small business inspiration

“Every day is a small business day,” said Karen Mills, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, in her introduction to “A Conversation with Ken Chenault and Jack Ma” on Wednesday, June 10 at Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel in Chicago.

Mr. Ma is the founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, an infrastructure-building company working with small businesses. In describing his journey to founding Alibaba in 1999, this former English teacher in China explained his perseverance in the face of rejection and dedication to the vision of working with small businesses.

“Small business owners have deep passion for what they do,” he said. “When I look at the eyes of entrepreneurs, I see fire.”

That fire was certainly demonstrated by Mr. Ma and his Alibaba co-founders. After he couldn’t get a loan for the new venture, he and 19 friends put together $50,000 and a lofty goal: to be the top website for small businesses. Today, their company has proven its worth, and they are staying true to their original strategy, to help small businesses.

Mr. Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express, also spoke about helping small businesses. He described the history of American Express, which started as a freight-forwarding company over 165 years ago and stays strong through continual innovation.

For small businesses, Mr. Chenault explained, AmEx provides access to funds but also consultation and education, including an online forum and learning materials.

Essential to the company’s success, he said, has been retaining constancy of values, focused on trust and service.

Some of the lessons shared during the conversation included learning from mistakes – both your own and those of others – learning from “the guy next door” rather than looking only to corporate successes for ideas, and seizing opportunities when the time is right (“repairing the roof while it’s still sunny”).

Both Mr. Chenault and Mr. Ma showed an admirable understanding of and commitment to the needs of small business owners, and their conversation was enriching and inspiring.