But for Ma, the trip across the Pacific proved to be valuable in an entirely different way.
"I went back to China with nothing, no money, nobody invested in me. But I was full of confidence. I saw the American Dream," Ma said.
He realized that he didn't have to go almost halfway around the world to help make his own goals a reality. Additionally, he believed that from his own little corner of the globe, he could help to make others' dreams happen--no matter where they lived.
Many doubted that he'd be successful operating a B2B e-commerce business in China, Ma said. People told him that there weren't any big customers there.
"So we focused on helping small businesses. We focused on helping them to make money, to sell things abroad," Ma explained.
Fast forward 15 years later. The company is expected to debut on the NYSE later this month with a $21 billion IPO, according to Reuters.
"We can sleep well in the evening because the money we make is not [from] online gaming. The money we make is helping small businesses to survive, to get business opportunities. I feel very proud of that," Ma said.
For more about Alibaba's early days, check out the video below.