Billionaire Alibaba founder Jack Ma was rejected from every job he applied to after college, even KFC

Jack Ma
David A. Grogan | CNBC

Alibaba founder Jack Ma is one of the richest people in the world, with a net worth of over $36 billion according to Forbes. But there was a time when he couldn't even get a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The early rejection taught him an important business lesson: "You have to get used to failure," he says, speaking at the University of Nairobi.

After college, Ma applied for 30 jobs in his home city of Hangzhou, China. He was rejected from every one.

At KFC, 24 people applied for the job, says Ma, and while 23 were hired — he wasn't one of them.

The same thing happened when he tried to be a cop. This time four of five applicants were hired, all except Ma.

Another time Ma lost out on a job to his own blood.

"My cousin and I waited for two hours [in a] long queue to be the waiter for the four star hotel in my city, on a very hot day," he says. "My cousin's score was much lower than mine, [but] he was accepted and I was rejected!"

Ma was even turned down by Harvard 10 times, he tells Charlie Rose in 2015.

"I told myself someday I should go teach there maybe," he laughs.

Although he can joke about it now, Ma says the continued rejection was painful. But it prepared him for his entrepreneurial future.

"If you can not get used to failure — just like a boxer — if you can't get used to [being] hit, how can you win?" he says to the audience in Nairobi.

The fortitude came in handy when he founded Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba in 1999. In the beginning, Ma heard "no" a lot.

"I remember year 2001, we went to raise some $5 million from venture capitalists in the USA and got rejected," Ma tells Rose. Despite the setback, he didn't stop. "I said we [will] come back raising a little bit more."

Perhaps those VCs regret their decisions. Today, the company has a market cap of about $400 billion. When it went public 2014, it was the largest initial public offering ever.

Ma says he now passes around case studies about failure to colleagues at Alibaba, instead of reinforcing success.

"When you read too many successful stories, people go crazy," he says during his talk in Nairobi. "They think 'I can be successful.'"

But the truth is, says Ma, "When you share a lot of failure stories, you learn."

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