Entrepreneur Elon Musk has achieved global fame as the chief executive (CEO) of electric autos maker Tesla Inc. (TSLA) and CEO of the private space company SpaceX. Musk co-founded PayPal (PYPL), was an early investor in several tech companies, and in April 2022 he began negotiations for a deal to take Twitter Inc. (TWTR) private.
His success and personal style has given rise to comparisons to other colorful tycoons from U.S. history, including Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, and Henry Ford. He was named the richest person in the world with an estimated net worth of $220 billion as of June 2022. Musk first achieved that distinction in 2021, surpassing Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos.
Let's look briefly at the life of the man who has scaled the pinnacle of the business world.
- Elon Musk is the charismatic chief executive of electric car maker Tesla and rocket manufacturer SpaceX, and has made a deal to buy Twitter.
- Born and raised in South Africa, Musk spent time in Canada before 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, which merged with a company that became PayPal.
- Musk has behaved eccentrically from time to time. He has said he has Asperger's syndrome.
Early Life and Education
Elon Reeve Musk was born in 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa, the oldest of three children. His father was a South African engineer, his mother a Canadian model and nutritionist. After his parents divorced in 1980, Musk lived primarily with his father. He would later dub his father "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
Musk attended the private, English-speaking Waterkloof House Preparatory School—he started a year early—and later graduated from Pretoria Boys High School. A self-described bookworm, he made few friends in those places.
“They got my best (expletive) friend to lure me out of hiding so they could beat me up. And that (expletive) 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.”
Technology became an escape for Musk. At 10, he became acquainted with programming using a Commodore VIC-20, an early and relatively inexpensive home computer. Before long, Musk 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 PC magazine for $500.
In one telling incident from his childhood, Musk and his brother, planned to open a video game arcade near their school. Their parents nixed the plan.
Musk's College Years
At 17, Musk moved to Canada. 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 degree in physics, in addition to a bachelor of arts in economics from the Wharton School. The two majors foreshadowed Musk’s career, but it was physics that left 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 $15,000 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 Computer Corp. for $341 million. Musk used his Zip2 buyout money to create X.com, a fintech venture before that term was in wide circulation.
X.com merged with a money transfer firm called Confinity, and the resulting company came to be known as PayPal. Peter Thiel ousted Musk as PayPal's CEO before eBay (EBAY) bought the payments company for $1.5 billion, but Musk still profited from the buyout via his 11.7% PayPal stake. "My proceeds from PayPal after tax were about $180 million," Musk said in a 2018 interview. "$100 million of that went into SpaceX, $70 million into Tesla, and $10 million into SolarCity. And I literally had to borrow money for rent."
In 2017, Musk purchased the X.com domain name back from PayPal, citing its sentimental value.
Musk became involved with the electric cars venture as an early investor in 2004, ultimately contributing about $6.3 million to begin with and joined the team, including engineer Martin Eberhard, to help run a company then known as Tesla Motors. Following a series of disagreements, Eberhard was ousted in 2007, and an interim CEO was hired until Musk assumed control as CEO and product architect. Under his watch, Tesla has become the world's most valuable automaker and one of his best-known brands.
In addition to producing electric vehicles, Tesla maintains a robust presence in the solar energy space, thanks to its acquisition of SolarCity. The company currently produces two rechargeable solar batteries. 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 most of the proceeds from his PayPal stake to found Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, the rockets developer commonly known as SpaceX. By his own account, Musk spent $100 million to found SpaceX in 2002.
Under Musk's leadership, SpaceX landed several high-profile contracts with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Air Force to design space launch rockets. Musk has publicized plans to send an astronaut to Mars by 2025 in a collaborative effort with NASA.
A frequent poster on the messaging network, Musk disclosed a 9.2% stake in Twitter in April 2022. Twitter responded by offering Musk a seat on the board, which he accepted before declining days later. Musk then sent a "bear hug" letter to Twitter's board proposing to buy the company at $54.20 per share.
Twitter's board adopted a poison pill provision to discourage Musk from accumulating an even larger stake, but they ultimately accepted Musk's offer after he disclosed $46.5 billion in committed financing for the deal in a securities filing.
On Sept. 7, 2018, Musk smoked cannabis during a filmed interview for a podcast.
Just a month earlier, Musk posted an infamous tweet claiming he was considering taking Tesla private and had secured the needed funding. Musk subsequently settled a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) complaint alleging he knowingly misled investors with the tweet by paying a $20 million fine along with the same penalty for Tesla, and agreeing to let Tesla's lawyers approve tweets with material corporate information before posting.
In March 2022 Musk filed a court motion to overturn the consent decree stemming from that case. In April 2022 during a live TED Talk, Musk called the SEC regulators on the case "bastards."
During his May 8, 2021, appearance on the TV show Saturday Night Live, Musk revealed that he has Asperger's syndrome, an 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.
Is Elon Musk Married?
Elon Musk has been divorced three times—twice from his second wife, Talulah Riley. From 2018 to 2022, he had been in a relationship with the Canadian singer/songwriter Claire Elise Boucher, professionally known as Grimes, with whom he has a son in 2020 and a daughter in 2022. They remain best friends. He also has five sons from his first marriage to Justine Musk.
How Rich Is Elon Musk?
Elon Musk's net worth was estimated at $220 billion as of June 2022, making him the wealthiest human on the planet.
Was Elon Musk Born Rich?
No, Elon Musk was born into a middle-class family. In 1995, when founded X.com, he reportedly had over $100,000 in student debt and struggled to pay rent.
What Does Elon Musk Do at Tesla?
Elon Musk is officially listed as the co-founder and CEO of Tesla on the company's website. In a 2021 securities filing, the company disclosed an additional Musk title as "Technoking of Tesla."
What Companies Does Elon Musk Own?
Elon Musk is a large stakeholder in several companies including Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company, Neuralink, and Twitter.
The Bottom Line
Musk’s early interests in philosophy, science fiction, and fantasy novels are reflected in his idealism and concern with human progress—and in his business career. He works in fields he has identified as crucial to humanity's future, notably the transition to renewable energy sources, space exploration, and the Internet. Musk has defied critics, disrupted industries, and made the most money anyone ever has from PayPal, Tesla Motors, SolarCity, and SpaceX—game-changers all, despite the inevitable missteps.