Last month, Insider published an explosive report about a former SpaceX flight attendant who accused SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk of propositioning her for sex in 2016 and to whom the company paid $250,000 to keep quiet. Musk immediately labeled the story “a politically motivated hit piece,” while SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell came to Musk’s defense in a company-wide email covered by CNBC in which she wrote: “Personally, I believe the allegations to be false; not because I work for Elon, but because I have worked closely with him for 20 years and never seen nor heard anything resembling these allegations.”
Alas, a new and far more damaging Insider report is putting Shotwell — and every other executive insider Musk’s various companies — in an even more uncomfortable position.
According to the story, published late this afternoon, “court documents obtained by Insider show that the tech mogul Elon Musk quietly had twins last November with one of his top executives, Shivon Zilis. In April, Musk, 51, and Zilis, 36, filed a petition to change the twins’ names in order to ‘have their father’s last name and contain their mother’s last name as part of their middle name.’” The order was approved by a judge in Austin in May, adds the report, and the “twins were born weeks before Musk and Claire Boucher, the musician who performs as Grimes, had their second child via surrogate in December.”
Until recently, that same page stated that the work experience of Zilis — a Yale graduate who began her career at IBM, then invested on behalf of the Bloomberg-backed venture outfit Bloomberg Beta until early 2016 — included Neuralink, Tesla and OpenAI.
All three, of course, have deep ties to Musk, who founded Neuralink, cofounded OpenAI and assumed leadership of Tesla back in 2008.
Specifically, says Insider, Zilis first met Musk in 2016 while a director at OpenAI, where she is now the youngest member on its board of directors.
In 2017, she reportedly joined Tesla as a project director.
Today, Zilis holds the title of director of operations and special projects for Neuralink, where Musk is a co-CEO.
The outlet also says that Zilis has recently been floated as one of the people Musk could tap to run Twitter if his proposed $44 billion acquisition of the company goes forward as expected.
TechCrunch has not independently verified Insider’s account. Musk, who is typically highly active on Twitter and who did not respond to requests for comment from Insider (neither did Zilis), is meanwhile remaining mum for now, though he last month tweeted that falling birth rates in the U.S. are a “demographic disaster,” adding, “I mean, I’m doing my part haha.”
The biggest question the story raises, beyond how many children Musk plans to father — it’s looking like he has at least nine with various partners — is whether any of these companies have fraternization policies that prohibit romantic relationships between a manager and a reporting staff member.
While most companies the size of Tesla and SpaceX prohibit dating relationships between employees who are separated by two levels in the chain of command, Musk is known for flaunting traditional rules. (A Tesla employee handbook from 2020 isn’t exactly standard fare, warning that “Our assumption will be that if you don’t call and don’t show up for work, you’re a jerk. You better have a really good reason for not letting us know why you didn’t come in or you’re out of here.”)
Even if Neuralink, Tesla and OpenAI (where Musk disassociated himself in 2019) do not have policies in place preventing fraternization, this new report is hugely problematic. Musk having secret children with a direct report will obviously prove a huge distraction to other staffers. It’s bad for morale, which is the last thing that Tesla in particular would seem to need right now given its many other employee battles. It could also open up Musk’s companies to massive lawsuits from Zilis if at some point down the road, she decides he abused the power he wielded as CEO.
Not last, though likely least concerning, the development will probably not be looked on kindly by the U.S. government, which has already been chilly toward Tesla under the Biden administration. (The government is a separately a large customer of SpaceX, where Zilis has not been an employee.)
In the meantime, the report makes the board of directors at Musk’s companies look astonishingly lax, and it puts defenders like Shotwell in the position of having to reassure employees that Musk has the same laser-like focus on his companies’ success as he says he expects of them. No doubt she is being asked to do that tonight, perhaps in another company-wide email. We don’t envy her the job.
Uber to sunset free loyalty program in favor of subscription membership
Ride-hailing giant Uber is shutting down its free loyalty program, Uber Rewards, so it can focus on its subscription-based Uber One membership.
Uber first launched the rewards program in 2018 as a sort of frequent flyer scheme that allowed riders to earn points for every dollar spent on rides or Uber Eats deliveries. Those points could then be used to get discounts on future rides or deliveries. In November 2021, Uber began introducing Uber One, which, for $9.99 per month or $99.99 annually, allows members perks like 5% off certain rides or delivery orders and unlimited $0 delivery fees on food orders of over $15 and grocery orders of over $30.
In an email sent to customers that was picked up by The Verge, Uber said users can still earn points via the legacy rewards program until the end of August, and that they can redeem those points until October 31. Uber Rewards will officially shut down on November 1, 2022, according to an update posted by the company.
The Uber Rewards program allowed users to earn 1x point for every Uber Pool dollar spent, 2x for every UberX dollar spent and 3x for every $1 spent on Premium. The number of points accumulated would put members into different castes of loyalty, from Blue to Gold to Platinum to Diamond, the latter of which comes with benefits like access to highly rated drivers, free delivery on three Uber Eats orders, access to better customer service and free upgrades.
While phone support will continue for Diamond users, now the only way to get additional perks with Uber will be to shell out for a subscription. Existing Rewards members will get a free one-month subscription to Uber One, but then will be charged for access. If you’re someone who orders Uber Eats more than twice a month, you can easily break even with the Uber One subscription, but plenty of users might not see the money saving benefits in the switch.
Uber did not respond immediately for clarity as to why it is shutting down the Rewards program in favor of the Uber One membership. Perhaps the company did not see the returns and user loyalty that it would have expected from the program and thinks a subscription offering will provide better returns.
Twilio gets hacked, teens ditch Facebook, and SpaceX takes South Korea to the moon
Is Facebook for old people? If you’ve got a teenager around the house, you’ve probably heard them say as much. The most read story this week is on a Pew study that suggests this generation of teens has largely abandoned the platform in favor of Instagram/YouTube/TikTok/etc.; whereas in 2014 around 71% of teens used Facebook, the study says in 2022 that number has dropped down to 32%.
Mark Cuban sued over crypto platform promotion: “A group of Voyager Digital customers filed a class-action suit in Florida federal court against Cuban, as well as the basketball team he owns, the Dallas Mavericks,” writes Anita, “alleging their promotion of the crypto platform resulted in more than 3.5 million investors losing $5 billion collectively.”
A troubling layoff trend: While tech layoffs might, maybe, hopefully be showing signs of slowing, Natasha M points out a troubling trend: some companies are announcing layoffs only to announce another round of layoffs just weeks or months later.
SpaceX launches South Korea’s first moon mission: South Korea has launched its first-ever lunar mission — a lunar orbiter “launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket” ahead of plans to land on the surface some time in 2030.
Twilio gets hacked: While it’s unclear exactly what data was taken, Twilio says the data of at least 125 customers was accessed after some of its employees were tricked “into handing over their corporate login credentials” by an intense SMS phishing attack.
Amazon’s bizarre new show: Think “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” but made up of user-submitted footage from Ring security cameras. By now most people probably realize their every step is recorded on a security camera or three — but doesn’t embracing it as Entertainment™ like this feel kind of…icky?
Haus hits hard times: Haus, a company that ships specialized low-alcohol drinks direct to consumers, is looking for a buyer after a major investor backed out of its Series A. The challenge? Investor diligence for an alcohol company can take months, and Haus just doesn’t “have the cash to support continued operations at this time.”
How clean is the air you breathe every day? Aclima co-founder Davida Herzl wants everyone to be able to answer that question, and sat down with Jordan and Darrell on this week’s Found podcast to explain her mission. Meanwhile on Chain Reaction, Jacquelyn and Anita explain the U.S. gov’s crackdown of the cryptocurrency mixer Tornado Cash, and the Equity crew spent Wednesday’s show discussing whether the turbulent market conditions of late will mean we see fewer early-stage endeavors in the months ahead.
What lies behind the paywall? A lot of really good stuff! Here’s what TechCrunch+ subscribers were reading most this week…
Building an MVP when you can’t code: Got a great idea but can’t code? You can still get the ball rolling. Magnus Grimeland, founder of the early-stage VC firm Antler, lays out some of the key principles to keep in mind.
Are SaaS valuations staging a recovery?: “…the good news for software startup founders,” writes Alex, “is that the period when the deck was being increasingly stacked against them may now be behind us.”
VCs and AI-powered investment tools: Do VCs want AI-powered tools to help them figure out where to put their money? Kyle Wiggers takes a look at the concept, and why not all VCs are on board with it.
After the FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago, online threats quickly turn into real-world violence
Threats of violence reached a fever pitch — reminiscent of the days leading up to the Capitol attack — following the news that the FBI raided Trump’s Florida beach club to retrieve classified documents the former president may have unlawfully taken there.
After Trump himself confirmed Monday’s raid at Mar-a-Lago, pro-Trump pundits and politicians rallied around declarations of “war,” and Trump’s ever-fervent supporters called for everything from dismantling the federal law enforcement agency to committing acts of violence against its agents. The situation escalated from there in record time, with online rhetoric boiling over quickly into real-world violence.
By Thursday, an armed man identified as Ricky Shiffer attempted to force his way into an FBI office in Cincinnati, Ohio, brandishing a rifle before fleeing. Law enforcement pursued Shiffer and he was fatally shot during the ensuing standoff with police.
Analysts with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a nonprofit that researches extremism and disinformation, found evidence that Shiffer was driven to commit violence by “conspiratorial beliefs related to former President Trump and the 2020 election…interest in killing federal law enforcement, and the recent search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago earlier this week.” He was also reportedly present at the January 6 attack — another echo between this week’s escalating online threats and the tensions that culminated in political violence at the Capitol that day.
Shiffer appears to have been active on both Twitter and Truth Social, the platform from Trump’s media company that hosts the former president and his supporters. As Thursday’s attack unfolded, Shiffer appeared to post to Truth Social about how his plan to infiltrate the FBI office by breaking through a ballistic glass barrier with a nail gun had gone awry. “Well, I thought I had a way through bullet proof glass, and I didn’t,” the account posted Thursday morning. “If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I., and it’ll mean either I was taken off the internet, the F.B.I. got me, or they sent the regular cops…”
In posts on Truth Social, the account implored others to “be ready to kill the enemy” and “kill the FBI on sight” in light of Monday’s raid at Mar-a-Lago. It also urged followers to heed a “call to arms” to arm themselves and prepare for combat. “If you know of any protests or attacks, please post here,” the account declared earlier this week.
By Friday, that account was removed from the platform and a search of Shiffer’s name mostly surfaced content denouncing his actions. “Why did you censor #rickyshiffer‘s profile? So much for #truth and #transparency,” one Truth Social user posted on Friday. Still, online conspiracies around the week’s events remain in wide circulation on Truth Social and elsewhere, blaming antifa for the attack on the Ohio FBI office, accusing the agency of planting documents at Mar-a-Lago and sowing unfounded fears that well-armed IRS agents will descend on Americans in light of Friday’s House passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.
“‘Violence against law enforcement is not the answer no matter what anybody is upset about or who they’re upset with,’ FBI director Christopher Wray said in light of emerging threats of violence this week. Trump appointed Wray to the role in 2017 after infamously ousting former FBI director James Comey.”
Friday is also the five-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally, which saw white nationalists clad in Nazi imagery marching openly through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. The ensuing events left 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer dead and sent political shockwaves through a nation that had largely grown complacent about the simmering threat of white supremacist violence.
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