How billionaire Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk went from getting bullied as a child to becoming one of the most successful and controversial men in tech

  • Elon Musk has had a tumultuous yet successful life. 
  • He was bullied as a child but ultimately attended an Ivy League university before going on to become the CEO of two companies, Tesla and SpaceX, and the founder of three more.
  • He's also been married three times and has triplets and twins. He just had another baby with his girlfriend, the musician Grimes. 
  • But Musk also courts controversy, especially on Twitter. The tech billionaire has been outspoken about the coronavirus crisis, questioning the severity of the outbreak and urging for business to resume.
  • Now, Musk has hit a new milestone: his net worth has skyrocketed to over $82 billion as Tesla's stock surged.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

It seems like there's nothing Elon Musk can't do. 

As CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, founder of The Boring Company, and cofounder of OpenAI and Neuralink, Musk seems to be everywhere all at once, pushing all kinds of futuristic technologies. He's said he won't be happy until we've escaped Earth and colonized Mars.

Between 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 an inspiration for Marvel's 2008 "Iron Man" film.

But it hasn't always been smooth sailing for Musk. Here's how he went from getting bullied in school to becoming a small-time entrepreneur and eventually the CEO of two major companies that seem like they're straight out of science fiction — and how he almost went broke along the way. 

This is an update to an article originally published in August 2016. Katie Canales contributed to an earlier version of this story. 

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

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 CoverGirl.

Source: The New York Times

After their parents divorced in 1979, the 9-year-old Musk and his younger brother, Kimbal, decided to live with their father. It wasn't until after the move was made that his notoriously 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.

Source: Rolling Stone

In 1983, at the age of 12, Musk sold a simple game called "Blastar" to a computer magazine for $500. Musk described it as "a trivial game … but better than Flappy Bird."

Source: WaitButWhy

Still, Musk's school days weren't easy — he was once hospitalized after being beaten by bullies. The bullies threw Musk down a set of stairs and beat him until he blacked out.

Source: "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future"

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.

Source: Queen's University

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

While studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Musk and a classmate rented out a 10-bedroom frat house and turned it into a nightclub. The move, which Musk undertook with Adeo Ressi, was one of his first entrepreneurial experiments.

Source: Vogue

After graduation, Musk traveled to Stanford University to study for his PhD — but he barely started the program before leaving it. He deferred his admission after only two days in California, deciding to test his luck in the dot-com boom that was just getting underway. He never returned to finish his studies at Stanford.

Source: Forbes

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

Source: Rolling Stone

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 $341 million in cash and stock, earning Musk $22 million.

Source: Stanford

Musk next started X.com, an online banking company. He launched the company in 1999 using $10 million of the money he got from the Zip2 sale. About a year later, X.com merged with Confinity, a financial startup cofounded by Peter Thiel, to form PayPal.

Source: Investopedia

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

Source: Fortune

While Musk was en route to Australia for a much-needed vacation, 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.

Source: Fortune

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 $165 million of the $1.5 billion price eBay paid.

Source: Money

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 founded the company that would be known as Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, with $100 million of the money received from the PayPal sale. Musk's goal was to make spaceflight cheaper by a factor of 10.

Source: Rolling Stone

Another early vehicle was named after the song "Puff the Magic Dragon." The name of the spacecraft, the Dragon, was Musk's jab at skeptics who told him SpaceX would never be able to put vehicles into space.

Source: Elon Musk/Twitter

SpaceX's long-term goal is to make colonizing Mars affordable. Musk has said that SpaceX won't file for an initial public offering until what Musk calls the "Mars Colonial Transporter" is flying regularly.

Source: Forbes

Musk has also been keeping plenty busy here on Earth, particularly with Tesla Motors. In 2004, Musk made the first of what would be $70 million of total investments in Tesla, an electric car company cofounded by veteran startup exec Martin Eberhard.

Source: Wired

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

Source: Business Insider

As if that wasn't enough, Musk came up with the idea for SolarCity, a solar energy company. Musk gave his cousins Peter and Lyndon Rive the working capital to get SolarCity off the ground in 2006. (In late 2016, Tesla bought SolarCity in a $2.6 billion deal.)

Source: VentureBeat, Business Insider

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.

Source: Wired

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

Source: Business Insider

But between SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, Musk nearly went broke. 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 just to survive.

Source: VentureBeat

Musk's personal life was in upheaval too: Musk and his wife Justine, a Canadian author, got divorced in 2008. The couple got married in 2000 — their first son, Nevada, died of SIDS at 10 weeks old (the Musks later went on to have twin and triplet boys).

Source: Marie Claire

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; that divorce was finalized in October.

Source: Vanity Fair

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

Source: Ars Technica

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

Source: Wired

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" movies is at least partially based on Musk. Musk even had a cameo in "Iron Man 2."

Source: Vox

By the end of 2015, SpaceX had made 24 launches on assignments like resupplying the International Space Station, setting lots of records along the way. In 2016, the SpaceX Falcon 9 made the first successful ocean landing of a reusable orbital rocket.

Source: The Verge

The Falcon Heavy, the successor to the Falcon 9 and the most powerful rocket SpaceX has built to date, completed a successful maiden launch in February 2018. The Falcon Heavy carried a unique payload: a dummy dubbed "Starman," and Musk's personal cherry red Tesla Roadster, which were launched toward Martian orbit.

Source: SpaceX, Business Insider

Musk can't stop coming up with new ideas, either, like the Hyperloop. A super-high-speed train that travels in a vacuum tube, the Hyperloop could theoretically transport passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes.

Source: SpaceX, Business Insider

In a similar vein, Musk started another company in 2016 — The Boring Company, which has a mission to dig a network of tunnels under and around cities for high-speed, no-traffic driving.

Source: Business Insider

And in late 2015, Musk cofounded OpenAI, a nonprofit dedicated to researching artificial intelligence and ensuring it doesn't destroy humanity.

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

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

Source: Business Insider

Musk founded one more company, this one in 2017: Neuralink, which is trying to build devices that can be implanted inside the human brain.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Musk started dating "Aquaman" actress Amber Heard, but the two broke up in 2017 after a year of dating. Musk later said in an interview with Rolling Stone that the breakup was very hard on him.

Source: Rolling Stone

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.

Source: Business Insider

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.

Source: Business Insider

Musk ran into some trouble in 2018 when he sent a tweet declaring he was considering taking Tesla private at $420 per share and 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.

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

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

Source: Business Insider

In November 2019, Musk debuted a new Tesla vehicle: the Cybertruck, Tesla'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.

Source: Business Insider, Business Insider

One month later, Musk won a victory in court when a jury ruled he was not guilty of defaming the British diver Vernon Unsworth. Unsworth had filed a defamation lawsuit in 2018 after Musk called him a "pedo guy" on Twitter.

In the summer of 2018, Unsworth took part in the rescue operation of 12 boys and their soccer coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand. Musk had offered his help with the rescue mission in the form of a "minisub," which Unsworth called a "PR stunt," leading Musk to insult him on Twitter. 

Source: Business Insider

Grimes 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.

Source: Business Insider

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. 

Musk has also called US shelter-in-place orders "fascist" and has defied local lockdown orders, reopening the Tesla plant in Fremont, California. "If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me," Musk said in early May. (Local officials later allowed Tesla to reopen its operations.)

Source: Business Insider

 

Despite having a substantial real estate portfolio, Musk recently said that he "will own no house" and would sell almost all of his physical possessions. He has since listed two of his Bel Air homes and five more properties worth over $100 million.

Source: Business Insider, Business Insider

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

Source: Business Insider

Now, thanks to Tesla's stock surging in 2020, Musk is the seventh-richest person in the world with a net worth of $82.2 billion. Musk's wealth has surpassed Larry Page, Larry Ellison, and Sergey Brin, according to Bloomberg's Billionaires Index.

Source: Bloomberg, Business Insider

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