Elon Musk Unmasked: Origins of an Oligarch (Part 1)
Elon Musk wasn't always the influential billionaire he is today. To begin our dive into the myth of Musk, we need to go back to his origins — to find out where he came from, what inspired him, and how he became the man he is today. Those details set the foundation for the three episodes to come. This is episode 1 of Elon Musk Unmasked, a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us.
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ELON MUSK: Yeah, I’d like to see a picture of this alleged emerald mine.
I’m guessing by now you’ve come across the tale of the emerald mine. The one Elon Musk once bragged about, but which he now says never existed.
ELON MUSK: He never owned a emerald mine. This is total bullshit.
That’s a clip from a BBC interview Musk gave in April 2023.
But what’s the real story behind the mine? In August 2009, a New Yorker story made with Musk’s cooperation first mentioned that his father had a share in an emerald mine. It wasn’t until almost five years later that The Mercury News reported it had been located near Lake Tanganyika in Zambia after speaking to Musk’s father Errol.
This is where things get really interesting. On July 28, 2014, Forbes published an interview with Elon where he told a fabulous story about his trips to the mine. It went like this:
In South Africa, my father had a private plane we’d fly in incredibly dangerous weather and barely make it back. This is going to sound slightly crazy, but my father also had a share in an Emerald mine in Zambia. I was 15 and really wanted to go with him but didn’t realize how dangerous it was. I couldn’t find my passport so I ended up grabbing my brother’s – which turned out to be six months overdue! So we had this planeload of contraband and an overdue passport from another person. There were AK-47s all over the place and I’m thinking, “Man, this could really go bad.”
It’s hard to know how much of that story was true or false, and less than two months later it disappeared from the web almost entirely. Luckily, it was backed up in the Internet Archive. The journalist who did the interview has since said he’s not sure why it disappeared, but confirmed the interview did happen. From that, there are two things that are very clear: Musk was happy to brag about that part of his childhood — at least for a time — and you can see very clearly why he might also want that story to disappear.
Fast forward to the present, and Musk is now fighting to change the narrative he was once happy to embrace.
ELON MUSK: Do you think something like an emerald mine would have some sort of property register, there’d be like a picture of it? It’s not like you can say, “Oh, that’s my mine.” These things are hotly debated. If you’ve got something valuable, you have to have some property record, like a house. But much more important than a house. And yet there is no property record whatsoever. There is no picture of this mine whatsoever. It doesn’t exist. It’s fake.
That clip is also from the BBC interview. His mother backs her son’s narrative, while his father has given much more detail on the informal mining operation that made the family hundreds of thousands of dollars — and which Musk has claimed to have visited, though you’d never know from what he says today.
But ultimately what matters most about that tale is what it tells us about Elon Musk. Say what you will about him, but he’s a master of weaving tales about himself and his businesses. He likes to say his father can’t be trusted, but the reality is neither can he. Just like with the emerald mine, he commonly changes his story when it suits him.
That’s what we’ll be exploring in this series, along with the serious consequences that arise when we fall for those tales.
This is Elon Musk Unmasked, a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us, assembled by me, Paris Marx. I’ve been hosting this show for three-and-a half years, digging into a ton of critic issues on the tech industry, but we’ve always had a focus on Elon Musk. And even beyond those three-and-a half years, I’ve writing about Musk for many more than that. Some have even called me the left’s leading Muskologist, for all that’s worth. I’ll take it.
To write about Musk, I had to learn a lot about the man and have dug extensively into his history, trying to sift my way through the deceptive narratives and the boosterish retellings of his story. As he’s finally begun his fall from grace over the past year, I felt it was time to present my case for why we need to reassess Elon Musk and his legacy. For far too long, he was let off the hook for the externalities and the abuses of his businesses because he was making electric cars and rockets and whipping up a hysteria in the process.
In this series, I want to give you a different narrative on the man than the one you might have heard in the past and I ask you to consider which story makes more sense. Since most people only know about the past decade of his life at most, we’re going to start with a dive into his history and the experiences and stories that shaped him to set a foundation for some of the deeper issues we’ll be exploring as we track how that socially stunted kid from South Africa became the future-shaping industrialist he is today. In future episodes, we’ll dig into how he built that myth, what his companies are actually up to, and the growing risks of allowing him to accumulate so much political and economic power.
Boosting Elon Musk is proving to have been a terrible mistake, and it’s only from learning the lessons of how that happened that we can take him down from his pedestal and ensure no Great Man (or Woman) every follows in his footsteps again.
This series was made possible by our supporters over on Patreon, and if you learn something from it, I’d ask you to consider joining them at patreon.com/techwontsaveus so we can keep doing this important work.
So, with that said, let’s unmask Elon Musk.
Elon Musk was born on June 28, 1971 to Maye and Errol Musk in Pretoria, South Africa. He was the first of three children; his brother Kimbal was born the following year and Tosca two years after that. The Musks were quite well-off. Ashlee Vance, author of the first official biography about Musk published in 2015, wrote that his family owned one of the biggest houses in Pretoria. But while they may have had money, it seems quite clear their home life wasn’t a blissful existence. In particular, Musk’s father has been described as abusive toward their mother and having verbally denigrated his children. This is a clip from an interview with Musk’s mother.
INTERVIEWER: You said, I would be beaten up. Did you suffer that kind of abuse? MAYE MUSK: Yes. I was beaten up, but the thing is, you know, there was a saying in South Africa: When you get divorced you stop falling in the shower. Because every time you were seen with bruises you said you had a fall in the shower. It was a common saying in South Africa. When I was married, I was told about three times a day that I’m boring and stupid and ugly, and if I protested then I’d be beaten up. So I definitely never protested that.
Musk’s parents divorced in 1980, and he initially went to live with his mother, but later moved back in with his father. He often describes that choice as being the result of manipulation by his father and because he felt bad that his father seemed lonely. But his mother has a different perspective.
MAYE MUSK: Elon went to go live with him at 10 because he had two encyclopedias and then he got a computer. So that’s something I could never afford.
I’ll leave it to you to decide which of those stories sounds more likely for a ten-year old boy. This is also where some of the confusion around Musk’s wealth enters the equation. His mother was not rich, but his father seemed to have a lot more money and described taking them on international trips, buying them nice gifts, and of course giving them emerald money at key moments in their lives.
Elon and his brother Kimbal have spoken on occasion about their father. While Elon acknowledges Errol had an impressive engineering talent and credits him with having set Elon up to succeed in that kind of a field, he’s also admitted that the verbal abuse he experienced growing up with Errol took a heavy toll. Linette Lopez, a Senior Correspondent at Insider who you’ll be hearing from more later in the series, had the following to say.
LINETTE LOPEZ: Elon is easily flattered, because there is a deep dark void in his soul that his dad dug and then left him with which is like, super sad, but he’s very open about it. It’s like an open wound in this man.
Walter Isaacson, whose biography of Musk was published in September 2023, described him as having trouble picking up social cues and lacking empathy toward others — traits that have continued through his life. But while he is estranged from his father, Isaacson also described the many commonalities Elon shares with him. Kimbal told Isaacson that Errol “changes reality around him” and “believes his false reality” — things one could easily see in Elon as well — while Elon’s cousin Peter Rive told the biographer that Elon’s mood swings are a lot like how Errol could quickly turn on someone. There’s no doubt that Elon’s father had a big impact on him — probably much more than he’d care to admit. If you listen to interviews with the two men, you’ll notice they even share the same laugh.
But there’s another detail of Musk’s childhood that can’t be ignored. Elon was born in South Africa, and at the time it was still under an apartheid system that subjugated the country’s Black inhabitants. That’s part of Elon’s history that he really doesn’t talk about. The most he’s likely to say is what he told the actor Rainn Wilson in 2013.
RAINN WILSON: You were in the army there? ELON MUSK: No, I left at 17. In part, in order to avoid conscription into the South African army. RAINN: Oh, so you left so you didn’t have to do the army? ELON: Spending two years suppressing Black people didn’t seem to be a great use of time? RAINN: That’s probably the worst use of anyone’s time. Good for you. Elon Musk!
Okay, well that’s good that he didn’t join the military of an apartheid state. Points to Elon, I guess. But I think there’s much more to delve into there, especially given what he’s been doing and saying over the past year, as he’s been cozying up to white nationalists and far-right influencers.
JOHN ELIGON: The life that someone like Elon Musk would have been surrounded by would be very different than what say, almost all black South Africans would be surrounded by. So at that time, you know, there was a system of apartheid. And what that essentially did was it basically broke up the country into areas where people can live based on their race. So there were places that were restricted, where were non-white people could not go.
That’s John Eligon. He’s the Johannesburg Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Last year, along with his colleague Lyndsey Chutel, he interviewed 13 people who knew Elon Musk in South Africa to find out more about his mysterious childhood.
JOHN ELIGON: In Elon Musk’s world, I mean, he lived in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, which were the affluent parts of town. And in that part of town, you really only see black people who were who were coming there if they were in service of the white residents who live there. So people coming to the gardens, coming to take care of children, those sorts of things, right? And so Elon had access to a world that was very privileged right, that allowed him to go to well funded schools that allowed him to go and shop at malls. There’s the famous story that is told in his in biographical accounts of buying his first computer as a young boy in Sandton City Mall. Now Sandton City Mall is right up the street from where I live now, and it’s accessible to all South Africans. But at the time, black South Africans were not able to go to certain city malls. So he would have been in a very exclusive bubble that would have not had much exposure, if anything at all to the realities that live that people lived in, in black communities.
To outline what life would have been like in South Africa under apartheid for Elon and his family is not to say that they were necessarily supporters of the system. As Elon’s comment about military service suggests, he says he didn’t support apartheid, and his father says something similar. Errol was even elected to Pretoria City Council in the 1970s, and claims it was on an anti-apartheid platform, though that piece hasn’t been confirmed. Eligon spoke to Errol, who told him that despite his opposition to apartheid, he still says things were better in those times — and they certainly were for white people like him. But if he really opposed the system of racial subjugation, he should probably recognize his own comfort should never be worth keeping millions of people violently oppressed so a white minority could thrive. I also asked Eligon to explain what students like Musk would have been taught in school about apartheid.
JOHN ELIGON: What we heard by talking to some of his classmates is that essentially, it was a world where the realities of apartheid and what was happening outside of the walls of their school outside of their communities, was something that just was not, you know, taught in a real significant way. What we were told by at least one of his classmates is that the way that those things were taught, the way that that this anti apartheid struggle was framed, was that these were basically domestic terrorists. And they were actually communist. So it was sort of a proxy battle because at the time Soviet Union did support the anti apartheid struggle. There was one black student I spoke to who was there and he said that the white students at a school were blissfully ignorant. And they were happy to be blissfully ignorant. So in many ways, that ignorance is not something that they can just say, oh, you know, I wasn’t exposed to anything but the ignorance was embraced by the students, by their communities, by their families, right. So there was some active participation in the indifference. It wasn’t just like, you know, they were sitting there, and they had no agency to really educate themselves or to or to learn things, the way some students were able to. There was sort of an ignorance that was that was really wanted and was really accepted.
So, the degree to which Elon was aware of the system of apartheid and what he thought about it is hard to say — because he doesn’t talk about it. But as we’ll see through the course of this series, from how he’s treated Black workers at Tesla to the things he’s been saying and posting over the past year, it’s probably fair to say that some of those ideas from the apartheid era stuck with him.
The white Afrikaner culture in South Africa was a hypermasculine one where strength and traditionally masculine traits were revered. Isaacson opens his biography of Elon with the story of a time he supposedly spent in a wilderness survival camp, or veldskool, at 12 years old where he was beaten up and lost ten pounds, but when he returned just before turning 16, he was bigger and was able to defend himself. Elon was also bullied through school, and he often tells a story of being kicked in the head by a group of boys, pushed down the stairs, then beaten further once he hit the bottom. He had to be brought to the hospital, and even claims to have needed a nose job as a result. Elon told Vance in his 2015 biography, “I was basically hiding from this gang that was fucking hunting me down for God knows fucking why. I think I accidentally bumped this guy at assembly that morning and he’d taken some huge offense at that.” But that doesn’t seem to have been the full story. Errol later retold the story, but included a detail Elon had left out: that the father of the boy who’d attacked him had recently committed suicide, and Musk had made a hurtful comment to the boy about it. Does that justify the attack? Of course not, but once again it shows how Elon will slightly alter the details to make a story more favorable to himself.
Errol said in 2022, “I was a strict father. My word was the law. They learnt from me,” referring to Elon and Kimbal. He took that South Africa masculinity and sought to ingrain it in his children — and he seems to have succeeded, at least with Elon. His wives and the people who’ve worked for him have described how quickly he can turn on them, and how just like his father used to verbally abuse him, he’d dish out some of the same language. Justine Musk, Elon’s first wife, wrote after their divorce that on their wedding night in the year 2000, as they were having their first dance, Elon leaned in close to whisper in her ear. Instead of saying something affectionate to his new bride, he told her, “I am the alpha in this relationship.” She described how a dynamic quickly took hold where he would overrule her and remark on the ways he found her lacking — just like Errol used to do with Maye. “I am your wife,” she told him, “not your employee.” “If you were my employee,” he would reply, “I would fire you.” They divorced in 2008.
Beyond his father, there’s another important figure in Musk’s childhood who seems to have provided some inspiration for him. Joshua Norman Haldeman was his maternal grandfather. Born in Minnesota, he ended up moving to Saskatchewan in Canada where he eventually became an influential chiropractor and was known for being an adventurous spirit who even had his own plane. But he also had some pretty odd politics; ones his grandson would probably be pretty into if he were still around today.
IRA BASEN: If you had to choose one word to describe his politics, I would say libertarian, he just did not like governments.
That’s Ira Basen, a documentary producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. More from him in a minute.
Musk’s grandfather has come up in his biographies. Ashlee Vance wrote that he was “an eccentric and exceptional man and a model for Musk” and mentioned the fact that he had “conservative, antisocialist ideas” in a footnote. Walter Isaacson, similarly, calls him a “daredevil adventurer” who had “quirky conservative populist views.” That developed after he lost his farm in the Great Depression. But both of their retellings leave out some pretty important details to explain why he ultimately uprooted his family from Canada to make the long trip to apartheid South Africa.
The first movement he was involved in was Technocracy Incorporated, led by a man named Howard Scott. Basen made a documentary about the group back in 2021. This is how he described it.
IRA BASEN: It’s really hard to put technocracy on a conventional sort of left-right continuum, because, in some ways, and Howard Scott said this, you know, we make the communists look like the bourgeoisie, right? Because they envisioned a society of such incredible equality, that, like it would make a Bolshevik blush. So there was that element of them. And then, as you say, they were profoundly anti democratic. Essentially, what they would do is, they would determine how much energy it took to make the shirt, right. And they would do that for everything in society. And they would determine how much energy that required, and then they would divide it by the number of people over the age of 25. And they would issue energy certificates, the same amount to everybody. So there’d be no inequality of wealth.
Technocracy had a lot of bold ideas and really believed everyone would be better off if democracy was abolished and the experts were put in charge, but they didn’t get involved in the political system. During World War II, the technocracy movement was even banned in Canada, and in 1940, Joshua Haldeman appeared in city court to face charges for his participation in the movement. When Haldeman had enough of the technocrats, he did a pivot and joined Social Credit, a right-wing political movement particularly popular in Western Canada.
IRA BASEN: Social credit also believed that money as it is defined within Western governments, from a central bank and that kind of thing, was also the root of all evil. And so they came up with an alternate currency idea Their critics called it funny money. It was a mixture of, there was a religious element to it, there was a — I don’t want to say fascist — but I mean, it was a right wing movement.
Basen told me he wasn’t sure to what degree Haldeman really supported the specifics of the programs of those political movements, as they were primarily vehicles for his anti-government sentiments. But it does seem that, like his grandson would later do, he definitely fell down a rabbit hole of conspiracies that melded with some bigoted views he may have already held.
In a story published in The Atlantic in September 2023, Joshua Benton did a deep dive on Haldeman that neither of Musk’s biographers bothered to do. He found that as chairman of the national council of the Social Credit Party of Saskatchewan, Haldeman defended an anti-Semitic head of the party newspaper, claimed Hitler had been installed by “money … supplied by international financiers, many, but not all of them, Jewish,” and defended The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a false screed claiming to show a Jewish plot for global domination. In 1949, he resigned from Social Credit after several failed runs for office, and announced the following year his plans to head to South Africa after talking to an Anglican Minister who recommended it to him.
In that time, the apartheid system was in the process of being built. Central laws that created the forced segregation didn’t come into force until July 1950. Benton describes how a newspaper called Die Transvaler, which a judge ruled was “a tool of the Nazis in South Africa,” wrote an article about Haldeman moving to the country, prompting South African Jews to write to people they knew in Canada to ask if they should be concerned about Haldeman’s arrival. By 1960, he’d written a screed called The International Conspiracy to Establish a World Dictatorship and the Menace to South Africa that predicted “an outside invasion by hordes of Coloured people” who were puppets of a “International Conspiracy,” and which ended with a list of anti-Semitic and fascist reading recommendations.
Ultimately, Haldeman died in a plane crash at the age of 71, when Musk was still a toddler, but the story of his adventurous grandfather was certainly retold to him throughout his childhood. It’s hard to know how much Musk knew about his grandfather’s politics, but as he takes his own conspiratorial turn and amplifies anti-Semitic, white nationalist, and far-right influencers, it’s hard not to see a connection.
I asked Basen what links he saw between the Technocracy movement’s obsession with rule by engineers and Silicon Valley’s veneration of the engineer, and thought he drew a compelling distinction.
IRA BASEN: Technocracy was a an organization that was very engineer focused, but engineers themselves was were really not interested in it. You know, like if you look at like the American Engineering Society and stuff like that all of them denounced technocracy because they thought the idea that they should rule the world was kind of insane. I think that’s different than the kind of arrogance of the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who, you know, basically, their thing is, don’t worry, we got this, you know, leave us alone, we got this whatever problem you have, we can solve, just leave us leave us alone.
There’s no doubt Musk also adheres to that view — that if we just left more decisions to engineers like him and governments and regulators stop getting in his way, we’d all be better off. It’s not at all clear that’s the case, but it is interesting to see how similar views and politics do seem to continue through the generations of the Haldemans and Musks. There is, however, another important source of Musk’s inspirations that pushed him to pursue the companies and projects he does. And that’s science fiction.
As a child, Musk seems to have read a lot. If there’s a positive thing we can say about him, it’s that he does seem to be able to really zone in on a task when he’s in the right headspace. He used that skill to consume a ton of books when he was young, and later when he was learning about cars and rockets and the other things he’s been up to. Think about those encyclopedias his mother cited as a reason he wanted to go live with his father. Musk’s previously told stories about reading the encyclopedia when he ran out of other books. It’s probably worth noting he seems to do a lot less of that since his success really took off. Instead, he tends to assume he knows everything instead of putting in the work of learning about the different industries he decides he absolutely must enter.
Some of the books that have supposedly had the biggest impact on him and his worldview are novels, particularly science fiction. He’s cited “The Lord of the Rings” — admittedly, that one’s fantasy — along with Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”, and, most importantly, Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — a book that basically became a sort of bible for Musk.
ELON MUSK: At a foundational level, what is my philosophy and why does it lead to this conclusion? The reason is that when I was a teenager, I had, like, an existential crisis to try to figure out, what’s the meaning of life? For me, at least the religious texts, and I read all of them that I get my hands on, did not seem convincing. Then I started reading philosophers. You know, be careful of, like, reading German philosophers as a teenager. It’s definitely not going to help with your depression. It’s like, reading Schopenhauer, Nietzsche. I’m like, as an adult, it’s much more manageable, but as a kid, you’re like woah. So then I was like, man, I’m just, like, struggling to find meaning in life here. And then I read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and basically what Douglas Adams was saying is that we don’t really know what the right questions are to ask. Like, the question is not, what’s the meaning of life? You know, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the earth, it turns out, is a big computer, and its goal is to answer the question, what’s the meaning of life? And earth comes up with the answer 42. This is where the 42 number comes from. And 04:20 is just 10x42. In that book, which is really sort of a book about, is an existential philosophy book disguised as humor, they come to the conclusion that, no, the real problem is trying to formulate the question. And to really have the right question, you need a much bigger computer than earth. One way, I think, of characterizing this would be to say, the universe is the answer, what is the question? The more we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness, the better we can understand what questions to ask about the answer that is the universe. Look, the more we expand consciousness, become a multiplanetary species, ultimately a multistellar species, we have a chance of figuring out what the hell is going on.
I don’t know about you, but I get big “dumb guy trying to sound smart” energy from that jibberish answer about how his entire philosophy is based around a science fiction novel that he’s decided to very selectively pull from at best, if not completely misunderstand at worst. I feel like we see this a lot through Silicon Valley whenever they claim to draw from science fiction to inspire their companies, technologies, and visions for the future of our society. Does it make any sense to be taking such deep moral guidance from science fiction novels, or to base our futures around them? I reached out to science journalist and science fiction author Annalee Newitz, who also co-hosts a science fiction podcast called Our Opinions Are Correct, to get their thoughts on the matter, starting with Musk’s particular interest in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hitchhiker’s Guide, is this is a series, I mean, it’s the first novel in a series that is profoundly distrustful of billionaires and authority figures. It is incredibly anti authoritarian. Musk would have been a figure who was satirized by Douglas Adams. And I just think it’s amazing that he’s able to kind of place himself in that story without any sense of self-awareness. And what good fiction is supposed to do is give us that self-awareness, allow us to step outside ourselves, see ourselves from another perspective and say, oh, you know what, maybe what I’m doing isn’t the right path, maybe I should rethink what I’m doing. Or maybe I should think about how my actions look to other people. However, you certainly can plow your way through a book, without ever gaining any of that insight. And I guess that’s one of the valuable things that Elon Musk and many other Silicon Valley leaders teach us is that fiction doesn’t always have to be enlightening.
Musk certainly claims to have gotten something from reading all those science fiction novels: a general philosophy assembled from pieces pulled from those stories, along with a picture of how the future should look and feel that he believes himself to be personally responsible for trying to realize. But none of the ideas he’s absorbed challenge the power of someone like him, even if the books he cites are ones that actually do contain critiques of the kind of power he’s able to wield.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: I think that a lot of the books he’s interested in, they’re certainly classics of the genre, especially in space opera. And they all kind of share a belief in this notion, what I would call a Malthusian idea that civilization has these natural peaks and valleys, and that heroes are the ones who can figure out how to get in during the time when civilization is booming, reap the most benefit from it. And then whether those periods the sort of Dark Ages, which that’s a major component of the Foundation books, and he’s talked about how that’s something that really influenced him a lot.
In June 2018, Musk tweeted, “Foundation Series & Zeroth Law are fundamental to creation of SpaceX” — and no, I didn’t leave out some words there. That is how he phrased it. Foundation tells the story of an empire in decline, and a man named Harry Seldon who uses a mathematical model he calls “psychohistory” to chart a course for the empire’s future where it will still fall, but the amount of time it spends in a dark age will be minimized so the net amount of suffering over the long span of the period of decline will be minimized. When Musk talks about the need to have a multiplanetary species and the urgency that’s necessary to achieve it, he’s channeling these ideas from Foundation and placing himself in the role of the actor who needs to realize it for us. We’ll be returning to this later in the series, but this is how he can justify ignoring the concrete challenges we face as a species to instead argue our resources need to go to his pet projects, like Mars colonization — if that’s ever to be achieved anyway.
ANNALEE NEWITZ: How do we get off Earth and escape from authoritarianism? The part that Musk was always missing, I think, was the get away from authoritarianism bit. And I think what he did was he wound up leaning into being someone like from an Ayn Rand story, you know, like, how can I be the big man who owns all the things and sets the tone for civilization? And that really, you know, goes against a lot of science fiction now that deals with the environmental issues that first seem to really animate him.
So: a childhood lived under apartheid, a manipulative and abusive father, an adventurous but anti-Semitic grandfather, and an obsession with science fiction. These are some of the key influences you can see that had an effect on who Elon Musk would ultimately become and how he would see the world as he boarded a plane from the country of his birth to retrace his grandfather’s journey in reverse. These themes will resurface through the course of this series, but for now I want to pivot back to Musk’s story.
[LEAVING SOUTH AFRICA]
Elon Musk had a privileged but difficult childhood in South Africa, and clearly wanted out. He finally got his opportunity when he was 17 years old. He claims to have always had his eye on the United States, but it wasn’t easy to go there directly from South Africa. Instead, he decided on Canada. His mother was born in Canada and because of a recent change in the law, it was relatively easy for him to get Canadian citizenship through that parental connection. The way he often tells it is that he took off after high school, but that’s not the whole story. Vance, the biographer, explained that before heading to North America, Musk was actually enrolled at the University of Pretoria for five months studying physics and engineering, but he had abysmal grades. As Vance put it, “Musk lazing through school to avoid South Africa’s required military service rather undermines the tale of a brooding, adventurous youth that he likes to tell, which is likely why the stint at the University of Pretoria never seems to come up.”
Musk arrived in Canada in 1989, touching down in Montreal before heading west to Saskatchewan for six weeks to stay with family. From there, he continued to Vancouver to do some more work, and finally moved to Toronto once his mother and sister made the trip from South Africa as well. After living with them for a while, he enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario to study physics and economics. Kimbal eventually came to join him. Musk told his biographer he chose Queen’s because he wanted a social life, and there were more girls there than at Waterloo — a university in southern Ontario with a better engineering program.
There’s an interesting story from that period that I only really clued into last year. While at Queen’s, Elon and Kimbal used to cold call business leaders to try to find potential mentors. At one point, they got Peter Nicholson, the executive in charge of strategic planning at Scotiabank — Canada’s third-largest bank — to pick up the phone, and eventually agree to give Musk an internship. The story goes that while at Scotiabank, Nicholson assigned Musk to work on Latin American debt and the US-dollar-dominated bonds that were issued after the Latin American debt crisis. Musk believed he’d found a way to make the bank billions of dollars by buying up bonds held by other banks on the cheap — but the bank wouldn’t go for it because they were already overexposed. The way it’s often told, this moment convinced Musk that the banking system needed to be upended. It’s used to foreshadow his later founding of X.com — the online bank, not the Twitter rebrand that we’re dealing with now. Nicholson told Walter Isaacson that the bank knew what it was doing, but the experience meant Musk “came away with an impression that the bank was a lot dumber than in fact it was,” which he spins as a positive. The Financial Times pointed out that holding the Latin American debt bonds also forced the banks to sit around the table at debt restructuring talks, which it didn’t really want to do, and that they ultimately had lower realized returns than US stocks and bonds. So Scotiabank was probably right not to take Musk’s advice — though he’d never admit it.
After two years at Queen’s, Musk finally made the jump to the United States to finish his degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Musk says he was a bit of a party animal at Penn, but his housemate Adeo Ressi told Isaacson, “He liked being around a party but not fully in it.” Ressi described him as fundamentally alienated and withdrawn. While at Penn, he did have a girlfriend named Jennifer who claimed he gave her a gold necklace with a green emerald, which he said was from his father’s emerald mine. It’s another hint that Musk’s claims it never existed are a load of bullshit.
At the University of Pennsylvania, he started taking internships in Silicon Valley and planned to do doctoral studies at Stanford, but his graduation in the spring of 1995 coincided with the privatization of the internet, which is usually considered to have happened on April 30, 1995 when the public internet backbone was decommissioned to make way for the private sector. That was the starting gun of the dot-com boom where tech founders and investors piled into the nascent internet sector trying to grab a piece of the massive gains that could be had as people went online and companies found a way to profit off them. Many of those founders were white men from relatively privileged backgrounds who had the ability of take a risk and know that if they failed, they wouldn’t be ruined. Success in that moment wasn’t necessarily the result of talent or genius, but a lot of it came down to luck and privilege. You could have a useless company, but as long as it had something to do with the internet, there was a good chance you might get some funding and even cash out if you timed things properly — particularly if you did so before the boom went bust in the early months of the year 2000.
In 1995, Musk and his brother founded a company later renamed Zip2 with Greg Kouri, and it seems almost ironic given his present-day hostility toward journalists that the company’s business model was licensing city-guide software to newspapers. Reading about this period in Musk’s life, it seems pretty clear that through college he may have remained socially awkward, but he also developed a greater sense of confidence that helped him as he entered the tech industry — but there were two sides to how that developed. On one hand, he had a massive tolerance for risk — and that likely comes from the relative security he felt. If he failed, he wouldn’t have been destitute, regardless of what he claims. While Musk presents himself as fully self-made, Ashlee Vance reported in the 2015 biography of Musk that his father had given him and his brother $28,000 to get the company off the ground, though Musk completely denied he’d received any money from his father in 2017 — for the company, or for college — until changing the story again in 2019 when he tweeted his father had provided 10% of a $200,000 funding round. Errol also claims he used some of the emerald mine money to help set Elon up in North America, eventually sending him and Kimbal the equivalent of over $100,000. Again, I’ll leave it to you to decide who you want to believe on that.
But it was at Zip2 that another side of Musk’s personality began to show itself, one his father may have helped instil in him. Jimmy Soni, author of the 2021 book The Founders, a book about the history of PayPal, described Musk as “prone to setting unreasonable deadlines, chewing out other executives and colleagues in the open, and retooling code written by other people without asking.” In short, he was a terrible boss and they weren’t great qualities to have as CEO. The board eventually pushed him out and made him chief technology officer instead, something Musk came to resent. The company didn’t have a great business model, but it was ultimately sold to Compaq in 1999 before the bottom fell out of the tech economy, giving Musk a $22 million payout — about $40 million when adjusted for inflation in 2023. That set him up to take another risk, and surely confirmed to him that he was the genius he was increasingly feeling himself to be.
According to Ashlee Vance, Musk was already developing somewhat of a messiah complex as a teenager. He writes, “Musk had blended fantasy and reality to the point that they were hard to separate in his mind. Musk came to see man’s fate in the universe as a personal obligation.” You can see that reflected in the clip of Musk speaking about the impact “Hitchhiker’s Guide” had on him way back in those years too. Musk clearly believed he was destined for something great, but he had to make other people believe it as well. As he started to accumulate wealth and power, he clearly craved something else: notoriety. He wanted to shape his story, but couldn’t do it on his own. In The Founders, Soni quotes Harris Fricker, a Canadian financial executive who Musk recruited to join his online banking startup, who said he entered Musk’s bedroom in 1999 — this was right around the time Zip2 was being sold and Musk was preparing to launch X.com — and saw it filled with books about successful businessmen. He told Soni, “I remember sitting there and at the top of this stack was a book about Richard Branson. It kind of clicked to me that Elon was prepping himself and studying to be a famous entrepreneur.”
In the years that followed, that’s exactly what he did, convincing the media he was worth paying attention to — and was more than your typical tech founder. That’s what we’ll be exploring next week.
Elon Musk Unmasked is a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us, hosted by me, Paris Marx. Tech Won’t Save Us is produced by Eric Wickham and our transcripts are from Brigitte Pawliw-Fry. This series was made possible through support from our listeners at patreon.com/techwontsaveus. Consider joining them to ensure we can keep providing a critical perspective on the tech industry that you’re unlikely to get anywhere else. You can also get access to our Discord server and some stickers. In the coming weeks, we’ll also be uploading the uncut interviews with some of the guests I spoke to for this series, exclusive for Patreon supporters. So make sure to go to patreon.com/techwontsaveus to support the show, and come back next week for episode 2 of Elon Musk Unmasked.