Canada’s Greatest Innovator who never was: Elon Musk’s Innovation Journey
His mother was a dietician, his father a mechanical and electrical engineer. A year later his brother, Kimbal, was born, and sister, Tosca, soon afterwards.
Young children are naturally curious, but this youngest exhibited a huge curiosity, often appearing to be in a trance-like state. At first, his parents and the family doctor thought the young lad might be deaf. Tests proved negative.
It was remarkable how a youngster could block out everyone and everything around him while creating his own visual world. He read heavily, hours and hours uninterrupted, soaking up information like a sponge due to his photographic memory.
He built rockets in middle and high school, but was also mercilessly bullied. His best friend was beaten soundly by bullies who told them to stop hanging around with him.
Elon Musk never let the bullying and beatings deter him from his thirst to explore and learn. At age seventeen he left for Canada. Musk was set on changing the world, and he wasn’t going to do that in South Africa. Fortunately for Musk, his mother’s lineage, which traced back to Germany, included Canadian citizenship from her family having lived in the U.S. Midwest and later Saskatchewan, one of the Prairie Provinces (bordered on the south by Montana and North Dakota).
Life works in strange ways. Take a fork in the road and new opportunities present themselves. But what about the other fork, or forks? What possibilities could have arisen? We’ll never know. We can speculate, make assumptions and wish fervently that an alternate route had been taken.
In Elon Musk’s case, he left South Africa to avoid being drafted into the apartheid regime’s military. However, he also wanted to go to the U.S. because of its entrepreneurial culture and the huge opportunities to make a difference.
After waiting a year for the Canadian government to process his request for a passport, he finally left, arriving in Montreal to stay with an uncle who, it turned out, was away. That left Musk to stay in a hostel. Within days, he bought a cross-Canada bus ticket and headed for Swift Current, Saskatchewan, the home of his deceased grandfather. Over the subsequent months he worked at a variety of manual jobs in different provinces, with one involving wearing a hazmat suit at a paper mill.
Not long afterwards, Musk enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. It was around then that Kimbal arrived in Canada to join him. (Musk transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in 1992.)
The two determined brothers researched businesspeople, making cold calls to ask if they could have lunch. One such businessman was Peter Nicholson of the Bank of Nova Scotia who met with them. Nicholson was so impressed with Elon that he became his mentor, offering him an internship at the bank.
One fascinating story in Vance’s book relates to Musk’s incredible ability to see a financial opportunity within a complex setting. At the time, the Bank of Nova Scotia was holding billions of dollars in wobbly debts with developing countries. Musk learned of Brady Bonds, introduced by the U.S. government as a means of backstopping these loans. He calculated that instead of the bank holding a 25 cent on the dollar position (eg, Brazil) that by buying the bonds the bank could double its position to 50 cents.
Musk called Goldman Sachs, and in reply to the trader’s question of how much he wanted to buy he replied, $10 billion. But Musk was met by a flat refusal from the Bank of Nova Scotia after being told to write up a report on the proposal. This is not surprising, given Canadian banks’ propensity for not taking risks. However, this story is illustrative of a $14 an hour intern who saw the possibilities when others couldn’t or were too risk-averse.
Elon Musk’s journey into becoming an entrepreneur, from co-founding Pay Pal to Tesla to Solar City to SpaceX is almost fictional. How could one human being have so much vision, drive and commitment to creating new entities for the world? Like Steve Jobs, Musk is extremely demanding, impatient and frequently abusive to employees. Indeed, he appears to be worse than Jobs, a not easy feat. Musk’s married life has been a gong show.
This creates a certain ambivalence in one’s mind: does an entrepreneurial leader have to be such a prick to people in the pursuit of a vision?
In theory, no. But in real life, once you understand the background of the individual, the demanding vision and short timeframes, and the need to shake up people’s mental models on how they confront demanding challenges, then you begin to appreciate people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.
One telling observation comes from Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA (from Vance’s book). She recounts how she spent years fighting to allow private companies to bid on NASA contracts, such as with the International Space Station. She endured death threats, and encountered SpaceX competitors who trashed Elon Musk, making up wild rumors about his family and past life in South Africa. As she states: “…It’s nuts that people would want to vilify Elon. He might say some things that rub people the wrong way, but, at some point, the being nice to everyone thing doesn’t work.”
Elon Musk left Canada after a few years for the United States, the world’s innovation powerhouse. What if he had stayed in Canada to pursue his dreams? What would he be achieving? Would he have felt smothered by government bureaucracy and frustrated by Canada’s risk-averse business community?
Witness the catastrophic collapse of Nortel in the early 2000s, a once proud Canadian company dating back to the Northern Electric and Manufacturing Company, created in 1895. Or more recently the fall of Research in Motion, aka Blackberry, led by respected physicist and innovator, Mike Lazaridis.
The Blackberry’s huge success and growth reversed course abruptly as a result of Lazaridis’ and Jim Balsillie’s (who co-led the company) arrogance and refusal to believe that the Apple iPhone and Android devices would shake up the mobile industry. New CEO John Chen has been desperately trying to turn the company around, after thousands of layoffs, to create a more focused enterprise.
These two titans of Canada’s telecom industry, which influenced the world, were responsible for the lion’s share of research and development in that country. Since their demise Canada’s telecom industry has struggled along, trying to keep up with fast-changing developments around the globe.
Setting aside Elon Musk’s eccentricities and darker side, he has been a gift to the United States on the innovation front. Musk needs a large playing field, from access to venture capital to talented people with unique skill sets to a country with a can-do attitude. Canada comes up hugely short on these three key aspects.
Any country that wishes to set itself on the path to wealth creation for its citizens must instill a national sense of excitement for the future, with a clear and compelling vision that engages and motivates people. Yes, education and training, inclusion in the labor market and a business-friendly environment are extremely important. However, the absence of an engaging vision is analogous to tying one’s hand behind the back.
Elon Musk’s gift has been creating that vision for the United States–and indeed the planet–of space travel to Mars, large-scale solar power generation and electric vehicles for the masses. He’s accomplished this in the context of little national political leadership. America is starting to get excited.
What about Canada?
We’re all hanging out in this cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay.
— Kevin Hartz (PayPal investor. From Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk)
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