Last month, Insider published an explosive report about a former SpaceX flight attendant who accused SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk of propositioning her for sex in 2016 and to whom the company paid $250,000 to keep quiet. Musk called the story “a politically motivated hit piece,” while SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell came to Musk’s defense in a companywide email, writing: “Personally, I believe the allegations to be false; not because I work for Elon, but because I have worked closely with him for 20 years and never seen nor heard anything resembling these allegations.”
Alas, a new and far more damaging Insider report is putting Shotwell — and every other executive insider Musk’s various companies — in an even more uncomfortable position.
According to the story, “court documents obtained by Insider show that the tech mogul Elon Musk quietly had twins last November with one of his top executives, Shivon Zilis. In April, Musk, 51, and Zilis, 36, filed a petition to change the twins’ names in order to ‘have their father’s last name and contain their mother’s last name as part of their middle name.'”
The order was approved by a judge in Austin in May, adds the report, and the “twins were born weeks before Musk and Claire Boucher, the musician who performs as Grimes, had their second child via surrogate in December.”
Zilis is a Yale graduate who began her career at IBM, then invested on behalf of the Bloomberg-backed venture outfit Bloomberg Beta until early 2016 before moving on to OpenAI, then Tesla, then Neuralink.
All three, of course, have deep ties to Musk, who founded Neuralink, cofounded OpenAI and assumed leadership of Tesla back in 2008.
Specifically, says Insider, Zilis first met Musk in 2016 while a director at OpenAI, where she is now the youngest member on its board of directors. In 2017, she reportedly joined Tesla as a project director. Today, Zilis holds the title of director of operations and special projects for Neuralink, where Musk is a co-CEO.
Insider further reports that Zilis has recently been floated as one of the people Musk could tap to run Twitter if his proposed $44 billion acquisition of the company goes forward as expected.
Musk, who is typically highly active on Twitter, did not respond to requests for comment from Insider (neither did Zilis), though he last month tweeted that falling birth rates in the U.S. are a “demographic disaster,” adding, “I mean, I’m doing my part haha.” [Update: Musk has since tweeted in response to the story: “Doing my best to help the underpopulation crisis. A collapsing birth rate is the biggest danger civilization faces by far.”]
The biggest question the story raises, beyond how many children Musk plans to father — he has at least nine with various partners — is whether any of these companies have fraternization policies that prohibit romantic relationships between a manager and a reporting staff member.
While most companies the size of Tesla and SpaceX prohibit dating relationships between employees who are separated by two levels in the chain of command, Musk is known for flouting traditional rules. (A Tesla employee handbook from 2020 isn’t exactly standard fare, warning that “Our assumption will be that if you don’t call and don’t show up for work, you’re a jerk. You better have a really good reason for not letting us know why you didn’t come in or you’re out of here.”)
Even if Neuralink, Tesla and OpenAI — where Musk disassociated himself in 2019 — do not have customary policies in place preventing fraternization, this new report is hugely problematic. Musk having secret children with a direct report will surely prove a huge distraction to other staffers. (You can imagine the water cooler conversation.) It’s bad for morale, which is the last thing that Tesla in particular would seem to need right now given its many other employee battles. It could also open up Musk’s companies to massive lawsuits from Zilis if at some point down the road, she decides he abused the power he wielded as CEO.
Not last, though likely least concerning, the development will probably not be looked on kindly by the U.S. government, which has already been chilly toward Tesla under the Biden administration. (The government is a separately a large customer of SpaceX, where Zilis has not been an employee.)
We don’t have anything against children, of course, but in running a business, not everything goes, and this newest development raises a lot of questions about the boards of directors at Musk’s companies. It also puts execs like Shotwell in the position of having to reassure employees that Musk has the same good judgment, self-control and laser-like focus on his companies’ success as he says he expects of them. We don’t envy her the job.
[Update/correction: The original version of our story reported that a LinkedIn page for Zilis appeared to have been taken offline, but it’s now available to view here.]