Visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk is the charismatic co-founder of PayPal (PYPL) and Tesla (TSLA), as well as the founder of SpaceX, Neuralink, and The Boring Company. He serves as CEO of Tesla and CEO/lead designer of SpaceX.
His astounding success has given rise to comparisons to other visionary businessmen, such as Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates. After an often difficult childhood, Musk developed a relentless work ethic (he is known to work as many as 80 to 120 hours per week) and a tenacious, single-minded vision.
As of 2021, he has an estimated total net worth of $151 billion. He is surpassed only by Jeff Bezos as the richest person in the world.
Let's look briefly at the life of the man behind a string of companies that have disrupted multiple industries.
- Elon Musk is the charismatic co-founder and CEO of electric car maker Tesla and rocket manufacturer SpaceX.
- Born and raised in South Africa, Musk spent time in Canada before finally moving to the U.S.
- Educated at the University of Pennsylvania in physics, Musk started getting his feet wet as a serial tech entrepreneur with early successes like Zip2 and X.com.
- He was instrumental in creating the company that became PayPal.
- Musk has behaved in eccentric ways from time to time and has identified himself as having Asperger's syndrome.
Early Life and Education
Elon Reeve Musk was born in 1971 in Pretoria, one of South Africa’s three capital cities. His father was an engineer, and his mother a model and nutritionist. He is the oldest of three children, all high-achievers: His brother, Kimbal Musk, is a venture capitalist and environmentalist. His sister, Tosca Musk, is an award-winning producer and director.
After his parents divorced in 1980, Musk lived primarily with his father. He would later dub the man "a terrible human being…almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done."
“I had a terrible upbringing. I had a lot of adversity growing up. One thing I worry about with my kids is they don’t face enough adversity,” Musk would later say.
Bullied as a Child
By his own account, Musk a self-described bookworm and something of a smart aleck—he read voraciously, everything from encyclopedias to comic books. But Musk’s intellectual aptitude did him few favors as a child. He found few friends in the tough-minded Afrikaner culture he encountered in school.
“I had a terrible upbringing. I had a lot of adversity growing up. One thing I worry about with my kids is they don’t face enough adversity,” he would later say in an interview.
Musk attended the private, English-speaking Waterkloof House Preparatory School—he started a year early—and later graduated from Pretoria Boys High School. The years were lonely and brutal, from his descriptions.
“They got my best friend to lure me out of hiding so they could beat me up. And that hurt,” Musk said. “For some reason they decided that I was it, and they were going to go after me nonstop. That’s what made growing up difficult. For a number of years there was no respite. You get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the (expletive) out of me, and then I’d come home, and it would just be awful there as well.”
If there was a point of bright escape for Musk; it was technology. When he was only 10, he became acquainted with programming via the Commodore VIC-20, an inexpensive home computer. Before long, he had become proficient enough to create Blastar—a video game in the style of Space Invaders. He sold the BASIC code for the game to a magazine called PC and Office Technology for $500.
In one telling incident at that time, Musk, along with his brother, planned to open a video game arcade near their school. Ultimately, their parents nixed the plan. But apparently, the only thing stopping them was the need for a city permit, for which an adult had to apply.
Musk's College Years
At 17, Musk moved to Canada to avoid serving in the South African military, whose main duty in the late 1980s was enforcing apartheid. He would later obtain Canadian citizenship through his mother.
After emigrating to Canada, Musk enrolled in Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. It was there that he met Justine Wilson, an aspiring writer. They would marry and have five sons together, twins and triplets, before divorcing in 2008.
Entering the U.S.
After two years at Queen’s University, Musk transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. He took on two majors, but his time there wasn’t all work and no play. With a fellow student, he bought a 10-bedroom fraternity house, which they used as an ad hoc nightclub.
Musk graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Physics, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the Wharton School. The two majors speak to the direction Musk’s career would take later, but it was physics that made the deepest impression.
“(Physics is) a good framework for thinking,” he would say later. “Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there.”
Musk was 24 years old when he moved to California to pursue a Ph.D. in applied physics at Stanford University. But, with the Internet exploding and Silicon Valley booming, Musk had entrepreneurial visions dancing in his head. He left the Ph.D. program after just two days.
In 1995, with $28,000 and his younger brother Kimbal at his side, Musk started Zip2, a web software company that would help newspapers develop online city guides. In 1999, Zip2 was acquired by Compaq’s AltaVista web search engine for a whopping $340 million. Musk used his Zip2 buyout money to create X.com, which he intended to shape into the future of banking. X.com was merged with a money transfer firm called Confinity, and the resulting company came to be known as PayPal. Musk was then ousted from the company before it was bought by eBay for $1.5 billion, though he left with $180 million worth in stock.
In 2017, Musk purchased the X.com domain name back from PayPal, citing its sentimental value.
After PayPal slipped away, Musk turned his attention to an electric-car start-up called Tesla Motors.
First, he contributed funding—about $70 million. Then, in 2004, Musk joined engineers Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning to help run Tesla Motors, where Musk was integral in designing the first electric car: the Tesla Roadster. After Eberhard was ousted from the firm in 2007, following a series of disagreements, Musk seized management control as CEO and product architect. Under his watch, Tesla has become one of the world’s most popular and coveted car brands.
In addition to producing electric vehicles, Tesla maintains a robust presence in the solar energy space, thanks to its acquisition of SolarCity. Founded in 2006, this clean-energy-services company currently produces two rechargeable solar batteries, mainly used for stationary energy storage purposes. The smaller Powerwall was developed for home backup power and off-the-grid use, while the larger Powerpack is intended for commercial or electric utility grid use.
Musk used much of the proceeds of his PayPal sale to found Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, commonly known as SpaceX, an interstellar travel company. By his own account, Musk spent $100 million to found SpaceX in 2002.
With SpaceX, Musk landed several high-profile contracts with NASA and the U.S. Air Force to design rockets and conduct military missions. Musk has been vocal about his plans to send an astronaut to Mars by 2025 in a collaborative effort with NASA.
On Sept. 7, 2018, Musk appeared to be smoking marijuana while being interviewed for a podcast. Coupled with the exit of two Tesla executives—its head of human resources and its chief accounting officer—that news saw the stock drop in trade. This was just another addition to the string of bad news for the company that year, which included a shareholder lawsuit against Musk and Tesla for his infamous tweet on Aug. 7, 2018. Musk had tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private. The company later decided against the move.
During his May 8, 2021 appearance on the TV show Saturday Night Live, Musk revealed that he has Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism now officially known as autism spectrum disorder. "I'm actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger's to host SNL. Or at least the first person to admit it," he said. How does neurodevelopment condition manifest itself? "I don't always have a lot of intonation or variation in how I speak, which I'm told makes for great comedy," Musk explained.
The Bottom Line
Musk’s early interests in philosophy, science fiction, and fantasy novels are reflected in his sense of idealism and concern with human progress—and in his business career. He works in the areas that he has identified as crucial to our future, specifically the Internet, the transition to renewable energy sources, and space colonization. He has defied critics, disrupted industries, and made advances in all three of these frontiers, via his creation of PayPal, Tesla Motors, SolarCity, and SpaceX—game-changers all, despite their sometimes rocky performance.