Elon Musk has made history as the world’s richest man, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and most recently the new owner of Twitter, Inc. Thirty years ago, however, he was just another student at Penn.
Musk graduated from the College and Wharton in 1997 with a dual degree in economics and physics. That same year, he started a Ph.D. program in materials sciences at Stanford University, dropping out just after two days later to begin his first start-up company, according to Fortune. The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to several of Musk’s former classmates to learn more about his time at Penn, his budding entrepreneurial spirit, and his present successes.
Though now known as a tech mogul with a controversial social media presence, at Penn, Musk was a teaching assistant for a computer science course and a resident advisor in the Quad where he met his college girlfriend of two years.
In September, Elon Musk's former girlfriend, Jennifer Gwynne, auctioned off a variety of items relating to their relationship and Musk's time at Penn. According to RR Auction, a Boston-based auction house, the collection sold for a total of $165,265. Memorabilia from their college relationship included 18 photos of Musk as a college student at Penn, a signed birthday card, a 14-karat gold necklace, and a signed dollar bill.
The couple met and started dating during Gwynne’s junior year and Musk’s senior year. They were both RAs in Graduate Hall, now a part of Riepe College House. Among the mementos auctioned off by Gwynne are photos that depict a young Musk in Penn dorm rooms, on trips to Niagara Falls, and on the Quadrangle green.
Gwynne specifically remembered his room being on the third floor and the second room in the hallway. She described Musk as a relaxed RA.
"As long as you were not doing anything to get him in trouble, he was chill,” she said, adding that he often tried to give his first-year residents “latitude."
Gwynne said she was inspired to auction off memorabilia from her and Musk’s relationship this past December when she saw the success of another auction by one of Musk's former students when he was a TA.
"A fellow classmate had sold a test paper where Elon was a TA, and it had his initials, and it sold for $7,700. [With] everything between his business and personal antics, the iron was hot,” Gwynne said. The six-figure proceeds from the auction will help pay for Gwynne's stepson’s college tuition, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Brian Wong, a 1995 Engineering graduate and fellow Quad RA, and Marshall Stanton — formerly, Marshall Wieland — a 1996 College graduate and former house manager, also had fond memories of Musk.
Stanton described Musk’s room as incredibly sparse, populated only with a computer that he liked to “fiddle with” and a chess set. Besides essentials such as clothes, he did not recall any posters, memorabilia, or personal items in Musk’s room.
Wong fondly remembered how Musk made name tags for his residents’ dorm doors using the Magic Eye optical illusions.
Gwynne said that their usual Saturday night routine was going out to eat. They frequented a Chinese restaurant called Beijing, the Smokey Joe's bar — though neither were big drinkers — and White Dog Cafe if they wanted something fancier. Gwynne recounted going to see "Pulp Fiction" in theaters together.
“We were two introverted kids who hung out a lot, studied together in the Provost’s Tower library, and sometimes [Van Pelt] to mix it up," Gwynne said.
Gwynne shared a story of Musk befriending one of the cafeteria workers at 1920 Commons, an Ethiopian immigrant. He was opening his own Ethiopian restaurant in West Philadelphia, and Musk was one of his first customers. Gwynne said she believes the two men connected because Musk “respected the entrepreneurial spirit.”
Stanton also shared a story in which Musk performed a card trick while hanging out in the Class of 1938 Lounge.
"He would take a deck of cards and would have someone else shuffle and place the deck facedown, one by one turn over the deck of cards so he could see them, go through the whole deck, turn it back over and then tell you what every card in the deck was, " Stanton said. "He was accurate every time I saw him do it."
Later, Musk told him the trick is that “if you think about your childhood home, you can remember what everything was. I just imagine as I am turning the cards over, walking through the house and placing the cards in individual locations, and when I turn the cards back over, I image where I placed everything in the house."
Wong said that Musk did not enjoy participating in some of the typical non-academic aspects of college culture.
One time, he “dragged” Musk out to Cavanaugh’s Restaurant & Sports Bar to watch a basketball game between Penn and the University of Michigan. Penn won the game, and while everyone else rushed outside celebrating and cheering in the street, Musk stood off to the side “observing and taking it all in."
Gwynne said he was an introverted and focused student who always intended to leave the East Coast to join the tech boom on the West Coast.
“His mind was elsewhere, focused on getting out of college and becoming what he is now. His general attitude was, ‘I’m going to check all these boxes at Penn, a great school, so that I could get out to Silicon Valley before I miss it,’” Gwynne said.
Thus, she said she was not surprised by the news that has come out about his character and work ethic — good and bad.
“Every time I see him scoff at something, I'm like, oh yeah, 'That's Elon,'" Gwynne said. “He followed the rules he needed to to get through Penn, and then he went on to break those rules because he didn’t believe in them."
Even while at Penn, Musk foreshadowed his ambitions to further his education and get involved in electric car technology. Stanton said he remembers Musk telling him that he wanted to go to Stanford to “figure out a way to build a better battery."
“I distinctly remember him talking about electric cars. But in the mid-90s, talking about electric cars seemed magical, like not really going to happen. But it did," Gwynne said.
Gwynne said Musk's time at Penn played a part in shaping the person who would become a titan in the business and tech world.
"I know Elon enjoyed Penn. He had a tumultuous childhood. Penn was a great time where Elon could incubate his vision. It obviously had amazing resources and people, but it also allowed him to be comfortable and be happy, which allowed him to go on and do what he did," Gwynne said.
Wong said that while he did not doubt that Musk would become successful, it has been "unreal" to see him become the wealthiest man in the world.
“Is it surprising that he is the richest man in the world? Anyone would be surprised. Surprising that he would be successful? No," Wong said. "However, it is kind of surreal seeing him be a friend who I used to play DOOM with to moving stock markets with a single tweet. It is an amazing journey."