Billionaire philanthropist Kimbal Musk recounts his near-death experience.
And though he has told the story a million times as to why his life mission turned to steering children to healthy foods, he still seems to drift back to that moment in the hospital.
“It was probably the best and worst thing that ever happened to me,” the South African-born entrepreneur and restaurateur said of the 2010 skiing accident in an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times during a recent Chicago visit.
“I went down a ski hill on an inner tube, going 35 miles per hour. The tube flipped. I landed on my head and broke my neck, ruptured the spine, bleeding in the spinal column. I was paralyzed on my left,” said Musk, 45, whose older brother, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, is ranked 53rd richest person in the world by Forbes.
“What goes on in that experience is impossible to describe. The doctors were telling me that this particular break I had, they could actually fix, and I would regain my ability to walk. But it’s hard to process that,” said Musk, founder of a national nonprofit that has built 170 “learning gardens” at Chicago Public Schools and is about to build 30 more.
“It was awful. I told myself that if they do fix me, if I was able to walk again, I would focus on food. I would find a way for our restaurants to reach more people, be more affordable. I would find a way for our school gardens to reach more kids in more schools,” Musk said.
The younger Musk began his “real food” crusade in 2011, when his Boulder, Colorado, restaurant, The Kitchen, established The Kitchen Community, a nonprofit to help connect America’s children to healthy foods by creating learning gardens in schools nationwide.
His mission: teaching children about food, healthy eating and the environment, through a curriculum that brings in math, science and literacy. From the first 55 gardens nationwide in 2012 — 16 at CPS — his nonprofit, since renamed Big Green, today has gardens at 500 schools impacting 250,000 children nationwide. CPS has 170.
Musk, who sits on the boards of SpaceX, Tesla and Chipotle, is considered a leader of the Farm-to-Table, or Real Food Movement, now burgeoning, years later. Business analysts peg his net worth as high as $2.5 billion, but Musk has made his international mark with his philanthropy. He was named one of the Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company Magazine in 2015; 2017 Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation; and Global Social Entrepreneur, at this year’s World Economic Forum.
“When I started to work on The Kitchen, at the time it was more about just finding food that tasted good,” said Musk, who was here for a fundraiser to support his CPS gardens.
“We really struggled with industrial food. It comes shipped in from thousands of miles away. It’s not designed to taste good. It’s designed to be shelf-stable, high-calorie, low-nutrition food, and it causes many of the problems we see in society today — obesity and diabetes, especially amongst our kids, and in lower-income communities. It also doesn’t taste good,” he said.
“We tackled it from that perspective. We started talking to local farmers, and it was quite a journey. The farmers in those days sold to farmer’s markets, but didn’t sell that much to restaurants, and they had to trust us,” he said. “But when we opened The Kitchen, we really hit a nerve. People wanted their food to taste good. They wanted to know their farmer. They wanted to connect to their community through food.”
Launched in 2002, The Kitchen was immediately and significantly profitable.
“I said, since we have some extra profits, let’s work on things that can help kids connect to food. We tried several different things, but we found school gardens to be the best. You put it on school grounds, every child gets exposed to it. Teachers love getting their kids outside. And kids love to be outside,” he said.
The gardens are now also in Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis and Pittsburgh. Chicago was the first to scale, with a garden designed by his ex-wife, artist Jen Lewin, with whom Musk has two children ages 13 and 15. He also has a five-year-old, and is recently remarried to entrepreneur Christiana Wyly, daughter of billionaire businessman Sam Wyly.
When Musk brought the concept to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012, Emanuel kicked in $1 million to expand it to 80 schools in predominantly food deserts. The first was in Roseland.
Musk’s three-year-old, fine dining River North bistro, The Kitchen Chicago, donates 1 percent of proceeds to Big Green’s CPS gardens. Four other Kitchen restaurants nationwide and six within two other brands, Hedge Row, and Next Door, similarly fund the program in host cities.
Musk and his brother made their fortunes in the tech industry, with start-ups sold for millions. Musk says he’s proud of his brother, whose worth is over $13 billion, and who continues a quest to reach space. As for the younger Musk, the epiphany in that hospital bed in 2010 — when he thought he’d never walk again — keeps him grounded.
“I don’t think I could rule the world,” he says, laughing at the suggestion. “But I do think I understand real food and what it does for our community in really intimate ways. And I also have a background in how businesses scale and grow to reach a lot of people — whether it’s Tesla, SpaceX or Zip2 in the early days. So shame on me if I don’t try this.”
To help fund Big Green, anyone who donates through Tuesday has a chance to win the sixth Tesla model ever made — Musk’s own fully customized Tesla Model3.