Visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk is the cofounder of PayPal (PYPL) and Tesla Motors (TSLA), as well as the founder of SpaceX. His astounding success has given rise to comparisons to Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates. Amid 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.
On Sept. 7, 2018, Musk appeared to be smoking marijuana while interviewing 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, including a shareholder lawsuit against Musk and the company for his infamous tweet on Aug. 7, 2018. Musk had tweeted that he is considering taking Tesla private. The company later decided against the move.
Despite these incidents, Tesla’s stock has only continued to climb higher under Musk’s leadership, increasing his wealth with it. In January 2018, Tesla announced a compensation structure in which Musk would not receive an annual salary but would instead earn cash based on the increasing market caps that the company hoped to achieve over the next 10 years. As of Jan. 26, 2021, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, he has an estimated total net worth of $209 billion, surpassing Jeff Bezos as the richest person in the world.
We look at the early life and education of the man behind a string of companies that have disrupted multiple industries.
- Elon Musk is the charismatic founder and CEO of electric car maker Tesla, as well as SpaceX and The Boring Company.
- 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.
Family Background and Youth in South Africa
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 was a model and nutritionist. He is the oldest of three children in an ambitious family. 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 when he was a child, Musk lived primarily with his father. Musk started school a year early, attending the private Waterkloof House Preparatory School and later graduating from Pretoria Boys High School. He read voraciously and was also an avid fan of comics. Self-described as a bookworm and something of a smart aleck, he was bullied in school and withdrew to his books at the expense of his social life.
Bullied as a Child
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 English-speaking Waterkloof House Preparatory School 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.
Moving to Canada
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.
Musk’s Education in 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 on his thinking.
“(Physics is) a good framework for thinking,” he would say later. “Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there.”