Superlatives attach themselves to Pony Ma and Tencent, the Chinese technology juggernaut the 46-year-old entrepreneur cofounded and leads as CEO. Ma is China’s richest man, with a net worth north of $40 billion. His company’s valuation hovers near the half-a-trillion-dollar mark. And Tencent’s WeChat messaging service recently crossed the 1-billion-account threshold, cementing its role as the electronic thread that stitches together the fabric of digital China. So central is WeChat to how Chinese people communicate that many believe it has become a more important ingredient to a smartphone than its operating system—enabling Tencent to occupy a powerful commercial and technological position without having to physically make phones.
A soft-spoken engineer, Ma is less well known in the West than the outspoken former-English-teacher leader of Alibaba, Jack Ma, who is no relation. Yet Pony Ma’s influence has begun to be felt as much globally as it already is in China. Tencent has been on an investment tear, pumping billions of dollars into the likes of Snapchat owner Snap, Tesla, and countless startups. Closer to home, WeChat Pay—money zapped via WeChat—vies with Alibaba for payment dominance in a smartphone-crazed country.