Power Players

These are the odd jobs Elon Musk had after leaving home at 17

Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks during the unveiling of the new Tesla Model Y in Hawthorne, California on March 14, 2019.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

Elon Musk is best known as the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX — but way before his success in Silicon Valley, he worked odd jobs to get by.

At 17, Musk left his home in South Africa and headed to Canada, where he became a citizen (his mother, Maye, was born there) and stayed with his cousin, according to the book "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future" by Ashlee Vance.

At first, Musk worked at his cousin's farm in Waldeck, Saskatchewan (a village that as of 2016 had a population of fewer than 300 people), tending to vegetables and shoveling grain bins, according to the book "Elon Musk."

Then Musk learned to cut logs with a chainsaw in Vancouver, British Columbia, according to the book.

However, after asking at the unemployment office what jobs paid the best, Musk took on his hardest gig yet: cleaning out the boiler room of a lumber mill.

For $18 an hour, Musk said in the biography that he had to "put on this hazmat suit and then shimmy through this little tunnel that you can barely fit in. Then, you have to shovel, and you take the sand and goop and other residue, which is still steaming hot, and you have to shovel it through the same hole you came in through."

"There is no escape," Musk said. "Someone else on the other side has to shovel it into a wheelbarrow. If you stay in there for more than 30 minutes, you get too hot and die."

Thirty people started out at the beginning of the week with Musk, according to the book. By the third day, five people were left. By the end of the week, Musk was left with only two other people to do the work.

Musk eventually gave up manual labor and pursued tech. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May of 1997, and then debated attending Stanford University in California for its Material Science Engineering graduate program. Though Musk never enrolled in classes at Stanford (although he was admitted), he did venture to Silicon Valley, and applied for a job at Netscape. He was interested in the then-nascent internet, he told entrepreneur and investor Kevin Rose in 2012.

Musk didn't get the job at Netscape. He had a guess for why he didn't land it: He had a degree from Wharton and was accepted to do graduate-school work in physical and materials science, but he didn't have a computer science degree, nor several years under his belt working at a software company.

"I actually tried hanging out in the [Netscape] lobby, but I was too shy to talk to anyone. So I'm just like standing in the lobby," he said. "It was pretty embarrassing."

Despite Musk's inauspicious start in the professional world, in 1999 he sold his first company, Zip2, to Compaq for roughly $300 million. He started Zip2 after his experience applying to Netscape, deciding that instead of pursing a PhD at Stanford, he would first try to start a company. Musk said he figured he could always return to education if starting a business did not work out.

He used the money from the Zip2 sale to found X.com, an online financial services platform that merged with Confinity in 2000, and later became PayPal. In 2002, eBay purchased PayPal for $1.5 billion.

Musk went on to start SpaceX in 2002, followed by Tesla in 2003. In 2016, he founded Neuralink, and a year later, he created The Boring Company.

Today, Elon Musk is worth $27.5 billion, according to Forbes.

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