America is brimming with entrepreneurs, young and old, already successful or dreaming of becoming so one day, famous or forgotten. But in my mind there is no more interesting entrepreneur alive today than Elon Musk.
Musk, who will soon be 37, was raised in South Africa (there is still a slight Afrikaans lilt in his voice), but left when he was about to be drafted into the apartheid army, traveling first to Canada, then down to Pennsylvania to attend grad school at Wharton.
Musk first became interested in technology at age 10, when his father gave him an early personal computer. Within two years, he had not only taught himself to program, but had already designed and was selling his first product, a computer game.
As prodigious as these accomplishments were, they are hardly unique in the nonconformist, genius-filled world of great entrepreneurs. Nor is the next part of the story: Accepted to Stanford to study for a doctorate in high energy physics, he lasted exactly two days before dropping out -- or as he told me, "I actually took a leave of absence and just haven't gone back yet." Nor even is the fact that Musk used his newly freed time to start a company, Zip2, an online service for news outlets, which he and his brother then sold to Compaq's AltaVista for $340 million.
There are, after all, numerous college (or grad school) dropouts who have made it big as tech entrepreneurs -- starting, of course, with Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft.
But here's where Musk begins to diverge from the traditional tech tycoon path.
In 1999, after Zip2, Elon started a financial services company called X.com, which you've probably never heard of. But you have heard of the company X.com turned into: PayPal. And when PayPal was sold to eBay in late 2002, Musk walked away with more than $100 million.
At this point a typical serial entrepreneur/tycoon either goes off to pursue some personal crusade or goes back to starting new companies similar to the ones that made him or her successful.
But not Elon Musk. While still an undergraduate, he decided that there were three great entrepreneurial challenges in the world -- space exploration, solar power and energy conservation. Now, free and with a fortune in the bank, Elon has set out to tackle all three.
What makes Musk the most interesting modern entrepreneur is not that he attempted all of this -- entrepreneurs are nothing if not audacious -- but that he's actually succeeding. His three companies -- Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity -- are among the hottest startups on the planet, and the subject of intense international scrutiny. Even more amazing is that we're not talking chips, software and Web 2.0 here, but honest to goodness physical things … solar panels, automobiles, rockets.
This makes Musk, despite his comparatively young age, less of the Zuckerberg/Brinn/Williams/Levchin school of Web wizards, and more a throwback to the garage tinkerers of the 1920s and 30s. And if Musk pulls off all that he says he can do -- a successful line of electric cars, putting a man on Mars, etc. -- we may have to go back another half century for an even more amazing comparison: Elon Musk just may turn out to be our Edison.