The Industry

The Other Brains Behind Tesla and SpaceX

Eccentric, brilliant, and now troubled, Elon Musk is synonymous with his companies. Good thing he’s not the only one running them.

A collage of a Boring Company flamethrower, a Tesla, a SpaceX launch, and Elon Musk.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by The Boring Company; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Joshua Lott/Getty Images; Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images.

Few CEOs have personified their companies the way Elon Musk does with Tesla, SpaceX, and the Boring Company. In the case of Tesla, he is both the face of the company and literally speaks for it, often seemingly impromptu, via his personal Twitter account. With SpaceX, his private space-travel company, he is its loudest spokesman and chief dreamer, who plans to use his product to one day retire on Mars. The Boring Company might best be described as an outlet for Musk’s most gonzo whims—a construction startup that will build tunnels for Hyperloop systems (the high-speed transportation mode Musk dreamed up) as well a maker of novelty flamethrowers, which Musk just seems to find funny.

The problem with a company controlled by an idiosyncratic visionary, of course, is the idiosyncrasies—and Musk’s have been on full display lately.

Earlier this year, Musk attacked the credibility of the media after several unflattering reports and reviews about Tesla, even proposing at one point that he would launch a media-rating website called Pravda. He insulted analysts on an earnings call. He flew a custom mini-submarines to Thailand to assist a cave rescue that didn’t need it and later called one of the rescue divers who criticized him over the episode a “pedo.” He started sleeping at a Tesla factory as the company sprinted to increase the production of Model 3 cars, the company’s first mass-market vehicle.

And then, on Aug. 7, he tweeted, “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” Not only was that the first anyone outside the company had heard of the stunning plan; it isn’t even clear whether top executives within the company had been briefed. (Asked that question on Thursday, a Tesla representative declined to comment.) Stocks soared before the NASDAQ halted trading. The Securities and Exchange Commission is now investigating—something no company wants. In a stunning interview with the New York Times on Thursday, Musk called the last year “excruciating,” described 120-hour workweeks, and said some friends are now concerned with his health.

The fiasco of Musk’s plan to take Tesla private has prompted some investors to call for him to appoint a chief operating officer to serve as the “grown-up in the room,” a la Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Perhaps Musk is finally under enough pressure to allow something like that; the Times interview, citing anonymous sources, said a COO search is indeed underway. But in the meantime, it’s worth looking at who else is helping to run his companies—and to what extent Musk’s leadership has allowed them to thrive or sputter.

Tesla

Unlike Space X, which has a prominent No. 2, Tesla has never had a deputy. To say that there is no COO on its org chart would be mistaken only in that the company doesn’t even have an official org chart. The closest thing we have to a public list of its top executives comes from Bloomberg’s Dana Hull and Demetrios Pogkas, who took it upon themselves to cobble one together. Several people who have worked at Tesla, who agreed to speak candidly on condition of anonymity, unanimously agreed that there’s no real “No. 2” behind Musk there.
Even with all of his other ventures, Musk works so hard and controls so much at Tesla that he’s basically Nos. 1, 2, and 3 rolled into one. That said, there is one executive whose name always comes up when you ask insiders who (other than Musk) is a driving force behind the company and its products. It’s J.B. Straubel, the chief technology officer.

A brilliant engineer and lifelong electric-vehicle enthusiast, Straubel pitched Musk on his idea to start an electric car company using lithium ion batteries back in 2003, according to Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk. As the technology had advanced to power laptops, Straubel saw its potential to power vehicles, too. The company they founded ended up joining forces with another startup called Tesla Motors, and when Musk and the board forced out founding CEO Martin Eberhard in 2007, Straubel stayed on. The company now considers him a co-founder, along with Musk, Eberhard, and two others.

Straubel is credited by many as the technical wizard behind Tesla’s batteries and powertrains, and within the company he seems to be widely admired. But he’s not a household name because he doesn’t seek publicity and prefers to work behind the scenes, sources told Slate. One source called him “super-modest”; another suggested that Straubel does possess an ego when it comes to his ideas, but not when it comes to his public image. He’s also viewed as uncommonly energetic, wildly passionate about his work, and loyal.

All of which helps to explain how he’s lasted so long alongside Musk, a notoriously demanding boss. Straubel acknowledged in Vance’s book that Musk is “incredibly difficult to work for” but said “it’s mostly because he’s so passionate.” While some have speculated over the years that Straubel would be a logical choice for CEO should Musk ever step aside, other insiders say Straubel hasn’t shown much appetite for corporate management, preferring to focus on the company’s products. Straubel’s stature within the company is such that Tesla’s financial filings for a long time mentioned just two people as indispensable employees in their “risk factors” section: him and Musk.

In the automotive world, the best-known Tesla executive other than Musk might be its chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen. While one source said the analogy was lazy, it’s tempting to think of Holzhausen as Tesla’s Jony Ive: He has led the design of every Tesla since the Roadster. As with Apple and Ive, Tesla’s marketing minds have occasionally made Holzhausen available for glossy profiles, including this one in January by Automobile magazine.

One other C-level officer is CFO Deepak Ahuja, who steered the company through the 2008 financial crisis, retired in 2015, and returned last year to help Tesla manage a cash crisis as it ramped up production on the Model 3 sedan.

But if you’re looking for the person who most often serves as Musk’s right hand, you won’t find them in the C-Suite, or even anywhere on Bloomberg’s extensively researched org chart, one former Tesla employee told Slate. It’s Sam Teller, director of the office of the CEO for Tesla and SpaceX, who functions essentially as Musk’s chief of staff. Prior to Teller, according to Vance’s book, Musk leaned heavily on his longtime assistant Mary Beth Brown to manage his affairs. The book reported that Musk had ruthlessly fired Brown after she asked for a raise. Musk has disputed this characterization, calling it “total nonsense.”

SpaceX

Musk started SpaceX in 2002 with the hope of making space travel light-years cheaper by manufacturing reusable rockets. Last year, the company made history when it supplied the first ever NASA launch to use a recycled rocket. But while Musk’s utopian space-travel vision undergirds the entire interstellar operation, SpaceX’s continued success depends on the contracts his team has landed, including multiple deals with NASA, to fund research and development and future missions that total around $3 billion over the past 12 years. For that the company—now the third most valuable venture-backed tech company after Uber and Airbnb—can thank SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell.

Shotwell joined SpaceX as the company’s seventh employee in 2002 with more than a decade in the private aerospace industry, and in 2008 she was promoted to her current role. SpaceX now boasts more than half the market worldwide for space-rocket launches. It started to reach Shotwell’s desired cadence of sending a rocket into space every three weeks last year, and this year, the company is planning to complete around 30 launches, according to Bloomberg. By as early as next April, SpaceX expects to send its first human cargo—NASA astronauts—to the International Space Station.

Though her boss is an eccentric, Shotwell is evidently an enthusiastic rider of his rollercoaster. In June, she told Bloomberg Businessweek that she had one of the flamethrowers Musk made to promote the Boring Company shipped to her Texas ranch as a gift for her husband. When it comes to humans colonizing Mars, she’s apparently thinking even bigger than Musk. “Mars is fine, but it is a fixer-upper planet. There’s work to do there to make it habitable,” Shotwell told CNBC in an interview this summer. “I want to find people, or whatever they call themselves, in another solar system.”

Everything else

Elon Musk’s minor ventures, none of which have outside investors, tend to keep their operations under wraps. The Boring Company is fond of attention-grabbing conferences and social media posts, but its property acquisitions and day-to-day activities are typically hidden from the public eye. Neuralink, Musk’s brain-computer interface startup, has consistently turned down press inquiries (and has also eschewed the kind of publicity stunts that the tech mogul is fond of performing for his other companies).

Both of those companies—as well as Pravda, the media-rating site that is apparently not a joke—identify the same person as president or CEO in their government filings: Jared Birchall. Birchall is named as president in both the SEC filing for Neuralink and the state incorporation filing for Pravda, and is in fact the only executive listed in the two documents. Birchall is also named as an executive officer in the SEC filing for the Boring Company along with Steve Davis, a SpaceX engineer who is the face of the company along with Musk. Musk himself is nowhere to be found in the filings.

A source familiar with Birchall explains that he works in Musk’s family office, suggesting that his role as “president” of these companies is simply a quirk of the paperwork filing process. It appears that Birchall, at least on paper, serves in an administrative capacity. In March, Gizmodo obtained a letter that he sent last year notifying the San Francisco Planning Department of Neuralink’s plans to renovate two floors of its building into lab space for animal testing and biomechanical-device designing—a rare peek at the inner workings of the secretive organization. The plans reportedly fell through, as emails from an architect working with the company indicated that it was looking to move outside the city.

Birchall offers the same sort of assistance to the Boring Company as well. But Davis, who has helped to supervise the aerospace company’s signature Falcon rocket launches, has the right pedigree and technical expertise to be Boring’s public head. Under Davis’ leadership, the Boring Company has managed to strike deals with Chicago and Los Angeles to burrow tunnels for its first high-speed transit systems. The company has been excavating a test tunnel near L.A.

Yet, as with Neuralink, Birchall seems to be involved with the regulatory and business logistics. As Teslarati reported, Birchall filed forms in January to incorporate a company called Jadejams Property LLC, through which the Boring Company purchased a parcel of land for one of its high-speed transit “Loop” stations in Los Angeles. Public records pulled by Slate also reveal that Birchall was the CEO of a detective and armored car services company called Foundation Security—whose location, 216 Park Rd. in Burlingame, California, is the same address that is listed in the SEC filing for Boring Company and the incorporation filing for Pravda. The Boring Company and Neuralink did not respond to inquiries about Birchall.

Musk has also joked about starting a candy company—and apparently even manufactured some—but it’s unclear whom he may have tapped to help him sell sweets.