By Rebecca Alexander

This is part 1 of our 3 article series on Elon Musk. In this article, we explore Musk’s intriguing journey from South Africa to the U.S. and his first major successes as an entrepreneur.

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Most people would recognize these words uttered by Neil Armstrong when he first stepped on the moon because this was one of those milestones that pushed the known limits of human boundaries. History is witness to the fact that these breakthroughs have been achieved by visionaries, who not only dreamt of the once impossible but also had the foresight to realize their ideas. One such visionary of our times is Elon Musk. The breadth and scope of his vision are so varied that it is not only transforming multiple industries on Earth but aims to transform Mars into our home! Yes, it does seem like a far-fetched dream and one might wonder what propels his ideas or what his vision is. Read on to find out!


Life as a Nerd:

Born in South Africa, Elon was the eldest child of Model-dietitian Maye and engineer Errol Musk. In an interview with Bloomberg, Elon’s mother Maye describes him as a typical nerd who loved reading and didn’t have many friends. When he ultimately ran out of books, he even started reading the Encyclopedia! Well, no wonder Elon put his analytical skills to work in overcoming his fear of the dark early on in his life. As accepted by Elon, he feared the dark till he read about darkness and found it very silly to be afraid of the dark when he realized that darkness is merely the absence of photons. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only problem he faced in his childhood and the gravity of the situation can be imagined by the adjective that The New York Times used to describe his childhood: ‘excruciating’.

Triumphing with Tech:

In his difficult times, technology provided him the much-needed respite and he learned computer programming by himself, partly because he was ahead of the teachers accessible to him at the time. At 12, he already showed early signs of an entrepreneur when he not only made a computer game BLASTAR – a game about Space Invasion – but also figured out how to sell his game to a magazine for $500.

To Silicon Valley:

Elon left South Africa for Canada at 17 to pursue his undergraduate studies at the Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario while doing odd jobs. Since Elon considered America to be the land of opportunities where great things were possible, he soon moved to the University of Pennsylvania where he chose physics and economics as his majors. Two majors wouldn’t come as a shock if one considers the breadth of his vision that spans industries. Next, he moved to California to pursue his Ph.D. in Applied Physics and Materials Science at Stanford but decided against it because he wanted to go where the “really exciting breakthroughs” were occurring i.e. the Silicon Valley. So, Elon called up his supervisor at Stanford and told him about his plan of starting a company with his brother as he wanted a back-up in case his company didn’t take off.



When Elon’s brother Kimbal moved from Canada to start their company Zip2, Elon had about $2000, no friends and barely enough money for an apartment. Their idea of creating Zip2 was to bring newspapers into the digital age. With yellow pages, a mapping software, and a code he wrote, Elon created the “online yellow pages” while Kimbal worked as the salesperson. Soon, they gained big media houses, like The NY times, Hearst Corporation, and Knight Ridder, as customers. Four years later when Compaq bought Zip2, 28 year old Elon became a millionaire and soon after, the proud owner of a prestigious McLaren F1.

X.com and PayPal:

Max Chafkin, a journalist who has covered Elon several times, claims that Elon was frustrated that his first company hadn’t become as great as he had wanted it to be and he took no time in starting his second company. In Elon’s own words, the goal going into the second company was to create something that would have a profound effect.

For his second innings, he targeted the financial sector, simply because he knew that the financial sector hadn’t seen a lot of innovation on the internet. At the time, money transactions were very slow and even a single transaction could take a couple of weeks because people had to mail cheques. Elon’s x.com was competing against Confinity but the bigger competitor was eBay. So, x.com and Confinity eventually combined to create PayPal with the goal to transform the financial industry.

PayPal soon became the leading payment system in the world, like Elon envisioned. eBay finally acquired PayPal and Elon, the largest shareholder, walked away with $180M as a result of this acquisition.


Miles to Go, Dreams to Realize:

If Elon could retire to his own island with the money he made from Zip2, he could easily buy a chain of islands and retire after the Paypal acquisition, but a quiet retirement plan was never his ultimate goal. Elon’s entrepreneurial journey that started with the software company Zip2, gained momentum with the online payment platform PayPal and continues into the aerospace, energy, transport industries among others. With influence in such diverse industries, his early life lends some insight into what influenced his vision.

Fruitful Seeds:

His affinity for ‘clean’ sustainable electric cars and his dream of getting civilization to Mars can be traced back to one of his childhood reads i.e. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy which taught him to

“take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one.”

For his good framework for thinking, he credits Physics that taught him to “boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there.”

It’s not possible to understand Elon’s vision from the few instances mentioned here but let’s end this article with a line from his recent interview: It’s important to have a future that is inspiring and appealing – a reason to get up in the morning and live – a sense of adventure, something to be excited about the future.

To be continued….

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