From Elon Musk to Richard Branson: What These 5 Entrepreneurial Leaders Learned From Their Mothers
1. 1. Maye Musk: Determined to be more than a pretty face
2. 2. Eve Branson: One helluva grand dame
3. 3. Karen Kempner: The understated doctor
4. 4. Mary Maxwell Gates: A fierce business mind and philanthropist
5. 5. Adele Sandberg: ‘It’s never too late to lean in’
Abe Lincoln once said, “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
And while not all people who come into greatness are as expressive about giving props to mom, many of our great entrepreneurs owe big thanks to their mothers for doing all that ground floor work. From instilling values, encouraging talents and supporting passions, they helped guide the big guns to where they are today.
Here are five moms of business leaders who've got the right stuff. Enjoy!
It seems as though you could plunk Maye Musk -- mother of Elon -- down on Mars, and the 68-year-old model and health entrepreneur would figure out a way to flourish.
Musk’s varied modeling career has spanned over five decades -- beginning when she made her modeling debut at the age of 15 in Pretoria, South Africa to winning in a national beauty competition in her 20s to gaining later-in-life infamy at the age of 63 when she appeared nude on a 2013 cover of New York magazine. She’s also starred in campaigns for Revlon, Clinique and Virgin Airlines.
What’s more, she’s had to rebuild her life and dietitian practice several times following her divorce from her husband and several huge geographical moves -- twice to new countries.
After getting married at the age of 22, she built a dietitian practice in Pretoria while raising three children: Tosca, Elon and Kimball. However, after her divorce, she became the sole bread earner, a struggle for her. She credits being too proud to fail, according to the Huffington Post.
“Poverty makes you work really hard,” Maye told the publication. “I was juggling my private nutrition practice, wellness talks, modeling and kids schooling and activities. Those were busy times.”
“I’m spending more time with my three children and 10 grandchildren,” she tells Huffington Post in 2015. “I teach public health and nutrition at a private school as they are willing to give me flexibility for modeling.”
It’s clear where Elon -- and his siblings -- got their formidable drive.
While Richard Branson is famous for his highly publicized exploits to breaking world records in hot-air ballooning and sailing, it’s no surprise his mother also has a distinctive taste for adventure.
Born in Middlesex, England in 1924, the daughter of a military officer disguised herself as a boy to become a gliding pilot, according to her autobiography Mum's the Word: The High-Flying Adventures of Eve Branson.
She also volunteered for the Women’s Royal Navy Service during World War II. After the war, she performed as a dancer and actress in “racy West End Theatre productions,” according to the website for her nonprofit The Eve Branson Foundation.
Following her foray in the arts, she jumped into air hostessing with British South American Airways and eventually left when she married a major in the British Cavalry. Together they had three children. (Her husband passed away in 2011.)
Marriage and motherhood fine tuned her hustle. After her spouse failed his bar exam, Eve had to make money. According to the Daily Mail, “she started a cottage industry in the garden shed, making cushions and wooden tissue boxes that she sold in Harrods.”
Other jobs include being a military police officer, a probation officer and running a real-estate business.
Eve, now 91, and her famous son are both involved with the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children where she serves on the board, while her son is its founding sponsor. She has also founded a nonprofit foundation with her famous son that provides training and jobs in Morocco.
When the matriarch of three children and 11 grandchildren is asked how she maintains her youthful vigor, she cites cocktails and younger men, according to the Daily Mail. (It’s so hard not to love her.)
There isn’t a ton of media coverage about Karen Kempner, the mother of arguably the most famous and influential tech titan in the world today: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. And it seems she wants it that way.
Kempner was “a willowy Brooklyn College undergraduate” when she met her husband, Edward Zuckerberg, a dental student at New York University, on a blind date, reports New York magazine. Described as “warm, with a thick Queens accent,” she and Edward married in 1979 and moved to White Plains, N.Y. -- close to the college where she was studying to be a psychiatrist. Together, they had four children.
After getting her degree, she didn’t practice psychiatry for long. Instead of private practice, she elected to work as the office manager of her husband’s dental practice, which was run out of the home they’d purchased in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. shortly after they got married. Despite having a reported $60 million in Facebook shares, it’s where the couple still live today.
During a radio interview, Edward was asked by a caller whether his wife had worked when their children were young. He replied, “My wife was a superwoman. She managed to work and be home.”
It’s obvious that the Facebook CEO shares this high regard for his mom. During the town hall meeting with the prime minister of India in 2015, one of the topics he asked the prime minister about was about his mother.
And it turns out Mark didn’t look too far from his mom in his choice of spouse, whom he married in 2012. Like his mother, wife Priscilla Chan is an understated physician who shuns the spotlight.
When talking about his mother, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, currently the richest man in the world, with an estimated worth $76.7 billion, has often spoken about a letter she wrote to his then-fiancé Melinda the day before their wedding.
"From those to whom much is given, much is expected," her letter read.
Mary Maxell Gates, a long-time philanthropist, died six months later at the age of 64 of breast cancer. Gates kept his mother’s letter, and his swift foray into the world of philanthropy, establishing The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with the help of his father, Bill Sr., has been due to the influence of his mother, a formidable business mind in her own right.
Mary was a top student at her high school and in college, where she met her husband, a lawyer. They had three children. She threw herself into volunteering and served on the boards of numerous prominent organizations, including the United Way, where she first served as the county chair and, later, the first female national chair. She convinced her son, who was CEO of Microsoft at the time, to start the Employees Giving Campaign at Microsoft to benefit the United Way and other charities. (He later join the board.)
The considerable list of boards she served on is impressive, and when she was appointed to the board of regents of University of Washington in 1975, she spearheaded the move to divest the university’s holding in apartheid South Africa.
According to her daughter, Libby Armintrout, she was an extremely engaged parent and had high expectations of all her children.
"Not just grades and that sort of thing, but how we behaved in public, how we would be socially,” said Armintrout.
Bill and his mother repeatedly clashed during his upbringing and well into adulthood, however there is no doubt she had his back. When her son dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft in 1975, she used a connection she had through serving on the board of the United Way to help her son land his first big account with IBM: to develop an operating system for IBM’s first personal computer.Related: How Bill Gates Became a Leadership Legend
Adele Sandberg, mother of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, was born in 1944, and always believed women should be treated equally as their male counterparts. She writes about her experience on her daughter’s “Lean In” website of wanting the same opportunities as her two brothers but realized that some doors were closed to her at the time due to her gender.
“When my brothers prepared for college, they applied to their first choices, but the university I dreamed of attending did not accept women,” she states, adding that in her later years, she took steps to go after what she wanted, including a Bar Mitzvah she never got.
The woman who founded the nonprofit Ear Peace, which brings attention to hearing loss prevention, goes on to disclose the biggest challenge she faced during her long marriage.
“Starting with a traditional partnership, my husband and I have had a mini-revolution of our own. In the beginning, it was all about my catering to him and allowing him to make most of the decisions. This situation became increasingly unacceptable. It wasn’t easy, but we worked hard for many years to make fundamental changes. Now, our relationship is equal. I feel blessed to have a wonderful husband who was strong enough to move from a traditional marriage to an egalitarian relationship.”
Her daughter’s ability to be vulnerable and share lessons is clearly a mirroring of her mother’s example.
“It’s never too late to lean in,” Adele echoes in her blog post.