When asked about how close Tesla came to bankruptcy, Elon Musk responded on his Twitter account, “Closest we got was about a month. The Model 3 ramp was extreme stress & pain for a long time—from mid-2017 to mid-2019. Production & logistics hell.” At this time, the company hemorrhaged as Musk ramped up production, often working 120 hour work weeks. Nevertheless, his drive to meet his production goals paid off in more than one way. In January 2021, Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX briefly surpassed Jeff Bezos as the world’s wealthiest person according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index. A rise in Tesla’s stock price is what caused the changing of hands.
Certainly, Musk’s resilience, focus, problem solving skills, and ability to pivot in the right direction are all top contributors to leading the company out of turmoil. He’s a great example of a calculated risk-taker—chasing and reaching unimaginable goals. To Musk, no feat, even establishing life on Mars, is impossible. Although he’s a controversial figure, his vision for building a greater, sustainable future for humanity makes him one of today’s most inspiring leaders.
Learn more about the life of Elon Musk, and how he became one of the most innovative entrepreneurs of the 21st century.
Elon Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, on June 28, 1971, to model Maye Musk and entrepreneur and engineer Errol Musk. Unfortunately, the small, bookish boy didn’t have an ideal childhood. Due to his size, he was the victim of bullying at school until he was 15. His brother Kimbal Musk explains in an Esquire article, “Kids gave Elon a very hard time, and it had a huge impact on his life.” Eventually, in high school, he grew taller and learned how to defend himself which deterred bullies.
From a young age, Musk showed entrepreneurial promise. He taught himself computer programming at age 9. At 12, he developed the code for a space-themed PC game called Blastar. He later sold it to PC and Office Technology for a $500 profit. When he turned 16, Musk and his brother tried opening an arcade near his school, but city officials foiled their plan. His childhood interests also foreshadowed his SpaceX venture. He tells Rolling Stone that when he was a kid, “I was off making explosives and reading books and building rockets and doing things that could have gotten me killed. I’m shocked that I have all my fingers.” With an interest in engineering and an entrepreneurial spirit, the direction Musk took in life is unsurprising.
In 1989, 17-year-old Musk did not support apartheid so before being forced into military service, he left South Africa to live with his mother in Canada. Upon arriving, he enrolled as a student at Queen’s University located in Kingston, Ontario. Three years later, he decided to finish his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he got two bachelor’s degrees in economics and physics. In 1995, Musk moved to California to begin Stanford University’s doctoral program in energy physics. Yet, the world was on the cusp of the dot-com boom, and Musk knew it. After two days, he deferred his admission and focused his energy into starting a business, Zip2 Corporation.
Elon Musk’s Companies
Musk was an early adopter of building companies using the World Wide Web. For this reason, he and his brother Kimbal started Zip2 Corporation. In summary, the business created city guide software and licensed it out to organizations like The New York Times, Hearst, Chicago Tribune, and Knight-Ridder.
While the brothers got their breakthrough business Zip2 off the ground, they kept costs low. In college, Musk had trained himself to live off $30 per month for food expenses by eating oranges, hotdogs, pasta, and pasta sauce. “My threshold for existing was pretty low. I figured I could be in some cheap apartment with my computer and be okay and not starve,” he told Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview for the StarTalk Radio podcast. In a 2014 commencement speech at the University of Southern California, Musk told the audience, “We showered at the YMCA and we were so hard-up that we only had one computer . . . The website was up during the day and I was coding it at night, seven days a week, all the time.”
The Musks’ hard work paid off. Four years later, Compaq bought Zip2 for $307 million. Musk walked away from the deal with $22 million. This success was the foundational building block that made founding his future companies possible.
For his next business venture, Musk chose to move away from directories and into the world of online financial services. Using half of his profits from the Zip2 deal, he founded X.com in 1999. In 2000, Max Levchin, Peter Thiel, and Luke Nosek, the owners of Confinity, joined forces with Musk to create PayPal. Though Musk was originally named CEO, PayPal’s board fired him from that role due to disagreements about what direction to take the company. While he was no longer CEO, he was still the business’s largest shareholder. For this reason, Musk still netted around $165 million dollars when PayPal sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion in stock.
After receiving his PayPal payout, Musk said in his 2012 commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology, “Going from PayPal, I thought, well, ‘What are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity?’ Not from the perspective, ‘What’s the best way to make money?’ but instead, ‘What do I think is going to most affect the future of humanity?”
His answer was starting Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX. He serves as CEO, CTO, and chief designer of the company. As stated on the SpaceX website, their goal is: “Making humanity multi-planetary.” Over the years, Musk has worked to make the cost of sending rockets into space much more inexpensive. One strategy he’s used for doing this is extending their lifespan by making them reusable.
Yet SpaceX has had its fair share of trials and tribulations. At the 2018 South by Southwest conference Musk confessed, “In the beginning, I actually wouldn’t even let my friends invest because everyone would lose their money. I thought I’d rather lose my own money.” By 2008, Falcon 1 had already suffered three failed launches, and the company was facing bankruptcy. Yet in September, SpaceX made history when the team successfully launched Falcon 1, the first privately developed liquid-fuel booster, into orbit around the Earth. Like a guardian angel, NASA swooped in right before Christmas and saved the business with a $1.6 billion dollar contract to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).
Top History-Making Launches
After Falcon 1, Musk developed and launched Falcon 9. This two-stage rocket transports supplies, satellites, and people. It made history by becoming the first reusable orbital rocket to make a vertical propulsive take-off and landing. As of 2020, rockets in the Falcon 9 family have been launched 107 times.
Falcon 9 uses the Dragon and Dragon 2 spacecraft to deliver cargo and carry up to seven passengers to the ISS. The Dragon 2 had its first crewed flight to the ISS on May 30, 2020. This achievement made SpaceX the first private company to send astronauts to space.
The 2018 Falcon Heavy launch marked a historic moment when SpaceX became the first company to have a private spacecraft orbit the sun. Most notably, Musk sent his red Tesla Roadster on the mission with a mannequin (Starman) that looks like an astronaut sitting at the wheel.
SpaceX is developing Starship, which consists of the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket. The rocket is capable of launching 220,000 pounds into orbit around Earth, the moon, and Mars. It will be the largest and most powerful rocket ever made in history. Additionally, the Starship spacecraft will make fast interplanetary travel a reality, as Musk plans to begin developing the first human colony on Mars. And if Musk has a choice, this is where he’d like to spend the rest of his days. In 2013, he told an audience at SXSW, “I’ve said I want to die on Mars, just not on impact.”
With all of the time and energy Musk has poured into SpaceX, it’s hard to imagine he’s also simultaneously running another wildly successful company: Tesla. Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning incorporated Tesla in 2003. Musk initially invested 6.5 million into the company and became chairman of their board of directors. He helped lead the company in receiving sufficient funding to begin the production of Tesla’s first electric vehicle, the Roadster.
Tesla’s Rocky Start with the Roadster
Although the Roadster made its debut in 2006, general production didn’t actually begin until 2008, which was a rough year for Musk. Amidst a divorce and SpaceX quickly running out of money, Tesla was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Tesla co-founder and CEO Martin Eberhard’s operating on idealistic promises and unrealistic timelines had nearly bled the company dry. In 2007 he was fired and Musk took over as CEO. By 2008, Elon was out of cash. He’d invested all of his money into his companies to save them for as long as he could. Musk told 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley, “I remember waking up the Sunday before Christmas in 2008 and thinking to myself, ‘Man, I never thought I was someone who could ever be capable of a nervous breakdown.’ I felt this is the closest I’ve ever come. Because it seemed pretty, pretty dark.”
Then the Christmas miracle happened. SpaceX received funding from NASA and Tesla’s investors pulled through. Reflecting back on this moment years later, Musk tweeted, “That funding round completed 6pm on Christmas Eve in 2008. Last hour of last day possible, as investors were leaving town that night & we were 3 days away from bankruptcy. I put in all money I had, didn’t own a house & had to borrow money from friends to pay rent. Difficult time.”
Telsa produced the first generation of Roadsters from 2008 to 2012, with around 2,500 units made. In July 2009, the business finally turned a profit after shipping out 109 Roadsters that month.
Other Tesla Models
Since the Roadster debacle, Tesla has produced the Model S, Model 3, Model X, Model, and Model Y. In 2013, the Model S was the first electric car to ever win Motor Trend’s “Ultimate Car of the Year.” The Model 3, another production nightmare for Musk, launched in 2019 after significant delays. Nevertheless, critics widely revere the Model 3 as an affordable, safe, luxury vehicle. In 2020, it became the world’s highest-selling plug-in electric car.
The Model X is Tesla’s SUV offering. It won the Golden Steering Wheel and various other awards from 2015 to 2017 for being one of the world’s top green vehicles. The Model Y is Tesla’s latest launch, starting production in 2020. It’s a compact crossover SUV based on the Model 3 platform. Evannex, a company that sells Tesla accessories, says it is now the top-selling model with 7 out of every 10 sales being a Model Y. Other models slated for the future include the Tesla Semi, Cybertruck, and Roadster.
In 2016, Tesla acquired SolarCity, a solar energy production company, for $2.6 billion. The business deal is part of Musk’s “Master Plan Part Deux” for Tesla. He explains in the post that providing solar power was always a part of his vision for Tesla. The acquisition allows him to “Create a smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works, empowering the individual as their own utility, and then scale that throughout the world.” The move gets the company one step closer to making this feat a reality.
Shareholders brought a lawsuit against Musk for purchasing SolarCity. Many felt the acquisition was nothing more than a bailout. Two of his cousins were the company’s founders and Elon was the largest shareholder. When acquired, SolarCity was actually losing money. The complaint states that Musk and the Tesla board failed shareholders by breaching their fiduciary duties. The lawsuit settled in 2020 for $60 million.
Despite lawsuit settlements and the fact that the company nearly failed between 2017 and 2019 as Musk ramped up production for the Model 3, it’s safe to say Tesla’s currently on an upward trajectory. In 2020, Tesla surpassed Toyota as the world’s most valuable car company. According to CNN Business, over the past year, the company’s stock rose 743 percent. The business joined the S&P 500 in December 2020, causing its stock prices to surge even more. During the first week of 2021, the company’s stock price rose 24.7 percent.
The Boring Company (TBC)
In 2016, Elon Musk announced his infrastructure company that builds underground tunnels designed for faster and more efficient transportation. Musk’s inspiration for the company came from experiencing traffic Los Angeles traffic. “That’s the thing about tunnels—you can go 3D. So, you can go many levels . . . You could have 100 levels of tunnel, no problems . . . The fundamental issue with roads is that you have a 2D transport system and a 3D living and workspace environment . . . You’re going to have traffic guaranteed,” he told Joe Rogan in an interview.
Each project builds “loops.” As described on The Boring Company website a “Loop is an all-electric, zero-emissions, high-speed underground public transportation system in which passengers are transported via compatible Autonomous Electric Vehicles (AEVs) at up to 150 miles per hour through Main Artery Tunnels between stations. AEVs are Tesla vehicles (Model S, 3, and X) that operate autonomously within the Loop system.”
The Boring Company currently has projects in Hawthorne, California, Las Vegas, Nevada, Los Angeles, California, and the East Coast (Washington D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland). TBC also won a bid to create a high-speed transportation tunnel that takes people from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago.
Elon Musk, Sam Altman, Ilya Sutskever, and Greg Brockman founded OpenAI, a capped-profit company, in 2015. As described on their website, the business launched for “research and deployment” purposes that ensure artificial general intelligence (AGI) “benefits all of humanity.” It is no wonder Musk invested in this type of organization. On numerous occasions, he’s warned the public about the potential deadly outcomes of AI. When sharing a few insightful reads about AI development on Twitter, he added, “We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” He also told CNBC correspondent Kelly Evans, “I like to just keep an eye on what’s going on with artificial intelligence. I think there is a potential dangerous outcome there.”
The top goal of the company is developing and distributing safely developed AGI. MIT Technology Review explains the importance of this endeavor in an article. As they state, “By extrapolation, AGI could be catastrophic without the careful guidance of a benevolent shepherd. OpenAI wants to be that shepherd, and it has carefully crafted its image to fit the bill.”
In 2018, OpenAI shared in a blog post that Musk had left the board. The company announced, “Elon Musk will depart the OpenAI Board but will continue to donate and advise the organization. As Tesla continues to become more focused on AI, this will eliminate a potential future conflict for Elon.”
Neuralink is a neurotechnology company founded in 2016 by Musk and eight co-founders. As described on the Neuralink website, the company’s mission is “creating the future of brain interfaces: building devices now that will help people with paralysis and inventing new technologies that will expand our abilities, our community, and our world.”
Elon Musk has a grand vision of what Neuralink can do for human civilization. In 2020, he revealed Neuralink’s first brain implant prototype that helps paralyzed individuals operate robotic limbs and smartphones using their minds. In a live demonstration showing the device working on a pig, he stated that the implant’s correction or alteration of electrical signals made by neurons in the brain can “solve everything from memory loss, hearing loss, blindness, paralysis depression, insomnia, extreme pain, seizures, anxiety, addiction, strokes, brain damage.”
Musk also fears AI could be used for evil or overtake the human race if there isn’t a means to keep up. For this reason, Musk feels human intelligence and machine intelligence need to merge together. This would be done through what he calls “neural lace”—small threads embedded into a person’s brain by a neurosurgical robot. As of January 2021, clinical trials on humans are yet to begin.
Neuralink has received mixed reviews by researchers, scientists, and the public. Some feel Musk is being too speculative in terms of what the device can accomplish. There are also serious concerns regarding regulation, ethics, surveillance, long-term well being, and safety. On the other hand, the company promises life-changing innovations for conditions such as paraplegia, tetraplegia, blindness, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Elon Musk’s Nationality
Elon Musk is a citizen of three countries: South Africa, Canada, and the United States. His mother is Canadian, and he obtained Canadian citizenship when he moved there in 1989. He became a U.S. citizen in 2002.
Relationships and Children
Many people are surprised to know Elon Musk is the father of seven sons: X Æ A-Xii, Nevada Alexander Musk, Griffin Musk, Kai Musk, Damian Musk, Saxon Musk, and Xavier Musk. His firstborn, Nevada, passed away from SIDS at only 10-weeks-old. He had Griffin, Xavier, Damian, Saxon, and Kai with his ex-wife Justine Musk. On May 4, 2020, Musk and Claire Boucher (professionally known as Grimes or c) welcomed a baby boy they named X Æ A-Xii. He’s married on three different occasions, but two of those were to the same person, actress Talulah Riley.
Elon Musk is one of the world’s most innovative entrepreneurs, but he isn’t a saint. Some of his greatest controversial moments include smoking marijuana with Joe Rogan during a media appearance, using his Twitter account to hint he was taking Tesla private, and accusing Tham Luang cave rescuer Vern Unsworth of pedophilia. These actions resulted in serious drops in Tesla stock prices and caused the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to investigate and charge Musk with fraud, embroiling him in legal battles.
Philanthropy and Donations
In 2002, Musk founded the Musk Foundation, which has been his primary vehicle for charitable gifts. In total, he has donated around $257 million to his foundation toward supporting education, sustainability, interplanetary exploration, STEM studies, and AI safety research and development. He also signed The Giving Pledge. As described on the website, it is: “An open invitation for billionaires, or those who would be if not for their giving, to publicly commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.”
He shared on Twitter that he’s sold over $100 million of his Tesla stocks to fund his charity. “Will do about that every few years. Major disbursements in about 20 years when Tesla is steady state,” he explained. Nevertheless, this is only a small fraction of Musk’s estimated 202 billion-dollar fortune and he’s open to options on how to give more money away. He recently told his social media followers, “Btw, critical feedback is always super appreciated, as well as ways to donate money that really make a difference (way harder than it seems).”
What Does the Future Have in Store for Elon Musk?
It’s paradoxical that the world-famous billionaire doesn’t seem to be driven by money.
Since PayPal sold, Musk’s energy goes toward solving what he believes to be humanity’s greatest problems. In an interview with Y Combinator he defines these as “making life multi-planetary, accelerating the transmission to sustainable energy, the Internet broadly speaking, and then genetics, and AI.” It’s likely he’ll continue problem-solving and making calculated, yet risky, innovative moves in these five areas.
At the top of Musk’s priority list is establishing a colony on Mars. His goal is to land humans there with Starship in 2026. By 2050, his goal is for around 1 million people to live on Mars. Before he does this, though, he plans to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to the moon in 2023.
As far as his plans for Tesla, Musk outlined his goals in a company blog: “Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage. Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments. Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning. Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it.” The business is also still scaling by building new Tesla Gigafactories outside Austin, Texas, and in Brandenburg, Germany.
While no one can predict exactly what the future holds for Elon Musk, one thing is certain—wherever else he goes, he’s sure to continue making history.