Tencent founder Pony Ma is the richest man in China, worth some $13 billion, but he may be the least known multibillionaire in the tech world. The one attribute seemingly sanctioned for public consumption–and therefore, the one heard over and over–is that he is a “computer geek.” His personal life is a mystery. Even Tencent analysts in Hong Kong aren’t able to say whether he lives there or across the border in Shenzhen, where his company is based–or both.
That’s why it was a big moment when, in November, he took to the stage at his Shenzhen headquarters for his annual WE (“We Evolve”) summit. It’s a conclave of business leaders and IT experts convened to discuss technology and the future, and he appeared as a clean-cut guy in a shiny gray suit. “When I was little,” he told the crowd in a message captured on video, “I wanted to be an astronomer, but that didn’t happen.”
This trope–tech billionaire as aspiring space cadet–is a recurring one: Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk share a similar passion. At the event, Ma described how he and a few fellow enthusiasts once dreamed of setting up an Internet-connected observatory, so that they could study the stars remotely even on the most polluted, gray-sky days. A few years later, a colleague actually pulled it off: The man bought a house on a mountaintop in southern China, built the station, and enabled anyone to plug in. “I thought, that is magical,” Ma said, with a long pause for effect.