It’s a long way from Silicon Valley to Detroit. Elon Musk has tried to bridge the cultural gap between the technology industry and the car industry, bringing his experience with the former to the latter. The result is Tesla Motors and the revolutionary Model S electric car. So far, that is.
Getting a startup carmaker onto its feet is no easy task, and neither is building and operating a private space vehicle. Yet Musk has done that too, with SpaceX, the first privately-operated firm to send a vehicle into orbit and recover it.
Yup, he’s a guy whose job is to play with electric cars and rockets.
Whether he’s extolling the virtues of one of his companies’ latest innovations or making legendarily blunt remarks about his competitors, Musk is rarely out of the media spotlight. His leadership of Tesla and SpaceX has also given Musk a reputation for being able to do the impossible, but how did he get where he is today? Who is Elon Musk?
Musk was born in 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa to a Canadian mother and a South African father. His talents began to surface early. As a child he irritated classmates by persistently pointing out minor factual errors, his mother recalled in a Forbes profile, and by age 12 he had sold the code for a video game called Blastar for $500.
In 1988, Musk left South Africa to avoid serving in the South African military. He emigrated to Canada, where he studied economics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. After two years, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in economics and physics. After graduation, Musk moved on to Stanford to continue his scientific studies, but he didn’t stay long.
Setting the stage
As CEO of Tesla and founder of SpaceX, Musk has painted himself as a Silicon Valley-style businessman challenging the traditional methods of two stalwart industries. Before he could do that, he needed to make a name for himself.
The same year he left Stanford, musk founded Zip2 Corporation, a startup that provided software services to the media industry; clients included The New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Compaq then bought Zip2 in 1999 for $307 million, the highest price paid for a tech company up to that point. Musk’s next big product, however, would earn the eternal gratitude (or possibly frustration) of everyone who’s ever bought anything on eBay.
In 1998 Musk’s x.com merged with Confinity, which had by then launched a service called PayPal. Musk helped to develop and market the now well-known payment platform until it was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. At the time, Musk was the company’s largest shareholder.
At this point, Musk’s path started to diverge from that of the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur. While he was still in college, Musk told NPR in 2011 he had pondered what he considered to be two important problems: creating an environmentally-sustainable form of transportation and landing a human on another planet. With PayPal money in hand, he started finding solutions to those problems.
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