(TIME) If you want to become a billionaire—and you didn’t happen to be born into the Saudi royal family—there are a few ways to get the job done. You could come up with one seriously good idea, like a new computer operating system or social network, and then build it into a gigantic company. Or you could take the Warren Buffet route, making a decades-long series of shrewd, low–risk investments, and then watch the wealth slowly trickle in. And then there’s what Elon Musk did.
Musk made his money differently than most of today’s famous billionaires. Instead of one amazing idea, he had several good ones. And instead of a bunch of clever, safe investments, he made just a few spectacularly risky ones. But there was a method to his madness, even if it wasn’t apparent to many at the time. The sum total of those bets made Musk the richest private citizen on the planet this year, and their world-altering effects—from privately-launched space missions to an electric vehicle titan that has left the auto industry desperate to catch up—have landed Musk as TIME’s 2021 Person of the Year.
Musk’s family was well-off. He had an early aptitude with computers, designing his own video game at 12-years-old. When he was 17, he left for Canada to escape military service in South Africa’s apartheid regime, attending Queens University in Ontario. In 1992, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied physics and business. Penn’s tree-lined campus may have also given Musk his first taste for risky business ventures—he and a couple of friends rented out an off-campus house and turned it into a nightclub.
Then it was on to Silicon Valley and—briefly—to grad school. Musk enrolled in a physics Ph.D. program at Stanford, then dropped out after two days. Young entrepreneurs were starting to realize that the internet, a newfangled web of connections between computers, might be more than a playground for nerds, and Musk wanted to try his luck. Together with his brother Kimbal, Musk founded a company called Zip2 as an online business directory, a kind of web-enabled yellow pages with maps—a nifty idea back in the mid-nineties.
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