FORTUNE — You may recognize Maye Musk from her 2011 New York Magazine cover, a provocative photograph of the 63-year-old model, nude and photoshopped to make her appear nine months pregnant a la Demi Moore’s Vanity Fair cover. (The cover line, “Is She Just Too Old For This?” teased a story about middle-aged women giving birth.) Some may know Musk from her work as a dietitian focused on wellness and longevity.
And then there’s her other claim to fame: One of her three children is Elon Musk, Fortune‘s 2013 Business Person of the Year.
Elon, a co-founder of PayPal, is the audacious innovator behind three other major startups: electric car maker Tesla Motors
, commercial space travel outfit SpaceEx, and SolarCity
, which provides rooftop solar systems. So Maye played a critical role in spawning (literally) some of the great inventions of our time — and was an entrepreneurial role model.
Maye Musk’s career path is one of twists and turns. She was born in Canada but raised in Pretoria, South Africa. She loved the sciences and reading, visiting the library twice a week. But her mother’s friend had a modeling agency, and suddenly Maye found herself at beauty pageants. After gaining her dietitian degree from University of Pretoria, she married engineer Errol Musk at 22 and then had three children in three years. She launched a counseling practice, allowing for a flexible schedule with the kids.
Maye’s brood of Elon, Kimbal, and Tosca got along well, but each had his or her own personality quirks. Maye says Elon’s introversion led her to believe for some time that he might be deaf. He was bullied in school; Maye assured her son that she, too, got picked on as a child and that her twin sister often shielded her from classmates’ barbs.
Maye says she soon understood that Elon’s quietness simply meant he was thinking. (Son Kimbal and daughter Tosca were much more outgoing). Maye and Errol divorced before Elon was 10. As teens, her sons spent their weeks with their dad and their weekends with mom, and Maye says she lived for her kids. “If they had a sporting event — actually, they weren’t that good at sports — so any kind of event, I would make sure I had time to go and support them.” All the while, Maye managed to build out her dietitian business.
When he was 17, Elon moved to Canada. Though she had a thriving practice in South Africa, and the dietitian community sought her out as a speaker at industry events, Maye and the rest of the family followed Elon.
In Canada, Maye had to start from scratch. She and Tosca lived with a friend until they found a rent-controlled place in Toronto, where Elon joined them. For $1,000 a month, Maye did research at University of Toronto while taking courses to verify her South African credentials. She also bought Elon a $99 outfit (suit, tie, and socks included) and connected him with a dietitian’s husband who worked at Microsoft
, where Elon ended up working for a bit. Maye continued modeling, booking jobs to snag office space in her modeling agency’s building. Maye renovated it and rebuilt her practice.
After her sons graduated from college, Elon and Kimbal moved to California and started electronic directory company Zip2. Maye had about $2,000 to spare per month, so she used it to visit her sons every six weeks for a week. Whatever was left over was theirs for the taking. (At the time, the scrappy startup founders were showering at the Y and sleeping under their desks, Maye recalls.) During one of her visits, Maye went to Kinko’s with Kimbal to print colored copies – that mom was paying for – of the boys’ business presentation to take to a venture capitalist the next morning. That meeting was where Elon and Kimbal got their first investment.
Maye soon found herself packing boxes again. Tosca had recently left Vancouver to join the Musk boys in Mountain View, Calif., and they were all clamoring for Maye to join. She sold her Toronto dietitian business, expecting she would find great success in America — where everyone wanted a dietitian! — and, yet again, started from scratch. Maye found Mountain View boring, so she lived in San Francisco and worked to learn American metrics, dietitian union rules, and reframe her business model. She couldn’t afford a car, so she would rent one, visiting and advising her children in Palo Alto on Saturday afternoons after modeling in Nordstrom
runway shows in the mornings.
In 1998, Zip2’s success began to sink in. That year, Maye turned 50, and her sons presented her with a tiny wood car and a tiny wood house. One day, they said, we’ll buy you the real thing. Compaq
bought the business a year later for $305 million — and they offered to buy Maye the promised home, but this time she decided to settle far from her children. An earlier visit to Manhattan convinced her to relocate there.
“[New Yorkers] speak fast, they walk fast, they talk fast,” she says. “These are my kind of people.”
Maye lived in Manhattan — on 22nd between Park Ave. and Broadway — for 13 years. Her modeling career picked up. (Besides her New York Magazine gig, she’s appeared on the cover of a special health issue of Time magazine and as Mrs. Claus on a Target
holiday billboard in Times Square.) Yet again, she restarted her dietitian business.
Kimbal, meanwhile, launched a restaurant business in Colorado, and Tosca started a production company in Los Angeles. Oh, and Elon co-founded and sold PayPal to eBay
and went on to the extraordinary entrepreneurial feats that merit him Fortune‘s Businessperson of the Year.
About eight months ago, Tosca again convinced her mother to move closer to family. She and Elon live in Los Angeles. Tosca has twin babies. Kimbal is looking to open a restaurant in the area.
The Musks can’t seem to stay away from each other for too long, yet they’re all fiercely independent. Since they were young, they “wanted to do their own thing,” says Maye. “In their own ways.”
Perhaps that’s because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “I live by the seat of my pants,” Maye confesses. “So it’s quite normal for them to think that way.”