When inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk was growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, his heart was already in the United States. A fan of American movies, comics and superheroes, it was clear to the young Musk that the U.S. is where the rubber meets the road in terms of making a global impact. To that end, the now 43-year-old Musk resides in California where he works on such things as manufacturing electric cars, developing sustainable energy and forging ahead in space travel. Musk has already tackled software and financial services in his career.
Musk’s South African childhood coincided with the last couple of decades of apartheid in the country—an institutionally racist political system. Instead of accepting forced military service to defend the government he didn’t support, Musk took advantage of his mother’s Canadian citizenship and set out for North America. At age 17, Musk was on his own in Canada where he attended school for two years. From there, Musk earned scholarships to attend the University of Pennsylvania where he earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and business.
With the ability to achieve mastery through self-teaching, schooling for Musk was more an ends to U.S. citizenship than it was to gain education. “University education is often unnecessary,” Musk said during an interview at SXSW in 2013. “You can always buy the textbooks and just read them.”Earning a degree demonstrates perseverance and the ability to see projects through to the end, he said. By contrast, “If the goal is to start a company, I would say there’s no point in finishing college. In my case, I had to or otherwise I’d get kicked out of the country,” Musk said. Once Musk earned his bachelor’s degree, he was eligible to receive an H-1B Visa.
Once Musk was unencumbered with education requirements pertaining to immigration, he moved forward with business plans. Among his first projects was the development of a software company that was largely responsible for bringing the New York Times and other iconic journalism outlets online. He also founded a company that evolved to PayPal. Since then, Musk has founded electric car company Tesla Motors, renewable energy company Solar City and space-faring company Space Exploration Technologies, most often called Space X.
While Musk has plenty on his plate to keep him busy for the foreseeable future, he already has his eye on humanity’s next big leap. Without any trace of grandiosity, Musk contends it is mankind’s destiny to travel to the stars. With this, Space X is well on its way to making travel to Mars a reality.
“I’d like to die on Mars,” Musk said. “Just not on impact.”
Musk took the oath of American citizenship at the Pomona Fairplex in 2002 with 3,500 other immigrants. The ceremony, he said, was “actually very moving.”