Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, grew up in South Africa and made his way via Canada to the U.S. as a transfer student before attending the Wharton School and becoming the billionaire tech founder he is today.
With a net worth of $37 billion, Musk hopes to revolutionize transportation on Earth and in space, bringing fully-electric vehicles to the mass market through his auto manufacturing company, Tesla. SpaceX, his rocket company, is valued at $20 billion-plus. He also co-founded PayPal, which means — a Twitter user said — “The WHOLE bank on the internet was started by him (yes, your credit card as well)”. Other companies started by Musk include Neuralink, which is working on developing implantable brain–machine interfaces.
Born in 1971, Musk grew up in Pretoria, South Africa. He’s the son of Maye Musk, a model and dietitian from Canada, and Errol Musk, a South African electromechanical engineer, pilot, and sailor. Maye and Errol divorced in 1980 when Elon was about 9 years old. After the divorce, Elon lived mostly with his father until he left South Africa at age 17 — partly to avoid conscription in the South African army. He attended Queen’s University in Canada.
A recurring theme on social media is the claim that Musk’s father owned an emerald mine and paid for his son’s “privileged upbringing and education.” Musk has denied that story. Errol made money by consulting and developing properties, Forbes reported.
The emerald mine story, reported in 2018 in Business Insider, tells how, in the mid-1980s, Errol acquired a “half-share in a Zambian emerald mine, which would help to fund his family’s lavish lifestyle of yachts, skiing holidays, and expensive computers.”
“It was that lifestyle, Errol says, that turned Elon into the kind of merchant adventurer who would later break the rules of the motoring business with Tesla, then go on to change spaceflight with SpaceX,” BI reported.
Errol talked about Elon’s fascination with computers when they first came out in the mid-’80s, during an interview on radio station 702 in Johannesburg, as reported by Forbes. Elon may have been 6 or 7 years old at the time and begged his dad to get him a ticket to a very early computer conference in South Africa. At the conference, Elon talked to some professors who told Errol, “This boy needs to get his hands on one of these computers.
“So we got one, thank God at a discount, and with that computer he taught himself, using Disk Operating System, which is DOS, to program,” Errol said.
Rolling Stone reported in 2017 that “Errol was, by his own account, making money in the often dangerous worlds of construction and emerald mining –at times so much that he claims he couldn’t close his safe.”
In December 2019, Elon denied the emerald mine-and-lavish-lifestyle story on Twitter, saying it was a lie.
“This is a pretty awful lie,” Elon tweeted. “I left South Africa by myself when I was 17 with just a backpack & suitcase of books. Worked on my Mom’s cousin’s farm in Saskatchewan & a lumber mill in Vancouver. Went to Queens Univ with scholarship & debt, then same to UPenn/Wharton & Stanford.”
In a follow-up tweet, Elon said his father “didn’t own an emerald mine & I worked my way through college, ending up ~$100k in student debt.”
Errol owned one of the largest homes in Pretoria and took his children on many overseas trips, according to the book, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” written by Ashlee Vance.
Elon and other family members have opened up about years of living in debt after they left South Africa. Soon after Elon left for Canada, his mother, Maye, moved there too, along with Elon’s brother, Kimbal, and sister, Tosca.
Elon tweeted that he had $100,000 debt after college. His mother Maye responded on Twitter in December 2019 in defense of Elon.
“To add to the truth, we went to Boston Chicken in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving because we couldn’t afford a turkey. And we spent three weeks making our rent-controlled apartment livable in Toronto,” Maye tweeted.
All the Musk siblings did well, Forbes reported. Kimbal is a millionaire who owns restaurant chains and spearheads a nonprofit education program, The Kitchen Community, which grows vegetables in the U.S. Tosca is a film producer and director.
But the emerald mine story keeps coming back.
@Keewa tweeted on May 9, 2020, “Remind: Elon Musk inherited money from his father’s apartheid emerald mine, that doesn’t mean he’s clever”
Several respondents on social media disputed the emerald mine and privileged-lifestyle story, defending Musk’s intelligence and questioning the intelligence of the person who started the thread.
Jack @lets_gobaby tweeted, “Ok but how does inheriting money mean you aren’t smart?”
Bridges to Italy tweeted, “Yeah, he’s not that bright, just like the guy who started this thread. They’re the same, except for the fact that he is a billionaire, started multiple successful companies and doesn’t live in his mother’s basement. Aside from that he’s just dumb”.
@spylinen tweeted, “The mine was in Zambia, which became independent of the UK in 1964. The share in the mine wasn’t acquired until the 1980s. Musk may not be a great guy, but I fail to see any apartheid link to his father’s emerald mine.”
@grard97 tweeted, “Remind: Elon Musk owns an electric and autonomous car company
A private space landing rockets company
An AI company
A Neuroscience company
A Solar Panel and energy storage company
The WHOLE bank on the internet was started by him (yes, your credit card as well)”
@C49015142 tweeted, “I thought I read in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath that his company received $500 million from the US government, so we are all subsidizing him”
Chromatica Warrior @DebbieTweeted “Can he be held responsible for his dad’s ethics tho? To me, he sure is trying to make the world better right now, and that’s the best thing he could do with his father’s money”.
Not all the tweets were supportive of Elon. Former Tesla employees have reported racist behavior and attempted to sue over it.
luis carruthers @orthereaboot tweeted, “When the same pattern of racist behavior happens at all $tsla locations, it’s the company that’s racist, and the fish rots from @elonmusk‘s head.”
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Former Tesla employee Marcus Vaughn, who worked in the Fremont, California, factory in 2017, alleged that the company’s production floor was a “hotbed for racist behavior.” Supervisors regularly used the “N word” around Black workers and he said he was fired after complaining to human resources about workplace harassment. “Although Tesla stands out as a groundbreaking company at the forefront of the electric car revolution, its standard operating procedure at the Tesla factory is pre-civil-rights-era race discrimination,” Vaughn wrote in his complaint, according to a Daily Beast report.
In a 2017 email to employees which the company later released in response to one of the lawsuits, Elon warned against “being a huge jerk” to members of “a historically less represented group.” He also wrote, “if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology.”
“But by many accounts, the issues at the Tesla factory go beyond the need for a thick skin,” New York Times reported.
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