Jack Ma is an icon of China’s entry into the digital age. In 1999, the former English teacher and his co-founders launched Alibaba in an apartment in Hangzhou. Today, that startup has changed the way the Chinese shop. Alibaba is China’s e-commerce behemoth, controlling roughly four-fifths of the expanding online retail business. Its main shopping sites, Taobao and Tmall, handle more merchandise than Amazon. Taobao has become, like Google, a verb: Looking for a new dress or mobile phone? Go to Taobao!
Now Ma, Alibaba’s executive chairman, is seeking to change China in a different way. Last year he devoted himself to cleaning up the nation’s infamous pollution as chairman of the Nature Conservancy’s China program. “The environmental situation is not something that can wait,” he has said. Hopefully he’ll tackle it as quickly as he has won customers.
Schuman is TIME’s business and economics correspondent in Beijing