Born in Pretoria, South Africa, Elon Musk showed signs of his brilliance very early on. Under the supervision of his parents, a Canadian mother and South African father, Musk began learning computer technology and programming at the ripe age of 12.
It was at this age that he showed his first true sign of entrepreneurial greatest when he developed a video game entirely on his own and sold it for the sum of $500. While the figure drastically yields in comparison to many of his recent paydays — including the over $78 million he makes in annual salary from his various ventures — to a 12 year kid in the early 1980s, $500 was a lot of money.
After attending school at the Pretoria Boys High School in South Africa, at the age of 17, Musk moved to Canada with his mother. He eventually went on to study commerce at the School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. However, after two years of study there, he eventually transferred to attend the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in economics from the prestigious Wharton School of business. He also received a separate Bachelor’s degree in physics.
After a brief stint at a Stanford University graduate program, Musk started one of his earliest ventures, Zip2, which was a successful city guide for newspapers to utilize. After securing contracts with some of the biggest newspapers, including The New York Times, Musk cashed out when the software company was sold to Compaq in 1999. Musk reportedly was given roughly $22 million for his share in the company.
Musk’s follow-up venture was X.com, which through an acquisition gained control of a little known company that would be renamed PayPal. Musk brought the online payment company to success through aggressive online user viral growth. Only three years after acquiring the company, PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in shares, of which Musk owned 11.7%.
The next, and third venture on Musk’s list was SpaceX. He founded the company in June of 2002 with $100 million of his own money in the hopes of developing and eventually launching space vehicles using rocket technology. The company has now officially launched two vehicles, Falcon 1 and 9, as well as the Dragon spacecraft into space. In 2009, the company was awarded a variable $1.6 to $3.1 billion NASA contract to send SpaceX’s vehicles and craft to the International Space Station.
Musk has expressed his passion and subsequent motivation to pursue space exploration as an action based on the survival of man, more specifically saying, “An asteroid or a super volcano could destroy us, and we face risks the dinosaurs never saw: An engineered virus, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, catastrophic global warming or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us.”
Musk has a personal goal of sending humans to Mars to establish a settlement there. He has also stated that he hopes to send a human to Mars within 10 to 20 years. In the meantime, SpaceX made history in 2012 as the first commercial space company to dock a vehicle on the International Space Station.
Perhaps Musk’s most well-known business involvement to date has been with Tesla. Although he was an early investor, Musk did not actually take leadership control of the company until 2008. Since, he has transformed the company into a force within the auto industry, offering the first actively sold all electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster, and many other innovative electric automobiles, including the widely popular Model S. In addition to his duties as Chief Executive and product architect, it is estimated that Musk owns roughly 32% of Tesla Motors, which is currently (November 2013) worth around $18 billion, primarily from its publically traded status on the NASDAQ stock exchange.
More recently, Musk has given focus to SolarCity, a solar energy systems company also bought and sold on the NASDAQ stock exchange. He is currently chairman and the company’s largest shareholder, which certainly proved valuable when it hit a 52-week high of $65.30 in 2013. SolarCity, headed by Musk’s cousin, Lyndon Rive, and Tesla have announced several collaborative efforts as ways to better the environment.
Largely disappointed with California’s plans for a high-speed rail system, it appears Musk’s next project will be what he calls Hyperloop. If brought fully to fruition, the project, which is designed to be a subsonic form of elevated reduced-pressure air travel, would make a similar trip as the high-speed rail from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, but in 30 minutes or less. The traveling time would be quicker than any other current form of public transportation, including by aircraft. The project is estimated at $6 billion, and is still in its infancy, but if Musk can follow through, it would likely be his most revolutionary project up to this point.