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Why the Fortune 500 Is Rebel Territory

June 7, 2017, 10:30 AM UTC

No one would look at Elon Musk, the boyish 45-year-old cofounder and CEO of Tesla, and think, “Establishment guy!” Consider for evidence this tidbit: In anticipation of its annual shareholders meeting on June 6, Tesla tweeted out a request for questions that its chief executive could answer. One guy asked, “Boxers or briefs?” To which Musk replied, “Wearing anything at all is just a conspiracy by the capitalist running dogs of Big Underwear.”

As I said, not exactly establishment.

So the fact that Tesla, one of several innovative companies that Musk is juggling, is now a newly minted member of the 500 Club—arriving for the first time this year on Fortune’s annual register of the biggest U.S. companies—might strike some as a curious, if marvelous, oddity: the brash, antiestablishment carmaker parked in one of the reserved spaces for America’s corporate elite.

Cool beans.

Some, no doubt, felt the same surprise when Reed Hastings’s Netflix (NFLX) knocked on the club doors two years ago. Or in 2013, when a tee-clad Mark Zuckerberg showed up with the social media dominion he had founded just nine years earlier. Or in 2006, when a couple of cerebral Stanford grads, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, crashed through the 500’s gates with their oogley-named web-searching phenom.

That year Google (GOOGL), which made its debut at No. 353, had a respectable $6 billion in revenue. This year, in its 12th appearance, the company (rechristened Alphabet) clocks in with $90 billion in revenue, whisking it up to No. 27.

Which brings me to the secret of this elite, Ivy-strewn estate. The Fortune 500 has always been a destination for radical thinkers, stargazing inventors, and slightly disheveled entrepreneurs.

It was true back in 1960, in the sixth iteration of the list, when a camera company called Polaroid just barely made the cut. Founder Edwin Land, by then 51 years old, was to many an “aloof, authoritarian” chief executive, hell-bent on overtaking the far bigger Eastman Kodak (then ranked No. 45). But the inventor who had first caught Fortune’s eye more than two decades earlier was someone else: a rebellious physics genius, not yet 30, who “never took the trouble to graduate from Harvard” and who had started a small company in a cellar on Boston’s Dartmouth Street. “Student Land had a shock of black hair, dark piercing eyes, a jerky manner, and a sophisticated but incurable enthusiasm about almost everything in the world but especially about a light polarizer that he had devised in his teens in a rudimentary home laboratory,” we said in a 1938 profile.

One by one they came—daring, upstart free enterprisers who pulled and dragged America to the front of a new global techno-industrial age. And together they built the Fortune 500, as if brick by brick: William Redington Hewlett and David Packard got their eponymous printer company on the list in 1962; then came Joseph Wilson’s Xerox (XRX)in 1963, Gordon Moore’s Intel (INTC) in 1979, and then, of course, two guys named Steve.

Founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple (AAPL) first appeared on our famed roster in 1983, having gone from California garage to the front door of American business in a mere seven years. Today, with $216 billion in 2016 revenue and a staggering $46 billion in profit, Apple is as much the world’s company as it is America’s. Just as Tesla is, for that matter (see “Tesla Takes Off in China”). And just as virtually all of the Fortune 500 are. (Together, these companies had revenue of $12.1 trillion in 2016, a significant share of which derived from outside the U.S.)

As mighty as they may be, though, they all sprouted from someone’s irrepressible, radical idea—which is to say: They were all invented.

Welcome to the Fortune 500, the home of the new thinkers.

A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Rebel Territory.”