A few weeks ago I watched this YouTube video of a younger, Jack Ma, presenting in a non-descript room to a few colleagues. The presentation was from a time before Alibaba became the global ecommerce powerhouse that it is today. It was 1999 and Ma was setting a vision for the future – to compete not with his domestic rivals but with the titans of the global web.

I was particularly fascinated to hear Ma explain that “we all know the internet is a bubble that keeps getting bigger and bigger”. But rather than fearing the bursting of this bubble, his aim was to encourage his colleagues to look beyond the fortunes of one or more companies. While the companies may rise and fall, the “dream of the internet” won’t burst, he explained. The question for Ma was about participation. Will Alibaba participate?

In his speech, Ma also explained that the path ahead was not going to be simple –  there would be growing pains over the next 3-5 years as Alibaba headed towards IPO. But this was to be expected. Growth comes with growing pains.

Fast forward to 2017, and Ma is here in Australia, opening their Australian and New Zealand headquarters in Melbourne. Again, he is not talking about his own company. He is talking about vision. About service. “When you get bigger, you need to help more people”, he explains.

But what does this mean?

Ma’s vision is to enable small businesses and their customers. “We want to make 10 million small businesses profitable on our platform”. Over the last 18 years, Alibaba has focused on empowering three distinct – but interrelated groups:

  • Small business
  • Young people
  • Women.

“We believe these three groups of people are the future”.

It’s not often that you hear CEOs bring these three groups together in a major speech. The speech is notable for its vision setting – but so was the first speech from 1999. But with the track record that Alibaba has established since the first speech in 1999, Ma presents a compelling and very different vision of innovation from that of most Australian business leaders. It’s a people first focus on innovation. And it’s exciting to think how this might play out and what it might inspire in others.