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Three surprising business ventures of the Chinese tech giant Alibaba

By Lily Kuo
Alibaba

The public filing of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba on May 6 gave investors a peek into the complex world of its myriad businesses and services that range from online shopping to cloud computing. Here are a few of the company’s oddball functions that caught our eye.

Finding fashion models

Alibaba’s ”Taobao Model Platform,” established in 2010, is an online platform for merchants and others to ”find appropriate models,” according to Taobao. Categories range from “Western style” and “Japanese style” to “middle-aged” or “large size.” Many are recruited to model for Taobao showrooms, where the women are known as “Taobao girls.” Bypassing China’s fragmented modeling industry, where it is often difficult to find work, Taobao’s models can make as much as 10,000 yuan (about $1,600) a day. As of December 31, 2013, there were over 40,000 models on the Taobao Model marketplace, the company said.

Taobao Model Marketplace
A model from Guangzhou advertises his portfolio on Taobao.

Raising and lending money

As of the end of last year, 229 nonprofits, charities, and other “social responsibility organizations,” were using Alibaba’s marketplaces to raise funds. After an earthquake last year in Ya’an, in Sichuan province, which killed 196, one fund raised 48 million yuan for victims. Last year, a total of 25 million yuan was given to causes ranging from poverty reduction to improving the environment, Alibaba said.

Ahead of its listing, Alibaba had been pushing its corporate social responsibility program. Earlier this month, founder Jack Ma started an Alibaba philanthropic trust, worth as much as $3 billion, and earlier in the year the company began an initiative to assess water pollution around the country.

Alibaba also gives micro-loans to small-to-medium sellers using their marketplaces—assessing their credit-worthiness based on their selling history through Alibaba. As of the end of last year, Alibaba had lent over 12.4 billion yuan, or $2 billion, to over 342,000 borrowers.

Business school

Taobao University
The website for Taobao University advertises training in photoshop, seminars on how regulations affecting the industry could change, and advice for new sellers.

At Taobao University or Alibaba Business School, sellers can learn how to run online storefronts, marketing and sales operations, and consult with Alibaba executives. Usually in conjunction with a local colleges and other educational institutions, the programs offer certificate and training programs as well as seminars run by Alibaba managers. In some programs, sellers have to demonstrate that they make at least 8,000 yuan ($1,300) a month in sale transactions, or have achieved a certain rating on one of Alibaba’s marketplaces.