Friday's Alibaba initial public offering will officially be the largest in U.S. history: the Chinese e-commerce giant is raising $21.8 billion with its stock debut.
But Alibaba's billionaire co-founder Jack Ma — though a major presence on the IPO circuit and a major beneficiary of it, standing to gain hundreds of millions of dollars from the stock — isn't just focusing on his company and its earnings. In fact, last May he stepped down from his position as CEO. (He's still the company's chairman.) He is, as Victor Luckerson spelled out earlier this year, not your typical tech honcho. Rather, he's a former English teacher who doesn't code and loves the soundtrack to The Lion King.
He's also one of China's most important environmentalists, as Bryan Walsh explained in a 2013 TIME profile of Ma:
But as entrepreneurs get older--Ma, 48, says he is "old for the Internet"--they start to slow down, look around. What Ma saw was a country paying an environmental price for rapid development. His father-in-law developed liver cancer, a disease Ma--and some scientists--connects to the terrible water pollution that is now common in much of China. Ma saw the skies in Beijing and other Chinese cities grow foul with pollution. On a trip to the countryside near his hometown of Hangzhou, he saw that a lake in which he had nearly drowned while swimming at age 13 now barely came up to his ankles. Farmers told him that they were so afraid of the poisoned soil, they wouldn't eat some of their own produce. "I knew something was very wrong," Ma told TIME during a recent interview in Santa Monica, Calif. "This is serious--and we have to make people pay attention to it."
Now Ma is making it his mission to get China to pay attention to its environmental mess. On May 10, he stepped down as CEO of Alibaba, though he'll retain a strategic role with the company. The next day he took a new job, as chairman of the China board for the Nature Conservancy (TNC), one of the richest environmental groups in the world. TNC has generally been U.S.-focused, but the sheer size and influence of China ensure that global environmental and climate issues will increasingly be decided there. If China is going to change for the greener, it will need local champions. Ma has volunteered.
Read Bryan Walsh's full 2013 profile of Jack Ma here: From Gold to Green