The year was 1998 when five classmates came together to form an embryonic company that would take advantage of the early internet. Both Ma Huateng, nicknamed Pony Ma, and Zhang Zhidong, also known as Tony Zhang, brought their experience of working in a pager company and an online firm to form what was effectively an instant messaging service for pagers, a wireless communication device pre-dating smartphones. Xu Chenye, Zeng Liqing and Charles Chen Yidan, a student with a major in chemistry, made up the rest of the five founding fathers of Tencent.
Twenty years later, that same company has a market value close to Facebook’s — just shy of $500 billion. Yet beyond China, Tencent is still relatively unknown. Likewise, little publicity can be found on Charles Chen, a driving force behind the tech giant and considered China’s most charitable man.
Tencent was the first Asian firm to surpass a market value of $500 billion
Forbes ranked Chen as China’s top philanthropist after he gave away 2.3 billion Chinese yuan ($359 million) of donations in 2017. No longer at Tencent, the man behind China’s tech behemoth has funneled vast sums of his personal money into charitable educational projects, but even that sum represents just the tip of his passion for education.
Chen’s journey starts with his illiterate grandmother, who helped his father go from rural poverty to university graduate. Chen’s father went on to meet his mother as a result of moving to the city to pursue a degree. A generation later, Chen met his wife while studying chemistry at Shenzhen University and became friends with a classmate who would go onto become, alongside Chen, a future co-founder of Tencent.
“Education changed my family fate,” Chen told CNBC’s Tania Bryer. “I am one of a million lives that were transformed by the power of education.”
Chen credits his fortune to one particular moment in his life: failing an entrance exam. Despite the “look of expectation” his grandmother would persistently give, Chen failed to pass a Chinese language test ahead of entering Shenzhen University. Luckily, he scored enough in other subjects to gain admission.
“I promised myself that I need to work hard,” said Chen.
“This failure made me put more time on student services (in the student union). Through this service, I met a girl in chemistry, who is now my wife. I thank chemistry and I thank examination failure.”
Chen has kept a positive attitude in the face of uncertainty throughout his adult life.
In the unstable world of tech start-ups and the dotcom boom of the 1990s, Chen’s wife would consistently give “a simple answer from her heart” on business problems, he said. That was a trait that counterbalanced against Chen’s meticulous and methodical approach.
“I still remember when I started Tencent with my co-founders, I knew that I would go out to face an unstable start-up business. What’s the future?”
He would need her due diligence in a move that would not only change his career, but also alter the course of Chinese technology.