Elon Musk at 50: the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire went from getting fired from PayPal, and living in his office, to being one of the world’s most successful and controversial tech CEOs

Tesla billionaire Elon Musk at 50: how he has gone from being bullied at school to running some of the world’s most innovative and highly valued companies. Photo: @elonrmuskk/Instagram

On June 28, 2021, Elon Musk hit another milestone: turning 50.

Over the past five decades, Musk has become the CEO of Tesla, founded SpaceX and The Boring Company, and co-founded OpenAI and Neuralink, all while focused on his long-term goal: escaping Earth and colonising Mars.

In fact, with his space rockets, electric cars, solar batteries and the billions he’s made along the way, Musk is basically a real-life Tony Stark – which is why he served as inspiration for Marvel’s 2008 Iron Man.

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SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk arrives at the Axel Springer media awards, in Berlin, Germany in December 2020. Photo: AP

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Musk. He went from getting bullied in school to becoming a small-time entrepreneur, almost going broke, then inciting lawsuits and government scrutiny as his wealth and influence grew. Today, he is one of the most controversial figures in the world of business.

His South African beginnings

Entrepreneur and executive producer Elon Musk attends a screening of Baseball in the Time of Cholera during the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2012, in New York. Photo: AP Photo

Elon Musk was born on June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa.

His father is Errol Musk, a South African engineer, pilot, sailor and property developer.

Musk’s mother, Maye, is a professional dietitian and model. She has appeared on boxes of Special K cereal and the cover of Time magazine. In 2017, at the age of 69, she landed a contract with cosmetic company CoverGirl.
Maye Musk prepares for the Red Dress 2018 Collection Fashion Show at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York in February 2018. Photo: Shutterstock

After their parents divorced in 1979, nine-year-old Elon and his younger brother, Kimbal, decided to live with their father. It wasn’t until after the move that Musk’s now notorious troubled relationship with his dad began to emerge. “It was not a good idea,” Musk said in a Rolling Stone interview about moving in with his father.

Meet the Musks: Kimbal, Tosca, Maye and Elon. Photo: @mayemusk/Instagram

In 1983, at the age of 12, Musk sold a simple game called Blastar to a computer magazine for US$500. Musk has been widely quoted as describing it as “a trivial game ... but better than Flappy Bird”.

Still, Musk’s school days weren’t easy – he was once hospitalised after being attacked by bullies who threw him down a set of stairs and beat him until he blacked out.

After graduating from high school, Musk moved to Canada with his mother Maye, his sister Tosca, and his brother Kimbal, and spent two years studying at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

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Degrees earned – and given up

Graduates from Elon Musk’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, watch 2020’s virtual graduation ceremony from a campus lawn. Photo: The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Musk finished his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in physics and economics.

While there, Musk and a classmate, Adeo Ressi, once rented out a 10-bedroom frat house and turned it into a nightclub – one of his first entrepreneurial experiments.

After graduating, Musk moved to Stanford University for his PhD – but he barely started the programme before leaving it. He deferred his admission after only two days in California, deciding to try his luck in the dot-com boom that was just getting under way. He never returned to finish his studies at Stanford.

Part of the Stanford University campus with the distinctive Hoover Tower in the background. Elon Musk began his PhD here but lasted only two days, opting to try his luck in the dot-com boom. Photo: AP Photo

Early dot-com ventures

Kimbal Musk, co-founder of The Kitchen Community, speaks during the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, in May 2016. Photo: Bloomberg

With his brother Kimbal, Musk launched Zip2. A cluster of Silicon Valley investors helped fund the company, which provided city travel guides to newspapers like The New York Times and Chicago Tribune.

While Zip2 got off the ground, Musk literally lived in the office and showered at a local YMCA. The hard work paid off when Compaq bought Zip2 in a deal worth US$341 million in cash and stock, earning Musk US$22 million.

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Musk next started, an online banking company. He launched the company in 1999 using US$10 million of the money he got from the Zip2 sale. About a year later, merged with Confinity, a financial start-up co-founded by Peter Thiel, to form PayPal.

Musk was named the CEO of newly minted PayPal – but that wouldn’t last long. In October 2000, he started a huge fight among the PayPal co-founders by pushing for them to move its servers from the free Unix operating system to Microsoft Windows. PayPal co-founder and then CTO Max Levchin pushed back, hard.

The PayPal app logo seen on a mobile phone in October 2017. Photo: Reuters
While Musk was en route to Australia for a much-needed holiday, PayPal’s board fired him and made Thiel the new CEO. “That’s the problem with vacations,” Musk told Fortune years later about his ill-fated trip in late 2000.

But things worked out for Musk – he made another windfall when eBay bought PayPal in late 2002. As PayPal’s single biggest shareholder, he netted US$165 million of the US$1.5 billion eBay paid.

Even before the PayPal sale, Musk was dreaming up his next move, including a wild plan to send mice or plants to Mars. In early 2002, Musk put up US$100 million to found the company that would be known as Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. Musk’s stated goal was to make space flight cheaper by a factor of 10.

Joining Tesla

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk reveals a Tesla Energy battery for businesses and utility companies during an event in Hawthorne, California, in April 2015. Photo: Reuters

Musk has also been keeping busy pushing progress here on Earth, particularly with Tesla Motors. In 2004, Musk made the first of what would be US$70 million of total investments in the electric car company co-founded by veteran start-up exec Martin Eberhard.

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Musk took an active product role at Tesla, helping develop its first car, the Roadster. The all-electric model debuted in 2006, when Musk was serving as Tesla’s chairman. He’s now also its CEO.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk unveils the company’s newest products in April 2015. Photo: AP Photo

In 2007, Musk staged a boardroom coup at Tesla, first ousting Eberhard from his CEO seat, and then from the company’s board and executive suites entirely.

In 2008, with the financial crisis seriously limiting his options, Musk personally saved Tesla from bankruptcy. Musk invested US$40 million in Tesla and loaned the company US$40 million more. Not coincidentally, he was named the company’s CEO the same year.

Tesla Motors chairman and CEO Elon Musk speaks at the unveiling of the new Tesla Model S all-electric sedan, in Hawthorne, California, in March 2009. Photo: AFP Photo

But between SpaceX, Tesla and another venture, SolarCity, Musk nearly went broke. According to various media, he describes 2008 as “the worst year of my life”. Tesla kept losing money, and SpaceX was having trouble launching its Falcon 1 rocket. By 2009, Musk was living off personal loans.

Family life

Elon Musk and Talulah Riley. Photo: @Who_is_Famous/Twitter

Musk’s love life was in upheaval too: he divorced his wife Justine, a Canadian author, in 2008. The couple had got married in 2000. Their first son – Nevada – died of SIDS at 10 weeks old, but they went on to have twins and triplets, all boys.

Musk started dating actress Talulah Riley later that year. They went on to get married in 2010, then divorced in 2012. In July 2013, they remarried. In December 2014, Musk filed for a divorce but withdrew the paperwork. In March 2016, Riley filed for divorce, which was finalised that October.

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Changing fortunes

At Christmas 2008, Musk got two pieces of good news: SpaceX had landed a US$1.5 billion contract with Nasa to deliver supplies into space, and Tesla had finally found more outside investors.

The test version of the Starship Hopper, awaits its first flight test in Texas in January 2019. The prototype was built in Boca Chica, along the Gulf coast of Texas. Photo: AFP

By June 2010, Tesla held a successful initial public offering. The company raised US$226 million, becoming the first car company to go public since Ford in 1956. To get his finances back on track, Musk sold shares worth about US$15 million in the offering.

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Musk’s extraordinary career was starting to get noticed in other circles too, most notably in Hollywood. Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in the Iron Man films is at least partially based on Musk. He even had a cameo in Iron Man 2 (2010).

Elon Musk with Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. In Iron Man 2. Photo: Disney

SpaceX racks up successes

Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla, speaks during an unveiling event for The Boring Company’s Hawthorne test tunnel, south of Los Angeles, California, in December 2018. Photo: AFP

By the end of 2015, SpaceX had made 24 launches on assignments such as resupplying the International Space Station, setting lots of records along the way. In 2016, the SpaceX Falcon 9 achieved an especially important goal: making the first successful ocean landing of a reusable orbital rocket.

In late 2015, Musk co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit dedicated to researching artificial intelligence and ensuring it doesn’t destroy humanity.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, speaks during a South by Southwest 2018 session in Austin. Photo: The Austin American-Statesman/TNS

Musk has expressed concern that the race for better AI could end up sparking a third world war.

In February 2018, Musk announced he was stepping down from the board of OpenAI to avoid any potential conflicts of interest with Tesla, which has made strides into artificial intelligence for its self-driving car technology.

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After a year of dating Aquaman actress Amber Heard, the two broke up in 2017. Musk later said in an interview with Rolling Stone that the break-up was very hard on him.
Elon Musk at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in February 2017, in Beverly Hills, and actress Amber Heard at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards in November 2016, in Los Angeles. Photos: AP
The year was a bit rocky from a political standpoint as well. Musk joined president Trump’s business advisory council, a move which caused a huge public backlash. He initially defended the move, but he quit after Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Musk said he tried to convince Trump not to withdraw.
Elon Musk of Space X listens as then US president Donald Trump speaks during a breakfast and listening session with key business leaders in January 2017 in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Photo: CNP/Abaca Press
In the spring of 2018, there was a new development in Musk’s personal life – he and the musician Grimes struck up a relationship. They reportedly hit it off after they both made the same nerdy joke about artificial intelligence.
Elon Musk and Grimes attend the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in May 2018, in New York City. Photo: WireImage

SEC vs Musk

Musk ran into trouble in 2018 when he sent a tweet declaring he was considering taking Tesla private at US$420 per share and that he had already secured funding. Just a few days later, the SEC sent Tesla subpoenas about the company’s plans to go private and Musk’s comments.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk walks next to a screen showing an image of Tesla Model 3 car during an opening ceremony for Tesla’s China-made Model Y programme in Shanghai, China, in January 2020. Photo: Reuters

By September, the SEC had formally filed a lawsuit against Musk, accusing him of making “false and misleading statements”. Musk settled with them, which resulted in both he and Tesla paying a US$20 million fine and Musk agreeing to step down as chairman of Tesla’s board.

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Additionally, Tesla was required to appoint a committee to oversee Musk’s communications.

Technology entrepreneur and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Elon Musk arrives to attend the Golden Steering Wheel awards ceremony in November 2019 in Berlin. Photo: DPA

New arrivals

In November 2019, Musk debuted a new Tesla vehicle: the Cybertruck, the company’s first – and very highly anticipated – pickup truck.

Since the unveiling, Musk has been spotted a few times cruising around in the truck, including on a night out to dinner at Nobu with Grimes.

Grimes then dropped a bombshell in January 2020 when she posted a photo of herself where she appeared pregnant. The musician later confirmed that she was expecting a baby with Musk.

Elon Musk’s family photo. Photo: @elonmusk/Twitter

Outspoken on Covid-19

Musk has been outspoken about the coronavirus crisis in the US since early March, when he first tweeted that panic over the virus was “dumb”.

Since then, Musk has gone on to promote a malaria drug as a potential treatment for Covid-19 patients despite a lack of scientific proof, has caused confusion over his promise to deliver ventilators to hospitals, and has promoted misinformation, such as a tweet that said “kids are essentially immune” from the virus.

Soon to be homeless

Despite having a substantial real estate portfolio at the time, Musk said in mid-2020 that he “will own no house” and would sell almost all of his physical possessions. By June 2021, he had reportedly sold at least seven properties on Zillow and was planning to sell his last remaining house.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, speaks during Satellite 2020 at the Washington Convention Centre in March 2020, in Washington. Photo: AFP

On May 4, Grimes gave birth to a baby boy who the couple named X Æ A-Xii Musk, or “X Ash A-12 Musk”.

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Elon Musk with baby son X Æ A-Xii. Photo: @elonmusk/Instagram

2020 milestones

In May 2020, SpaceX partnered with Nasa to complete its first launch of astronauts into space. Then, in November, SpaceX completed its first “operational” human space flight by sending four astronauts to the International Space Station for a six-month stay.

People watch as a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, topped with the Crew Dragon capsule, is launched, carrying four astronauts on the first operational Nasa commercial crew mission from Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida in November 2020. Photo: Reuters

Today, thanks to Tesla’s stock surging in 2020 in line with other tech stocks, Musk is the second-richest person in the world, with a net worth of US$167.1 billion according to Forbes. His wealth surpassed Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and now is second only to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, leaves the Hotel Matignon after a meeting with the French Prime Minister in Paris, in June 2014. Photo: AFP Photo

This article originally appeared on Business Insider

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  • Musk boasts a net worth second only to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, leaping ahead of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates
  • He had a cameo in Marvel’s Iron Man alongside Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr, having inspired Downey’s portrayal of Tony Stark