South African- born, billionaire technology and space entrepreneur, Elon Musk, made history at the start of 2021, overtaking Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the richest man on Earth. While his fortune was made on this planet, his dreams to venture to the final frontier remain. FORBES AFRICA takes a look at his journey to becoming one of the world’s most celebrated innovators and one of the wealthiest men alive.
THE MAN WHO FAMOUSLY SAID THAT HE WOULDN’T BE HAPPY UNTIL WE WERE ALL LIVING ON MARS, IS NOW ONE OF THE RICHEST MEN ON EARTH. WHILE ELON MUSK’S PLANS TO BE BURIED IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY REMAIN UNCHANGED, HE’S STILL GOT MUCH TO CELEBRATE IN THE HERE AND NOW.
On January 8 this year, at approximately 11.30AM on the American East Coast, Musk, known for founding some of the world’s most progressive tech companies, along with his unrelenting space-age ambitions, made yet another historical leap.
His net worth soared by $12.5 billion, to $189.7 billion, making him, for a time, the wealthiest person on the planet, according to Forbes, who broke the news. For the first time, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, who had held the top spot for a record four years, came second with a cumulative net worth of $185 billion.
However, in a twist of fate, stock in his electric car company, Tesla, fell by 8%, denting his personal wealth by a hefty $14 billion, overnight. But like the man himself, Musk’s wealth wouldn’t be down for long.
Elon’s aim is to save the planet and he also loves the thought of going to Mars…. I get very excited every step of the way. We all do. Kimbal and Tosca [Elon’s siblings] and I go to the main [SpaceX] launches, we can’t go to all the launches, as he has launched, how many now… 50 rockets? I’m not sure. I lose track. But we go to the main ones, and we are anxious beforehand and excited afterward and we are very proud of him and support him with all this. He just feels that we should be inter-planetary, starting with Mars. Mars seems to be the most friendly [planet], and that is what he would like to explore.-Elon Musk’s mother Maye Musk, in an interview from Los Angeles with FORBES AFRICA last year about her memoir, A Woman Makes A Plan, released by Jonathan Ball Publishers
Days later, with the swift rebound of Tesla shares by 4.7%, he wrestled the top spot from Bezos with an impressive recovery of $7.8 billion bringing his total net worth to $183.8 billion against the Amazon founder’s, marginal, but impressive, $182.4 billion.
At the time of going to press, the yo-yo action continued. Tesla’s stock volatility returned Bezos to the top spot, making him the world’s richest by just $200 million, with Musk making a close second. The game is set to continue for much of the year, but it won’t do much to change the fact that both billionaires are still over $30 billion richer than their nearest competitor; the third person on the list, French luxury tycoon, Bernard Arnault, according to Forbes estimates.
Musk’s dizzying ascent is quite an achievement given that, in 2014, he ranked 47th on the U.S. Rich List, compiled by Forbes, with his personal net worth hovering at the $9.4 billion mark, at contemporary rates.
Notwithstanding his meteoric rise, most studies of Musk begin at SpaceX, his landmark aerospace manufacturing outfit, launched in 2002 with plans to make space travel more affordable and meet its founder’s often parodied mandate to catalyze humanity’s colonization of Mars.
“I’d like to go to Mars. I suppose it depends on how old I am when I get there… But it’s not about me going to Mars. We’re developing new technologies to enable a large number of people to go to Mars and be able to develop a self-sustaining city on Mars,” he told Forbes in 2014.
Inter-planetary ambitions aside, Musk’s ideas often overshadow the story of his origins which are rooted in a very down-to-earth Pretoria suburb, a few miles north of Johannesburg, in South Africa. Born in 1971 to a Canadian mother and a South African father, it was clear that Musk was unique from the start.
“The kind of things he would come up with as a youngster was always surprising. When he was very small, he would ask me, ‘where is the whole world?’, when he was three or four. It was these sorts of questions that made me realize that he was a little different,” his father, Errol Musk, noted in a 2012 interview with FORBES AFRICA.
Eccentricities aside, the young Musk was equally academically gifted.
“We called Elon ‘The Encyclopedia’ because he had read the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Collier’s Encyclopedia, and remembered everything. That’s also why we called him ‘Genius Boy’. We could ask him anything. Remember, this was before the internet. I guess now we would call him ‘The Internet’,” his mother, Maye Musk, recalls in her 2019 autobiography, A Woman Makes a Plan.
Attending Pretoria Boys High School (PBHS), often considered one of the most prestigious schools in South Africa, a teenage Musk kept to himself but found plenty of company in computers. He taught himself how to program using an old manual and eventually sold a space-themed video game that he wrote called Blastar, to a computing magazine in 1984, reportedly for $500, arguably the earliest of his tech ventures.
“My impression is that Elon kept to himself and was relatively quiet and reserved. I believe he was involved with the computer club at school, but otherwise was not really visible in mainstream activities,” Gavin Ehlers, head-boy at PBHS in 1988, the same year Musk graduated, told FORBES AFRICA in 2012.
Yet, despite his remarkable talent and comfortable upbringing, Musk’s childhood was blighted with peculiar challenges. As the shortest, smallest, and smartest kid in the class, he was an easy target for bullies, who tormented him until he was 15 years old.
“I was a late bloomer. So I was the youngest and the smallest kid in class for years and years… The gangs at school would hunt me down – literally hunt me down,” Musk told Rolling Stone magazine in 2017.
At home, things weren’t easier. His parents divorced in 1980.
If somebody else is working 50 hours and you’re working a 100, you’ll get twice as much done in the course of the year as the other company.
The tumult of his early life did much to shape the man that Musk would later become. Even as a youngster, he held strong to his principles. At the time, in apartheid South Africa, mandatory two-year military service was in force for all white males who had completed their secondary school or tertiary- level education. In his objection, Musk said he didn’t prescribe to what the state was doing to its citizens.
“I don’t have an issue with serving in the military per se, but serving in the South African army suppressing black people just didn’t seem like a really good way to spend time,” he explained in the 2007 book, Rocketeers, by Michael Belfiore.
At 17, Musk relocated to Canada to attend university in 1989. After a number of transfers, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, part of the prominent Ivy League in the United States, with a dual degree in Economics and Physics, setting him firmly on the path of a tech entrepreneur. Like all the greats, he dropped out of his Ph.D. program at Stanford, instead of establishing his first startup, against the euphoria of the dot-com boom of the nineties. He founded the company, Zip2, with his younger brother, Kimbal – who has been a keen business partner to Musk throughout his entrepreneurial career – in 1995.
“When my brother and I were starting our first company, instead of getting an apartment we rented a small office and slept on the couch. We were so hard-up we had just one computer so the website was up during the day and I was coding at night. Seven days a week… all the time. I briefly had a girlfriend during that period and in order to be with me she had to sleep at the office,” he said with a smile, during a 2014 Commencement Speech at the University of Southern California (USC).
Hard work is a cornerstone of Musk’s entrepreneurial ethos. His constant refrain to anyone who inquires on his success is to outwork the competition, where possible, to get that all important edge.
“If somebody else is working 50 hours and you’re working a 100, you’ll get twice as much done in the course of the year as the other company,” he told the audience at USC.
Clearly, the hard work has paid off for Musk who joined the five-man centi-billionaires club; all with a net worth over $100 billion, in August 2020.
Members include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and veteran tech titan, Bill Gates.
“Given that as a South African, he has managed to conquer the industry he’s in should be an inspiration to us and to Africa, in general. There are many sides to him… But let us draw inspiration from him because he is a product of the public school system in South Africa.” –Fred Khumalo, author and journalist, South Africa
However, it hasn’t been an easy ride to the top. In 2018, Tesla was in dire straits, the company was struggling to build a viable product and was hemorrhaging cash almost daily. Musk had already sunk a bulk of his early fortune in the business, some of which came from the $165 million sale of his stake in PayPal, the online payments pioneer, after his exit as CEO.
Leading the company during that time took a toll. In a very personal interview with The New York Times, Musk revealed that he was losing sleep and had spent most of his birthday working on the factory floor, where he was also spending most of his days and nights. The work had taken over to the point of almost missing Kimbal’s wedding, where he was the best man. A disheveled Musk admitted that while he regretted the havoc it wreaked on his life, he had no regrets about being so determined to pull Tesla from the brink of collapse.
“The worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint. But from a personal pain standpoint… the worst is yet to come,” he told The New York Times.
Musk’s passion is evident in almost everything he has done, and in every business he has built. After leaving PayPal, and selling his stake in the company, he used a bulk of the $165 million fortune to found the companies that would make his name – SpaceX and Tesla. Any seasoned entrepreneur would have considered the move a risky one but Musk was quite adamant about his ambitions and making them a reality.
“I think there was like literally one week where I actually worked 120 hours and just didn’t leave the factory. I didn’t even go outside,” Musk told American television news magazine program, 60 Minutes, in 2018.
His intense work ethic has not only worked to transform Tesla but has inspired a number of other young entrepreneurs to build the electric car industry and get rich in the process.
For example, William Li, who founded electric car maker, Nio, in 2014, was 12 times richer in 2020 thanks to his shares in the U.S.-listed carmaker.
In fact, he’s now among the world’s 500 richest people, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Chinese entrepreneur, He Xiaopeng, chairman of XPeng Motors, has also seen his wealth jump more than 600%. Overall, fortunes of the handful of people tracked by the Bloomberg index in the electric vehicle industry have gone up by over $140 billion including Musk’s $111 billion surge.
However, far removed from his status on the global billionaire league tables, which have come to form the foundation of his popularity, Musk maintains his very own niche but loyal following, all devoted to his Twitter feed; his preferred mode of communication. Muskians, as they are known, see him as an eclectic superhero figure of the modern age where he is at once a conscientious technology entrepreneur and demi-god.
However, in 2020, following statements made on the impact the Trump administration’s Covid-19 policy responses had on his business, Musk received heavy back- lash from the mainstream and even managed to alienate some of his loyal fans. But all is forgotten now that the South African-born entrepreneur is among the world’s richest men.
While his wealth may be a relentless conversation starter, globally, it’s hard to ignore Musk’s legacy in the business arena. The journey from a quiet, intelligent and passionate young entrepreneur to an influential manufacturing magnate has been driven not just by a belief in hard work but by an ability to settle for dreams beyond the stars.
For generations to come, his place in time will always be confirmed by his commitment to not only conjure up ‘moonshot’ ideas but to actively pursue them; to Mars and back.
–BY MARIE SHABAYA
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