The time is now for Elon’s biggest opportunity yet.
At Harvard’s 2017 Commencement, Mark Zuckerberg referred to a well-known story of John F. Kennedy’s visit to NASA where he asked a janitor what he was doing. The janitor responded: ‘Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.’ While the janitor to CEO comparison is nearly always cliche, in the case of Tesla and Elon Musk’s other ventures there is a janitor story that says a lot about America’s culture and class division.
In May 2020, SpaceX became the first ever private enterprise to launch people into space and, in partnership with NASA, has returned America to the forefront of human space flight after nearly a decade. In the five decades since humans first landed on the moon, the American free enterprise system has undergone dramatic change. Access to space, previously within only the grasp of national governments, is now truly the stuff of anyone’s dreams.
SpaceX founder Musk has been simultaneously compared to a real-life Tony Stark–and also Lex Luther. Born in South Africa in 1971, Musk came to American through Canada in the 1990s to attend college and subsequently founded PayPal, making most of his fortune. Becoming a citizen in 2002, the same year he launched SpaceX, Musk is the personification of American ingenuity and grit, along with American exceptionalism and selective immigration.
In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and America’s reckoning with the value of Black lives, at the dawn of a new age in space exploration, Musk is both hero and villain. In April, Musk’s net worth hit $36.6 billion while Tesla laid off 130 janitors. In May, SpaceX launched Americans back into space while Musk earned a bonus from Tesla worth over $700 million. Now in June, with inept solidarity with Black lives, Musk declared that “Juneteenth is henceforth considered a US holiday at Tesla & SpaceX,” while subsequently noting that it would “require use of a paid-time-off day.”
In the isolation of the pandemic, America’s divisions have been illuminated. A May TIME magazine feature, “The Divide” by Alana Semuels, contrasted the plight of Tesla’s janitors with the crisis period gains of the super rich; where entrepreneurs like Musk are free to contemplate selling off burdensome possessions.
My assumption is that Semuels did not reference the NASA backstory because the article was about financial precarity and not corporate culture and purpose. And while the story of “JFK and the Janitor” may simply be a modern “Bricklayers Parable” the power of purpose can change the direction of America.
Blended value movements like Conscious Capitalism and Benefit Corporations have proven that by providing both purpose and financial security to employees, companies build empowered cultures that unite instead of divide.
Because Musk’s companies exist for lofty purposes — SpaceX is literally working to put people on Mars — he is missing a huge opportunity to capture the imaginations and positive energy of everyone who touches every aspect of his companies. From the engineers to the janitor, everyone at Tesla should be working to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
For Maricela Betancourt, one of the Tesla janitors interviewed by Semuels, how would her and her coworkers’ lives be impacted if they were included in Tesla’s mission of saving the planet? Bentancourt’s son Daniel is the first in the family to go to college. What if Daniel’s mom had the same spark of energy that the NASA janitor had 58 years ago?
American corporations, especially in the technology sector, have more freedom, cash, and human potential to change the world than ever before. Those with visions of changing the world must step up and harness that potential. Like much of the tech sector, Musk’s vision for humanity is constantly clouded by oblivious adherence to twentieth century financial management practices. Practices that put people last and restrain America’s potential.
Under the tenacious drive of Musk, both Tesla and SpaceX have survived their early financial struggles and achieved what was once thought impossible. Musk deserves every bit of a huge payday for that. But in the same way Musk rolled his PayPal winnings into SpaceX and Tesla it is time for Musk to invest in everyone that is a part of his projects. It is time for him to realize that without a vibrant, healthy society to celebrate his wins in the name of humanity, everything he does retains an avoidable stain.