KEARNEY — “One of you may be the next Elon Musk sitting in this room,” Jon McNeill told a room of Kearney High School students Monday.
McNeill formerly was the president of Tesla, the high-end automotive company created by Musk, as well as the chief operating officer of Lyft. Just like all the students in the Scott D. Morris Center, he once went to KHS.
The 1985 alumnus shared the story yesterday of how he went from being a near-delinquent juvenile who grew up on K Avenue to starting six companies and eventually running the $20 billion company that is Tesla.
As a young teen, McNeill said, “I wouldn’t describe (myself) as a juvenile delinquent, but I was close. I messed around a lot.”
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However, his life was put on a new track when he was approached by two men who owned a lawn mowing business, and also happened to be KPS administrators — Jerry Menke and Ken Mumm.
They asked what McNeill was doing that summer between his eighth and ninth grade years.
McNeill said he didn’t know.
“One said, ‘We’re pretty sure if you don’t get something structured to do, you’re going to go to jail, eventually,” McNeill said he was told. So, the two offered him the opportunity to run the lawn mowing business.
McNeill said he didn’t think that he could do that. He was a 14-year-old, he didn’t have a driver’s license and he didn’t have lawn care experience.
But one of the men offered him this advice: “Don’t worry about it, you’ll figure it out, and we believe in you.”
“That was something I desperately needed to hear from an adult,” McNeill said.
He took the advice to heart, applying it far beyond his teenage years.
As an adult, McNeill found himself doing jobs he had never done before, but somehow was able to figure it out.
One of those jobs was at Tesla.
That lawn care job also taught McNeill how to earn money. Growing up, McNeill told the students that he had to pay for his own clothes — even sharing a story of how he once asked for a pair of Nikes as a kid and his father told him that the family couldn’t afford it.
So, lawn mowing allowed him to buy some clothes, shoes and, eventually, his first car, which ignited a love that would someday apply to his future career.
After graduating from KHS in 1985, McNeill went to college at Northwestern University in Illinois, and then got a job at Bain Capital, a venture capital firm, working under Mitt Romney. Yes, that Mitt Romney who ran for U.S. president in 2012.
It was while working for Romney and hearing numerous business pitches, one after another, that McNeill realized he wanted to be on the other side of the table — not investing in businesses but running them.
From there, he started six companies. Creating, growing and selling them one after the other.
It was a tragedy that led his paths to cross with the founder of Tesla, though.
One of McNeill’s best friends died, and so he traveled to Silicon Valley, where the friend had lived. There, a member of the friend’s family introduced him to Musk.
McNeill said the two of them “hit it off,” and Musk asked him to be Tesla’s president.
The offer was intimidating.
“When Elon first asked me, I was like, ‘No, I’m not your guy,” McNeill later told the students, after being asked what kept him motivated through his career.
With many of the jobs he was offered, though, McNeill found himself thinking back to the encouragement Menke and Mumm gave him: “Even if you think you can’t do it, you can put your mind to it and figure it out.”
Obviously, McNeill ended up taking Musk’s job offer.
While McNeill thought he was unable to run even a $2 billion company, three years later, he was running a $20 billion company as Tesla had both grown financially and geographically under him.
After Tesla, McNeill became the COO at Lyft, growing the ride-share company as well. Now, he has his eyes set on a new company that he did not disclose. He’s also working on a nonprofit in the Dominican Republic.
The KHS alumnus answered more than 20 other questions from KHS students, opening the room up in an “Ask Me Anything” format. The questions ranged from the Tesla Model 3 he drove here in — or rather, that drove him here — to “What is the biggest life-changing decision you made throughout your life that led to you being successful?”
To that question, McNeill admitted that he has been lucky to get some of the opportunities he’s been given, but many of those opportunities have come from networking, from the ties that led him to Tesla to the friends he made in high school.
It was lucky, too, he said, that two KPS educators decided to help him more than 30 years ago and were there to support him that day. He added that the kids in the room are lucky to be surrounded by educators like those two.
“I was a bit of an outcast because I liked math and computers and music, and I was better at that than I was as an athlete,” he said. “There’s a lot of different paths you can go down, but this is a great place to start, and I’m super grateful to those two guys in the back of the room who saw some potential somewhere deep inside a kid and pulled it out.”