In late 2021, Elon Musk was cornered by one man in his innermost circle, Jared Birchall. It was about money — Musk’s money to be precise — and how the world’s richest man was choosing to spend a vast part of it.
Birchall, the 48-year-old wealth manager who rose to become Musk’s top deputy and the head of his family office, had growing concerns about a new power player in the Tesla CEO’s orbit, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Musk was increasingly relying on a new advisor, a 34-year-old, Russian-born ex-professional gambler named Igor Kurganov. Musk and Kurganov chatted late into the night about how the world’s richest person might use his fortune to help shape the planet through a giving strategy known as “effective altruism”, when the latter spent some of the pandemic sleeping in Musk’s home.
Kurganov had no experience in finance or security but was suddenly a central figure in both areas for Musk. Not long after, the Tesla CEO told Birchall that he was so taken by the younger man’s ideas that he wanted to leave him in charge of his charitable giving, dispersing funds from Musk’s vast private fortune, currently around $230 billion, as he saw fit.
“Elon,” Birchall told his boss, according to three people briefed afterward. “You can’t.”
The clash between the two men, and their dueling efforts to gain the upper hand with Musk, provides a peek into the often tumultuous private workings of Musk’s inner circle.
Last winter, Musk came to a compromise between the two. He allowed Kurganov to oversee $5.7 billion in Tesla shares that the CEO pledged late last year to eventually donate to charity. The rest of Musk’s overall fortune remained under Birchall’s purview. That decision wasn’t, however, the end of the fracas.
Though Musk is known to favour his own counsel most of all, the man in charge of his foundation since 2016 has been Birchall, one of the longest standing in his inner circle.
Kurganov first became friendly with Musk socially. Born in Russia but raised in Germany from age four, he gained a level of fame as a professional poker player. By last August, two years after retiring from poker, Kurganov had an official email address at the Musk Foundation and was heavily involved in the charity. That month, he corresponded with Chris Carberry, CEO of the non-profit Explore Mars. The group was looking to raise $600,000 to spirit an Afghan girls robotics team out of the war-torn country. Kurganov was skeptical about the cost.
To Birchall, that was an untenable situation. He was legally head of the foundation, and as he saw it, Kurganov was a newcomer who suddenly had immense influence on what to do with Musk’s money, he told people. Birchall also learned that a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent had begun making preliminary inquiries into Kurganov as part of his job to watch for foreign interference in US companies, people familiar with the matter told The Journal.
Birchall, alarmed that Musk could be drawn into a federal investigation, this spring again pressed his internal case against Kurganov, people familiar with the matter said. During this period, Birchall helped line up billions of dollars in financing and spoke to shareholders and investors on Musk’s behalf about the future of Twitter.
Birchall in May asked Musk to remove Kurganov from his post at the foundation. Musk agreed to let Kurganov go, the representative of the foundation said, with none of Musk’s money ultimately spent on projects related to effective altruism.