a huge impact with Chinese consumers in a way that was heretofore impossible.

Some final recommendations for Alibaba as they plan Gateway ’18:

1. Please plan to showcase how service-oriented SMEs – particularly those focused on Chinese global travel, healthcare, financial services, and real estate, among others – can leverage the company’s platforms to connect with Chinese consumers. Gateway ’17 was very focused on Tmall and Taobao’s platforms for PRODUCT marketing. Yet, the marketing of services still represents a huge opportunity for Western-based businesses, including many SMEs. I asked a question about this at one of the breakout sessions I attended at Gateway ’17, and I subsequently had many other attendees approach me to thank me for voicing their own interests and concerns.

2. The issue of IP protection came up in several of the conference breakout sessions, with some attendees even suggesting that Alibaba offer a more concerted service (e.g. for fee) to help foreign SMEs register trademarks in China, and seek patent protection within the country. This topic would be worthy of more focused attention at future Alibaba Gateway conferences, including within top keynote presentations by the Alibaba leadership.

3. Building on the first suggestion above, please have FLIGGY – Alibaba’s travel service whose brand was launched in early 2017 - attend next year’s conference. The Chinese affluent global traveler (currently 150 million foreign trips/year, and projected to exceed 400 million trips/year in the next 5 years) is now the “holy grail’ of travel marketers around the world. Additionally, with the ongoing transition of the Chinese travel market from group-based travel to FIT (“Fully Independent”) travel, there is an abundance of opportunities for Western travel brands to market their services, destinations, and travel experiences to global Chinese travelers.

4. Finally, Alibaba has been making a well-documented push into non-Chinese regions (e.g. India, with rumors at Gateway ‘17 indicating that the company may now also turn its sights on Africa - an ideal, “developing market” which Jack Ma may visit in 4Q 2017). How can Alibaba facilitate the connection of North American SMEs to these emerging regions, in addition to China??

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