Lyndon Rive started his first company at age 17. He finished high school in his native South Africa only by convincing the principal that if he only showed up for tests and passed, that should be enough for a diploma. (The skeptical principal was convinced after seeing the financials of Rive's budding company.)  

Today, Rive is the chief executive of his third company, SolarCity, which he founded a decade ago with a brother, Peter, and a little help from his cousin, Elon Musk. SolarCity is North America's biggest installer and financier of solar panels, is building the continent's largest solar-panel factory, and employs 14,000 people. (And, yes, underwater hockey is a real thing.)  

What was the earliest indication you'd be an entrepreneur?
Since the beginning, every single thing was a negotiation. I've always loved making deals. I started my first business at 17, but I was doing a lot of little side deals before then. 

Your family gets a lot of attention in the startup community, especially your cousin and co-founder, Elon Musk.
I've had the luxury of starting businesses with both of my brothers. And then Elon got involved. Of course we already knew each other from the personal side--but then we got to know each other from the business side. His ability to see problems is very rare.

How else would you describe him?
He has this unique gift of being one of the strongest business people I know and one of the strongest engineers I know. Having that hybrid functionality and have it be so strong is invaluable in brainstorming. Have you seen The Matrix? I often refer to him as Neo. He can see the zeros and the ones. He can see the invisible walls.

Do you think the United States is actually on track to make a meaningful cut in emissions, and adequately curb our dependence on fossil fuels in a way that slows the pace of global warming?
The U.S. is going to be one of the best countries in the world to make a dent on sustainability. If you just look at the growth in solar, it has consistently grown at roughly 40 to 50 percent year-over-year for the past 10 years. It now employs about 175,000 people--that's more than the coal industry. In California, it employs more people than the five big utilities, combined. Here's another crazy stat: If you look at the rate of new energy being deployed, in 2009, solar was only 2 percent. In 2014, solar was over 20 percent.

How big of a dent, though, does that actually make?
Since that's all new energy, this is still a small fraction of all energy, like 1 percent. But if the industry can maintain this growth curve for the next 10 years, it can make a massive dent.

What's been your greatest challenge over the past decade?
The biggest challenge is the policy debates against the utilities. You are dealing with a monopoly that doesn't want to change. They don't have any competition and the consumer is captive--they have no choice.

So how do you break into the debate when established power companies had such lobbying heft? 
What we did was early on was invest in policy. It was a hard decision, because we didn't have the capital. But we had to. The only way we can get policy to change is to get consumers to speak up for what they want. So if they want choice, and they want to control cost, and they want to use alternative energy, we need their help and they need to speak up. So we coordinate with them to speak up for their rights.

But has that worked?
We have won 42 of the 44 battles we've fought.

You took SolarCity public in 2012. How have things changed since the IPO?
The IPO was a difficult IPO. We started the road show, and I was flying down to New York, I was at the airport, and I got a call from the bankers saying, "This storm looks really bad. I think we are going to have to cancel this road show."

That was Hurricane Sandy?
That was Hurricane Sandy. Ironic. Because you might say climate change caused Sandy.

It prevented our road show. And in 2012, all solar stocks had had a serious beating--anything with "solar" was considered bad. Some of the bankers wanted us to change our name. We had to reduce the price on the IPO. We actually went out at $8. Within a few months it jumped to $20, but it was tough on the company. 

What's your best life hack?
I measure everything. How much time I spend on workouts, how much time I spend sleeping, or at work, or with my family, travel time, mobilization, demobilization time. How much time do you need to spend with your kids? Most people say you can't put a measurement on that. I think you absolutely can. My number is 16 hours with the kids a week. If I don't get that, I'm falling behind. 

So does lost time in waiting in lines or getting stuck in traffic make you just absolutely batty now?
I used to drive to work. I rarely drive now. I Uber everywhere. I work in the back of the car. If the commute is longer than 20 minutes, I Uber. I've gotten an hour back a day.

I heard you play underwater hockey. What's that?
I started playing when I was young. I played for South Africa in the world championships in 1998. It was in San Jose. That's the reason I came over to America: I fell in love with San Jose. You play with a mask and snorkel. You hold your breath and go down. The puck is made of lead.

Seriously?
Here's the more crazy part: At my software company, I lost my visa status after raising multiple rounds of capital. This is 2003. But my wife figured out there's a visa category called "exceptional ability." 

Like how a great actress or scientist might get an "exceptional ability" visa?
Yes! Both my wife and I happen to be very good at underwater hockey. She got her green card through underwater hockey. And I got my green card because I'm married to her. But I am playing for the U.S. team in 2016.

So, be honest: Is your wife better at underwater hockey than you?
Proportionally speaking, yes. If she had my strength and weight, she would be better. But if she and I played now, I would win.

Published on: Nov 16, 2015