The whimsical South African boss of Tesla and SpaceX has just seen his fortune exceed that of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Itinerary of a « Genius Boy » to the conquest of space.
Thanks to the tremendous growth of Tesla shares, which saw its value multiplied by more than 7 in 2020, the fortune of Elon Musk, boss of the manufacturer of high-end electric vehicles, reached $188.5 billion on January 7, according to calculations by the Bloomberg agency, which maintains a ranking of billionaires.
The 49-year-old South African, who also runs SpaceX, is 1.5 billion dollars ahead of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, to whom he has taken the title of the richest man in the world – ahead of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, luxury emperor Bernard Arnault (LVMH) and Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, only 36 years old.
The son of a South African astromechanical engineer and a Canadian-born model and dietician, Elon Reeve Musk was born in Pretoria on June 28, 1971. In the midst of apartheid. Is it this padlocked model that will push him to want to constantly escape? At the age of twelve, when his parents divorced in 1980, Elon, who lives with his father, creates his first video game, Blastar, inspired by the famous Space Invaders developed five years earlier in Japan.
He made $500 from it, selling the program code to a South African computer magazine, PC and Office Technology. « Genius Boy, » as he is known, reads a lot. He’s a comic book enthusiast. The blond kid, who even goes so far as to name one of his sons Xavier after the teacher in X-Men, is regularly the martyr of his classmates at Pretoria Boys High School, probably a little too traditional for him.
At the age of 16, he tried to open an arcade with his brother Kimbal. The project was aborted, but young Musk was not short of ideas. He was convinced, from that time on, that America would offer him the opportunity to implement them. He dreams of Silicon Valley, where the world of technology invents the future with processors.
In 1988, having been granted Canadian citizenship by his mother, he left the parental home. His main wish was to escape the military service of the apartheid regime. He went to Kingston, Canada, with his brother. Financing himself through odd jobs (his father refused to pay for him to study outside South Africa), he entered Queen’s University before leaving for the U.S. Four years later, he studied physics at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Stanford, where he studied business, physics and, above all, created his first companies: Zip2 (software publisher) and X.com (online bank, which later became PayPal). They will bring him his first millions of dollars. In October 2002, PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. Musk, who owns 11.7%, pockets 175.5 million. That’s enough to make his space dream come true.
Disappointed by a NASA that he considers cold, he founded SpaceX in 2002 (two years before investing part of his fortune in Tesla), with the objective of producing space launch vehicles with a reusable first stage, in order to lower launch costs and, in the long term, to make the colonization of Mars possible.
Very optimistic, despite a few failures, such as in September 2016 with the explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket, or in December 2020, with the explosion of the SN8 prototype, just after liftoff, Elon Musk plans today to send humans to the Red Planet as early as 2024, after two unmanned missions that would have deposited the necessary survival infrastructure there.
As early as May 2020, the company was the first private company to send humans into space, to the International Space Station, and is currently working on prototype rockets that can be reused for multiple flights.
Elon Musk is also one step ahead of the Gafams in its project for a universal Internet connection. In 2018, it obtained the approval of the American authorities to launch a constellation of 4,425 satellites into space and create the necessary network for universal Internet access.
As for artificial intelligence, he is also obsessed with it, so much so that it both fascinates and frightens him. In 2015, he founded OpenAI, a research association charged with thinking about creating a technology with a human face « for the benefit of the greatest number ».
« When I was in university, I wanted to be involved in things that would change the world. Now I am, » the SpaceX boss once rejoiced, promising that he would give half of his fortune to charity, including « large payments in twenty years when Tesla is stabilized.
But these successes do not prevent phases of doubt. Thus, on August 7, 2018, in a tweet that surprised everyone, including in the upper echelons of the American economy, Elon Musk announced his plan to remove Tesla, the electric car manufacturer of which he is the CEO, from the U.S. stock exchange, creating a stock market panic.