Elon Musk: Business Magnate and Visionary

Updated on October 13, 2018
Elon Musk
Elon Musk

Introduction

Elon Musk is one of the top business visionaries of the world, known as a leading figure in the realm of technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is the founder, chief executive officer, and chief technology officer of aerospace company SpaceX and chief executive officer of electric motorcar company Tesla Inc. He has also been active in the field of artificial intelligence through the nonprofit OpenAI and the startup Neuralink. Elon Musk is considered one of the most successful entrepreneurs on the planet and from this position of influence, he became a devoted proponent of space exploration and multi-planetary human settlements.

Born in South Africa and educated at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States, Musk dropped out of a Ph.D. at Stanford University in order to pursue entrepreneurship. From his first business ventures in which he took advantage of the internet boom to provide services in niche markets, he transitioned to a different type of entrepreneurship, focusing on aligning his work with his personal visions regarding the future of humanity. Elon Musk declared that the goal of Tesla, SpaceX, Hyperloop, and SolarCity is to become an active force against global warming by exploring the benefits of sustainable energy. He has also stated repeatedly that he wants to establish a human settlement on Mars to provide humanity with a safety net in case of an existential threat.

Early Life and Education

Elon Reeve Musk was born on June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa, to Errol Musk and Maye Musk. His father is an electromechanical engineer and his mother, who was born in Canada, is a nutritionist and model. He has two younger siblings, Kimbal and Tosca. In 1980, Musk’s parents divorced, and he was raised by his father in Pretoria.

From an early age, Elon Musk was a voracious reader and grew up fascinated by computer programming, learning to code by himself. His talent for both innovation and entrepreneurship became obvious at age 12 when he created a video game and sold it to a local magazine. A precocious child, Musk suffered under the weight of social exclusion at school and was repeatedly bullied. In one incident, he was severely beaten and had to be hospitalized for two weeks.

During his years of formal education in South Africa, Musk decided, against his father’s wishes, to seek a way of moving to the United States, which he believed to be the world’s main hub for innovation and science. In 1989, he got a Canadian passport through his mother and enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, hoping that from Canada he could eventually move to the United States. The move to Canada also allowed him to avoid the mandatory service in the South African military.

While studying at Queen’s University, Musk met and fell in love with fellow student Justine Wilson, who later became a known Canadian novelist. They married in 2000 and had five sons through in vitro fertilization. Musk and Wilson separated in 2008.

In 1992, Elon Musk finally made his way to the United States by transferring to the University of Pennsylvania. He studied economics at the Wharton School and physics at the College of Arts and Sciences, getting two Bachelor’s degree diplomas. In 1995, he moved to California for a Ph.D. at Stanford University but dropped out just days after starting to focus on business opportunities that presented themselves due to the internet boom.

First Successful Ventures

In 1995, Elon Musk began his career in business by founding a software company called Zip2, which developed an online city guide for popular newspapers. In February 1999, Zip2 was acquired by Compaq, and Musk was generously compensated for his share. Just a month later, he began working on his second company, X.com, which focused on developing an online financial service, incorporating e-mail payment. After a year of business, X.com merged with another similar company, Confinity, which had developed its own online payment service, PayPal. The merged company officially took the name PayPal in 2001.

PayPal rapidly turned into Musk’s most remarkable success. The company had a quick and steady growth and was acquired by eBay in October 2002. Musk received his share of $165 million dollars, and this gave him the financial independence he needed to pursue more personal goals.

SpaceX

After the fulminate success of his first companies, space exploration became a predominant element in Elon Musk’s work. Highly influenced by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a science fiction saga in which a galactic empire falls and ushers in a dark age, he has gradually become a fervent supporter of humanity’s transition to a multi-interplanetary species, and of space exploration as a crucial step in securing the survival of the human species against threats that could wipe it out.

Musk started his work in the field of space exploration with the Mars Oasis project, which was meant to send a miniature greenhouse with food crops to Mars. In the fall of 2001, Musk traveled to Moscow to buy a refurbished intercontinental ballistic missile to send to Mars but had troubles negotiating with the Russians and returned without a missile. A second trip to Russia in 2002 was equally unsuccessful, and Musk decided to adopt a different strategy and build rockets instead of buying them. In May 2002, using the money acquired through his previous ventures, he founded SpaceX, originally Space Exploration Technologies, based in Hawthorne, California. Musk is still CEO and CTO of the company.

SpaceX started with manufacturing vehicles for space launch. In the following years, the company designed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets, followed by Dragon, the company’s first spacecraft. In 2006, Musk and his team at SpaceX won a contract with NASA to prepare Falcon 9 and Dragon for cargo transports to the International Space Station. This was followed in 2008 by another contract with NASA, by which SpaceX took the task of launching several flights to the International Space Station and replacing the U.S. Space Shuttle. The same year, Falcon 1 sent a satellite into Earth’s orbit, becoming the first private rocket to achieve such a feat. In May 2012, SpaceX broke another record by becoming the first commercial entity to launch a spacecraft to the International Space Station.

To increase the affordability of space travel after the initial successes of SpaceX, Elon Musk began to explore the possibility of designing reusable rockets even though this was generally considered not feasible. In December 2015, SpaceX achieved a first stage recovery, which marked the first time ever that something like this was achieved. Naturally, the event represented an important step forward in increasing rocket reusability and making space travel more accessible. This first achievement was repeated multiple times afterwards. In February 2018, SpaceX unveiled the 27-engine Falcon Heavy, which is, at the moment, the most powerful operating rocket in the world. For the test launch, the Falcon Heavy had a payload of Musk's cherry-red Tesla Roadster, equipped with cameras to "provide some epic views" for the planned orbit around the sun. Additionally, SpaceX is the largest manufacturer of rocket engines in the world.

According to his declarations, Musk intends to focus in the future on Mars colonization. In June 2016, Musk revealed that he hopes to schedule the first unmanned flight to Mars for 2022 and the first manned flight for 2024. Musk also speaks frequently about his detailed plans for exploring and colonizing Mars, revealing his greatest hope of establishing a significant human colony on Mars by 2040. He declared he wants to die on Mars.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is working on a second generation of launch vehicles and spacecraft that will include a set of massive vehicles specially designed for interplanetary and lunar missions. The new family of rockets will replace the current models.

While working assiduously at SpaceX, Elon Musk did not neglect his personal life. In 2010, the entrepreneur married English actress Talulah Riley, but their marriage turned out to be very tumultuous. The couple went through several separations and reconciliations and their divorce was finalized in late 2016.

Tesla roadster in orbit around the Earth.
Tesla roadster in orbit around the Earth.

Tesla Inc.

In 2003, Elon Musk co-founded Tesla Motors, named after the 20th century electrical inventor Nikola Tesla. The goal of the electric car company is to become a front-runner in the world’s transition to sustainable energy. The company was later renamed Tesla Inc. Musk supervised the detailed signs of Tesla’s first product, the Roadster sports car. From 2008 until the present, Elon Musk has been CEO and lead product designer at Tesla.

In 2008, Tesla Inc. released the Tesla Roadster to the market and four years later, the company began selling a Model S sedan. A third car, the Model X SUV, was launched in September 2015. In 2017, Tesla released its first affordable mass-market electric car, Model 3.

Besides its original models, Tesla Inc. also produces electric powertrain systems and components for other companies. Musk believes this will help auto manufacturers in producing their own inexpensive electric vehicles as they would no longer need to build the products from scratch. Additionally, Musk announced in 2014 that Tesla Inc. would allow anyone to use its patents in an attempt to motivate car producers to focus on electric cars.

In September of 2018 Musk was nearly removed from his position as CEO of Tesla by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) due to his reckless tweets. On August 7, Musk released a bombshell tweet: "Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured." Not only did the tweet drive up the sagging stock price, it also caught the eye of the SEC. As part of a late September deal with the SEC, Musk agreed to step down as chairman of Tesla for three years. He was able to retain his title of CEO; however, both he and the company were fined $20 million dollars by the SEC. Tesla also appointed two independent directors to the board to form a permanent committee to monitor Musk’s public statements.

Tesla model S.
Tesla model S.

SolarCity and Hyperloop

In 2006, Elon Musk’s cousins, Lyndon and Peter Rive, co-founded SolarCity while Musk outlined the concept of the company. SolarCity has experienced constant growth and quickly became one of the largest providers of solar power technology in the United States. In June 2014, Musk decided to build a massive SolarCity factory in Buffalo, New York. The Tesla Gigafactory 2 has been in operation since 2017 and may be the first in a series of similar facilities, according to Musk. SolarCity was eventually acquired by Tesla and is now a subsidiary of Tesla.

Elon Musk has also shown an interest in public transport, and in 2013, he developed a first design for a high-speed mode of transport meant to be built in California. Teams of engineers from SpaceX and Tesla further developed Musk’s concept and created the first designs, which revealed that if the project proves feasible from a financial and technological perspective, Hyperloop has the potential to become the cheapest mode of transportation for long distances. In Musk’s vision, Hyperloop passengers would sit inside an aluminum pod and travel through an evacuated tube at up to 800 miles per hour. Musk was criticized for several comments he made regarding public transportation, in which he called it a highly unpleasant way to move around because it means sharing space with strangers. He underpinned the comforts of independent transport, which his critics view as frivolous in the context of global warming.

Hyperlook proto-type tube.
Hyperlook proto-type tube.

Artificial Intelligence

Elon Musk has often warned against the risks of artificial intelligence (AI), which he considers a significant threat for the human species. He believes that corporations may amass excessive power by using AI to increase their profits and that governments may use AI to oppress citizens. He repeatedly expressed his desire for regulations in the field. Despite these claims, in 2015, Musk took part in the development of a not-for-profit artificial intelligence research company called OpenAI, which aims at researching and popularizing the positive aspects of AI. In 2018, as artificial intelligence became a focus within Tesla Inc., Elon Musk left OpenAI to avoid a possible conflict of interest in the future.

Elon Musk’s ambivalent views on artificial intelligence led him to co-found Neuralink in 2016. The neuro-technology startup company has as its goal the creation of devices that could link the human brain to technology and thus provide it with several enhancements. Musk revealed that the purpose of Neuralink is to create direct mind-computer links though implants of technological devices. Musk told a crowd at the World Government Summit in Dubai, “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”

Musk has also invested in two other artificial intelligence companies, DeepMind and Vicarious. Vicarious is a company with the goal of building a computer that can think like a person, with a neural network capable of replicating the part of the brain that controls vision, body movement, and language. To explain why he chose to get deeply involved in the field of AI although he had repeatedly expressed his reluctance towards it, Musk declared that he likes to keep in touch with technological advancements just in case. Many accused Musk of sabotaging AI research funding by talking about the field as an existential threat to humanity.

Along with his many other responsibilities, Elon Musk is also the chairman of the Musk Foundation, which provides solar-power energy systems to areas devastated by natural disasters. So far, the foundation has helped a community from Alabama affected by a hurricane and another one from Sōma, Japan, affected by a tsunami. Musk has also made other generous donations for research projects. He is a supporter of universal basic income and direct democracy.

Elon Musk’s hard work and visionary leadership has paid off as Forbes magazine estimates his net worth is in excess of $20 billion.

References

All Our Patent Belong To You. Tesla Motors. Accessed October 2, 2018.

Actor Talulah Riley files to divorce billionaire Elon Musk, again. March 21, 2016. The Guardian. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Bryanston High School saddened by Elon Musk bullying. July 23, 2017. News24.com. Accessed October 2, 2018.

Elon Musk Donates Solar Power Project to Soma City in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. BusinessWire.com. Accessed October 2, 2018.

Elon Musk puts his case for a multi-planet civilization. September 30, 2014. Aeon. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Elon Musk's mission to Mars. July 17, 2013. The Guardian. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Elon Musk launches Neuralink, a venture to merge the human brain with AI. March 27, 2017. The Verge. Accessed October 2, 2018.

Elon Musk: Artificial intelligence is our biggest existential threat. October 27, 2014. The Guardian. Accessed October 2, 2018.

Iron Man, Growing up in South Africa. February 7, 2013. Fresh Dialogues. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Revealed: Elon Musk Explains the Hyperloop, the Solar-Powered High-Speed Future of Inter-City Transportation. Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Accessed October 2, 2018.

Rocket Man: The otherworldly ambitions of Elon Musk. April 11, 2014. San Jose Mercury News. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Elon Musk Biography. Biography.com. Accessed October 7, 2018.

De La Garza, Alejandro. “Settled Elon Musk Securities – Fraud Charges.” Time. October 15, 2018.

Questions & Answers

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      • Ken Burgess profile image

        Ken Burgess 

        3 weeks ago from Florida

        Doug,

        Musk is a different breed, in line with Steve Jobs, but with a projection ability on a massive scale, one that will take a generation to reach its true fruition.

        Musk envisions the future, and Musk is making the future, it is quite incredible, and alarming when you put all the pieces together.

        Space X Satellite Internet, Neurolink, Maxwell, Autopilot, etc. etc.

        Musk has his own satellites in space, providing global communication, 85% of Tesla vehicle components are built in house, soon to be added to that will be its batteries, Tesla has its own software, its infrastructure of recharge stations, etc. etc.

        The biggest issue with Tesla is that Musk isn't driven by profit, he is driven by a very large and truly life altering vision to change how the world works, and he is well on his way to accomplishing it despite overwhelming odds.

        Even as recent as 2017, failure of such a grand vision seemed likely... not so today. With the Giga factory in China, with the acquisition of Maxwell, with the continued success of Space X, it is beginning to look very possible.

        In comparison, Ma has no vision. He talks about people only working 3 days a week, 4 hours a day, without grasping how technology in ten years will transform our way of life.

        An excerpt... when Ma spoke, it was always tough to listen to.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHGd6LqAVzw

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        4 weeks ago from Missouri

        Ken:

        I missed the the interview with Musk and Ma. I saw a little blurb about it on the business channel. I am surprised that Ma showed a lack of understanding.

      • profile image

        Erudite Scholar 

        4 weeks ago

        Hey Doug,

        I am a tech enthusiast and expert. I love AI and use it every day. However, I am concerned about the technology Singularity that might be caused by rapid advancement of AI.

        This is a very interesting bio on Elon Musk. I love the fact that he is a visionary but I am concerned about his views on AI.

      • Ken Burgess profile image

        Ken Burgess 

        4 weeks ago from Florida

        Doug,

        Yes Musk is a man who sees the "big picture", I watched Elon and Jack Ma discuss things at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference, and it was disturbing that such a prominent individual like Ma could seem so clueless.

        It was like watching Einstein trying to explain things to Forest Gump. It was clear Ma had no clue how fast technology is evolving and how in turn it is evolving humanity, and how important it is that we do evolve.

        It also seemed to go right over Ma's head the necessity of our colonizing Mars. We have clear evidence that humanity was nearly wiped out 12,000 years ago, a civilization that was at least as capable as humans in the 1900s were, with barely any evidence they were here. This can happen at any time to us today, its a big universe and there is a lot more that we don't know about it than we do. Musk understands this, and his hope to continue humanities consciousness by moving beyond Earth should be one of the highest goals humans have on Earth today, yet it went right over Ma's head.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        5 weeks ago from Missouri

        Ken:

        Musk is a true visionary with a a lot of irons in the fire. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next. He is not in the news as much since his Twitter account has gone quiet.

      • Ken Burgess profile image

        Ken Burgess 

        5 weeks ago from Florida

        Good article. Visionary is probably one of the best words you can use to describe him.

        He has the ability to project out and see how AI, renewable energy & battery storage, EVs and neural linking to a global cloud will all work together. And he is actively pioneering advancements into all.

        His detractors lack that vision, or want to focus on the production of one or two components (IE - Tesla production, delivery, upgrades over the internet, autonomous driving is setting the bar and changing the auto industry).

      • Natalie Frank profile image

        Natalie Frank 

        12 months ago from Chicago, IL

        Thanks for the comprehensive bio on Elon Musk. I was aware of Space X but didnt know much about him specifically.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        12 months ago from Missouri

        Nicholas:

        Very true. For high profile people, their words can have big consequences.

      • chika-nicholas profile image

        Nicholas Ibemere 

        12 months ago from Lagos,Nigeria

        Elon Musk is a smart entrepreneur.He just needs to work on his social media management.Either he deletes his social media accounts or outsource those resources to some public relations firm.This advice is also for entrepreneurs.

        We need to work on our social media management.Whether we like it or not,they are here to stay,and can make or mar one's career.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        12 months ago from Missouri

        Mary:

        No doubt that Musk is a maverick. It would probably do him so good to delete his Twitter account. Like Trump, it keeps getting him in hot water.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        12 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        Elon Musk keeps pushing what can be achieved in several areas and he is to be admired for this. He seems not to shy away from controversy and very much driven as a person. I hope Tesla will be able to recover from the recent controversy.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        12 months ago from Missouri

        Tim:

        Thanks. I didn't really know all that much about Musk until I started writing the article. He has accomplished so much and probably more to come.

      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 

        12 months ago from U.S.A.

        Excellent article, Doug. I have just read an article in N.Y Times about Musk, and it pointed out that he is such a hard worker that he sleeps under his desk at night sometimes. Apparently, there were some manufacturing problems at the Tesla plant, and he stayed over night, working on the robots, to fix them.

        He is a visionary who I think has a great innovative mind. I like the fact that he is a fan of Asimov, I am too.

        Great article, Doug. It would be nice to have a colony on Mars in the future.

        Much respect and admiration,

        As always, your article was full of facts, interesting events, and well written.

        Tim

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