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People play computer games at an internet cafe in Fuyang, China’s Anhui province.
Lu Qijian | Visual China Group | Getty Images

LONDON – After decades of the U.S. and Japan dominating the gaming space, China’s influence is growing as its tech giants snap up gaming studios around the world.

Now, some experts think video games could look a little different in the coming years as a result.

Questions are being asked about whether the Chinese owners of U.S. and European studios will try to influence the games they make, or indeed use them to promote Chinese values. It remains to be seen but subtle changes could happen in the coming years, according to some experts.

“Some of these values might be different from what many expect,” British-Chinese writer Lu-Hai Liang told CNBC. “For example, Chinese female gamers are a massive market (500 million) and there have been many female-focused games and game studios that revel in this sector.”

Thomas David, a semiconductor engineer in the U.S., told CNBC that he thinks gamers could start to see more titles where the “good guy” is Chinese and the “bad guy” is from the West, for example.

China’s own gaming market is heavily regulated. It does not allow games that contain certain political views, gambling, gore, nudity and many other things to be released and sold in its home market. The movie industry is equally strict, with U.S. films having to be adapted before they can be released in China.

Exporting Chinese culture

“This area — how China could use games to export its culture — is incredibly important and largely missed,” Abishur Prakash, co-founder of the Center for Innovating the Future, told CNBC.

“China has several ways it can take its ideals to the world through games, and build a new kind of global power,” said Prakash. “One way is by banning certain topics, like Taiwan or human rights, from being discussed,” he said.

China could also establish “new centers within games that help showcase China’s power,” or use games to build its financial and commercial power, he said. “The next Chinese games might only allow users to purchase items in digital Yuan,” said Prakash. “Or, the Chinese games might have Chinese platforms, like TikTok, embedded into them.”

Others doubt that Chinese owners of Western gaming studios will try to change the games that get sold in the West.

“I would be very skeptical of something like that happening,” Louise Shorthouse, a senior games analyst at Ampere Analysis, told CNBC.

Steven Bailey, principal analyst at Omida, told CNBC that “Chinese companies have had involvement in various Western game companies and content for quite some time, and understand that successfully making games for the West will not be supported by such changes.”

He added: “Conversely, anyone releasing a game in China will need to adapt it for that market.”

Tencent’s sprawling investments

Tencent and NetEase have been snapping up stakes in gaming firms beyond China’s borders for years with little opposition.

“Tencent keeps buying the #1 game in every niche in North America and Europe,” wrote tech investor Rodolfo Rosini on Twitter in February. “This is important because games have cultural influence. And controlling the present and how reality is portrayed is very powerful.”

“If Tencent were to buy a stake in every leading newspaper and TV company people would be up in arms, there would be political hearings etc,” he added. “Instead they play the long game and they are buying the next generation’s media properties without any competition.”

For years, Hollywood has spread American values around the world and championed the country’s military might. Now it could be China’s turn to try to do the same, but through video games. However, while Hollywood often criticizes the U.S. and the actions of Washington D.C., China’s tech giants would not be able to say a bad word against Beijing, which exercises great control over all of its domestic enterprises.

China has more gamers than any other country, making it a highly lucrative market for those that can get in. One of the reasons that U.S. and European gaming firms take investment from Chinese companies is that they’re legally obliged to partner with a Chinese company before their game can be released in the country.

U.K.-headquartered Sumo became the latest gaming firm to sell to a Chinese tech behemoth on Monday, announcing a $1.26 billion deal with Tencent, which is the world’s largest video game publisher.

Neither company immediately responded when CNBC asked how, or indeed if, Tencent will influence the games that Sumo works on.

But Tencent has traditionally taken a hands off approach to its investments and acquisitions, according to Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst at Niko Partners.

“The company could also be an invaluable partner for Tencent as it looks to push into the AAA game space itself with its own projects,” said Ahmad.

“The deal would also help Sumo utilize Tencent’s expertise in regard to games development and publishing within China,” he added.  

“Chinese game studios are looking to grow overseas and while organic growth is one option, acquisition allows these companies to build a presence much faster and with local talent,” said Ahmad.

Tencent also invested $150 million in Reddit in 2019, angering some Reddit users in the process who were concerned that the platform may experience more censorship. However, this does not appear to have happened in any significant way.

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Jared Kushner’s post-White House deal-making included badly timed bet on Amazon aggregator




A video of Jared Kushner is shown on a screen, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 21, 2022. 

Alex Brandon | Reuters

In March 2022, Jared Kushner was called to testify in front of the Jan. 6 House committee regarding the attack on the Capitol that occurred in the waning days of his father-in-law’s presidency. In his private life, meanwhile, Kushner was doing deals, including one that took him to a niche and soon-to-be troubled corner of Amazon’s e-commerce empire.

Weeks ahead of his testimony in Washington, Kushner and others from his private equity firm, Affinity Partners, took a boat from their beach office in South Florida to meet with a company called Unybrands at its headquarters in nearby Miami, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the talks were private.

Unybrands, founded in 2020, was one of many players in the then-booming market of Amazon seller aggregators. Companies in the space took advantage of low interest rates and pandemic-driven growth in e-commerce to collectively raise more than $16 billion from top names on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley with the intent of rolling up independent sellers on Amazon’s marketplace.

Kushner started Affinity in 2021, shortly after leaving his advisory role in the White House alongside his wife, Ivanka Trump. With Affinity, he attracted headlines for raising some $2 billion from the Saudi government, a highly controversial move given the cozy relationship between the Trump administration and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence officials said approved an operation to capture and kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

When it came to the Amazon aggregator market, Kushner was jumping in at the worst possible time. The tech bubble was bursting following a record wave of venture investment in 2021, when investors across the globe pumped $621 billion into startups and high-growth companies, more than double the prior record set a year earlier, according to CB Insights data. Rising rates and soaring inflation in 2022 led to slowing growth and layoffs across the industry, including at Unybrands.

Kushner was introduced to Unybrands by a tech entrepreneur whose company also had financial ties to Saudi Arabia, WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann, two people with knowledge of the matter said. Prior to its failed IPO in 2019, WeWork had raised billions of dollars from SoftBank and its Saudi-backed Vision Fund.

Neumann’s family office invested in Unybrands around the peak of the aggregator market in 2021, according to filings in the U.K., where the company has an operation. Neumann, who was ultimately ousted from WeWork by top SoftBank execs, introduced Kushner to Unybrands early the following year.

For about 90 minutes on that March day, members of Unybrands’ C-suite fielded questions from Kushner and his team, and showed off some of the eclectic mix of products the company had acquired: dietary supplements, cookware, microwavable weighted stuffed animals and the top-selling nail dryer on Amazon, the sources said.

Kushner was impressed by what he saw, they said. A month after the meeting, he wrote Unybrands a check for $75 million, according to documents viewed by CNBC.

Affinity’s investment in Unybrands, which hasn’t previously been reported, was one of the private equity firm’s earliest deals. It’s since backed a handful of companies, including a fitness technology startup, an online classifieds operator and a solar financing company, with its investments totaling a reported $1.2 billion to date. 

As Kushner was getting into Unybrands, tech stocks were cratering. The IPO window slammed shut in 2022 and venture funding dried up for cash-burning startups. The Amazon aggregator space, which had blossomed during the pandemic, began to unwind as consumers tightened their belts and more people returned to brick-and-mortar stores. Aggregators that, less than a year earlier were throwing lavish cocktail parties and giving away Teslas for referrals, were suddenly strapped for cash.

What's behind the big hype and billion-dollar aggregator start-ups buying Amazon seller brands

The cost of doing business on Amazon — from advertising and listing fees to shipping and fulfillment — continued to creep up, making it harder for aggregators to run the companies they’d acquired profitably. Layoffs ensued, and some companies sold off underperforming brands.

The most high-profile collapse was Thrasio, which was once valued at a reported $10 billion before filing for bankruptcy in February of this year. The company then lost its CEO and a string of top executives, CNBC previously reported.

Distressed deals have been occurring across the space. Razor Group, which counts L Catterton and BlackRock among its investors, acquired SoftBank-backed Perch in March. Heyday, backed by Khosla Ventures, has been exploring tie-ups with other aggregators, a former employee said. The company laid off its entire creative and brand teams in November, said the person, who asked not to be named because of confidentiality.

Heyday approached Dragonfly, whose backers include L Catterton, about a merger but the talks fell apart in recent months, according to a separate person with knowledge of the matter.

Heyday didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Unybrands also began seeking a buyer. In February, the company sent a deck to prospective acquirers and investors, a person familiar with the matter said.

Unybrands said in an emailed statement that the company explored strategic opportunities as the aggregator space “was full of disruption” in 2023. The company and its investors ultimately decided to continue raising funds internally, Unybrands said.

Unybrands confirmed to CNBC that Affinity invested in the company in 2022, though it didn’t specify how much it raised from Kushner’s firm.

‘Kick-the-can’ mergers

Some of the consolidation is being fueled by lenders who want to avoid write-downs, sources close to a number of deals told CNBC. Jason Somerville, a founding partner of consulting firm GW Partners, which has advised sellers and aggregators on deals, echoed that sentiment.

“I call it more of a kick-the-can type of merger, where you have common debt or common equity mergers, and they jam them together to maybe restructure the debt,” Somerville said. “Pretty much 100% of these are being done in a distressed situation.”

At Unybrands, year-over-year revenue growth had slowed to 11% in March 2022, from 27% in February and 34% in January, according to internal documents reviewed by CNBC. 

Following a continued slide, the company laid off roughly 10% of its staff in November 2022, according to people familiar with the matter. Unybrands held another round of job cuts last year, and again at the beginning of this year, the people said.

Unybrands told CNBC it grew almost 20% in 2022, reaching its target, though it didn’t say how much of that expansion came through acquisitions. The company also said it’s “never had a month with declining sales” and has focused on profitability and generating positive cash flow.

Unybrands didn’t directly respond to questions about whether it’s conducted layoffs. The company said headcount has grown from 115 employees in January 2022 to more than 230 employees as of this year.

For Kushner, the investment in Unybrands was part of an expanding portfolio. Kushner, now 43, was embarking on a new career in private equity after four years in the Trump administration. Prior to that, he spent nearly a decade running his family’s real estate business.

Affinity is backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which oversees $925 billion in assets and has spent years cozying up to big-name investors, particularly in technology, in an effort to diversify the kingdom’s revenue away from oil. Affinity also reportedly received hundreds of millions of dollars from wealth funds in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

President Donald Trump, flanked by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (2nd R) and chief economic advisor Gary Cohn (R), delivers remarks to reporters after meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman (L) at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The sources of capital received scrutiny due to Kushner’s diplomacy work in the Middle East while he was in the White House, as well as his friendly relationship with the Saudi crown prince. The House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into the investment in 2022, looking into whether Kushner’s financial interests influenced Trump’s foreign policy.

“Your support for Saudi interests was unwavering, even as Congress and the rest of the world closely scrutinized the country’s human rights abuses in Yemen, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi assassins tied to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on political dissidents at home,” Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who was chair of the Oversight Committee, wrote in a letter to Kushner in June 2022.

Republicans on the committee have delayed Democrats’ efforts to subpoena Kushner over the matter.

On Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., initiated a new probe into Affinity, saying in a release on his website that he’s seeking “information pertaining to the tens of millions in payments Kushner is receiving from the Saudis and other foreign sources every year while exploiting private investment fund disclosure loopholes to shield the arrangement from public scrutiny.”

A representative for Kushner didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Taking control

Unybrands was still trying to expand as early as February of this year despite the turmoil in the market. The company announced a new funding round — an undisclosed amount from unnamed investors — alongside the acquisition of another company that would bring in six new brands to its portfolio. The investment would also go toward repaying $300 million in debt owed to asset management firm Crayhill Capital Management from a financing round in 2021.

At the same time, Unybrands overhauled its board. Co-founder and CEO Ulrich Kratz, a former Barclays and Goldman Sachs executive, resigned as a director, along with the company’s two other co-founders, according to filings. 

Kratz hailed the new funding as a “huge day” for Unybrands in a February LinkedIn post.

“We’re now positioned better than ever to serve our customers and to continue to provide attractive exits for successful entrepreneurs,” he said.

While Unybrands provided scant details about the investment, filings with the U.K.’s corporate register show that in March, Unybrands transferred control of the company to a new entity owned by Kushner and affiliated with Affinity called AP Investments II.

Two years after Kushner’s first meeting with the company, U.K. records show Unybrands reincorporated as UBHoldCo. Filings indicate that AP Investments II maintains control of the business.

“The relevant legal entity holds, directly or indirectly, 75% or more of the shares of the company,” the filing says, referring to the firm’s control of UBHoldCo.

Unybrands acknowledged the ownership change in a memo to shareholders about the funding round last month, though it didn’t confirm Affinity’s involvement.

“As part of the financing the Crayhill debt was repaid,” Unybrands wrote in the memo, which was viewed by CNBC. “It also became necessary to make some changes to our corporate structure, which has meant that our group’s operating assets have been transferred to a new entity.”

UBHoldCo lists Ian Brekke, Affinity’s chief compliance officer, and Affinity partner Asad Naqvi as directors. Unybrands’ original holding company also remains active and lists two directors. One is Affinity partner Bret Pearlman, a former Blackstone managing director who also co-founded Elevation Partners with Roger McNamee. The other is Max Fink, a partner at Neumann’s family office, 166 2nd Financial Services.

It’s unclear how the entities and their boards operate within Unybrands’ corporate structure. The company notified shareholders late last month that “our investor” recently finalized its tax structuring, and that it would share more details on the financing soon, according to a document viewed by CNBC.

Unybrands told CNBC it’s in the process of consolidating its operations under one entity with one board made up of its “operating partners” and investors. The company confirmed its most recent funding round included Affinity, alongside Neumann’s family office and angel investors. The company added that Kratz continues to lead the business.

Representatives from Affinity didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Brekke, Naqvi, Pearlman and Fink also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Israeli-American businessman Adam Neumann speaks during The Israeli American Council (IAC) 8th Annual National Summit on January 19, 2023 in Austin, Texas.

Shahar Azran | Getty Images

Neumann, who reportedly developed a relationship with Kushner when he was in the Trump administration, had ties to Unybrands through its co-founder Eugen Miropolski, former COO of WeWork.  

Several high-profile executives have also recently departed Unybrands since Affinity effectively took control. CFO Robyn Laguette stepped down in March, according to her LinkedIn profile. Mark Goldfinger, who was vice president of growth and was involved in the Affinity deal, left in April, he confirmed in an email to CNBC.

Kushner has never spoken publicly about Unybrands or acknowledged his firm’s investment in the company. He said recently that he’s focused on investing and won’t be returning to the White House should Donald Trump defeat President Joe Biden in the November election.

“I’ve been very clear that my desire at this phase of my life is to focus on my firm,” Kushner said at an Axios event in February.

While Unybrands may end up as a relatively small write-off for his multibillion-dollar firm, other questions are still swirling.

In October, Kushner appeared on the “Lex Fridman Podcast,” a popular show that’s drawn a range of guests from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman to Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West.

Asked about Affinity’s backers, Kushner said he hasn’t been accused of violating any laws or ethics rules, and said one of his goals with the firm is to build “economic links” between the Gulf and Israel.

“I think we’re doing very well with it,” Kushner said. “In terms of the criticisms, I think that I’ve been criticized in every step of everything I’ve always done in my life. And so what I would say is this business is actually an objective metric business. It’s about returns. So in three, four years from now, five years from now, see how I do. Hopefully I’ll do very well, and judge me based on that.”

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This fintech configures expense cards to block misuse — and investors just backed it with millions




This fintech configures expense cards to block misuse — and investors just backed it with millions

Miragec | Moment | Getty Images

A startup that uses technology to stop employees from abusing corporate expenses just raised 8 million euros ($8.6 million) of funding from investors, defying a slump in investment for the financial technology industry.

CleverCards, a Dublin-based firm, uses a digital platform linked to configurable expense cards to give companies control over how their employees use their corporate payment cards.

According to a 2016 global survey of CFOs by human resources firm Robert Half, employees have made several improper expense report requests including a doggie day spa, taxidermy services, dance classes, a side of beef and even a welder.

These requests, though odd, reflect a tough reality for many companies when it comes to corporate expenses: sometimes they can’t trust an employees’ judgment.

CleverCards CEO Kealan Lennon says his platform aims to tackle exactly that.

Rather than handing employees corporate credit cards they can go out and use for purchases anywhere in the world, CleverCards allows businesses to deliver prepaid cards that can be configured to only be used by certain members of staff and block certain transactions if they’re viewed as inappropriate.

“Businesses want to make sure the right employee is the one that gets the card, and that it’s only used for certain purposes,” Lennon told CNBC in an interview.

“It’s finance control,” he added. “The idea of a configurable payments platform hadn’t been done before. And by doing it digitally, that allowed customers come along and say, I want to be able to do this with the press of a button.”

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CleverCards told CNBC exclusively Friday that it raised new funds in an investment round led by strategic investor Pluxee. The fresh investment takes the total money raised by CleverCards to date to over 28 million euros.

Pluxee is an employee vouchers and benefits platform that spun off from French food catering firm Sodexo earlier this year.

It is listed on the Euronext stock exchange in France with a valuation of 4 billion euros.

Taking business from Adyen, Stripe

Founded in 2019, CleverCards has signed up over 10,000 businesses as customers. It counts the likes of eBay, PaddyPower, Betfair, Accenture, Microsoft and Apple as clients.

Besides these businesses, CleverCard also works with public sector organizations.

In 2022, CleverCards partnered with the U.K. government to help release social welfare payments to people on smart meters who usually pay their bills through direct debit, but have been forced to seek additional financial help due to rising fuel prices. The cards could only be used to pay bills on select utility companies’ websites.

CleverCards deployed artificial intelligence to conduct identity verification checks on recipients, helping to avoid fraud, according to Lennon.

Lennon said that CleverCards’ funding round stood out in what has been a brutal market for dealmaking and fundraising in fintech.

“It is a tough environment,” he said. “In the current market logjam, it has been pretty impressive now to raise money because nobody’s raising capital.”

He said CleverCards is increasingly snatching business away from the likes of payment tech giants Adyen and Stripe.

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“It’s been remarkable in that, as a smaller company, right, we were looking at the Stripes and Adyens and powering ahead,” he said, adding that, now, “we’ve won business against them.”

CleverCards will use the fresh funds to expand its business, scale its products and explore broader opportunities, it said.

In addition to the fundraise, CleverCards appointed five new non-executive directors to its board with experience in payments technology.

They include industry veterans Patrick Waldron, Donal Daly, Marc Frappier, Garry Lyons and Viktoria Otero del Val.

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Elon Musk claims Optimus robots could make Tesla a $25 trillion company — more than half the value of the S&P 500 today




Elon Musk claims Optimus robots could make Tesla a  trillion company — more than half the value of the S&P 500 today

A mockup of Tesla Inc.’s planned humanoid robot Optimus on display during the Seoul Mobility Show in Goyang, South Korea, on Thursday, March 30, 2023. The motor show will continue through April 9. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The entire value of the S&P 500 currently stands at $45.5 trillion, according to FactSet. Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed on Thursday that his company’s Optimus humanoid robots could eventually make the automaker worth more than half of that.

Musk, who characterized himself as “pathologically optimistic” at the 2024 annual shareholder meeting in Austin, Texas, said Tesla is embarking on not just a “new chapter” in its life, but is about to write an entirely “new book.” Optimus appears to be one of the main characters.

Tesla first revealed its plans to work on humanoid robots in 2021 at an AI Day event, trotting out a dancer in a unitard that looked like a sleek, androgynous robot.

In January, Tesla showed off Optimus robots folding laundry in a demo video that was immediately criticized by robotics engineers for being deceptive. The robots were not autonomous, but were rather being operated with humans at the controls.

At the shareholder event on Thursday, Musk didn’t divulge exactly what Optimus can do today. He suggested the robots some day will perform like R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars. They could cook or clean for you, do factory work, or even teach your children, Musk suggested.

As for shareholder value, Musk said Optimus could be the catalyst for lifting Tesla’s market cap to $25 trillion someday.

Speaking to a crowd consisting mostly of fawning fanboys in an auditorium at the Gigafactory, Musk promised Tesla would move into “limited production” of Optimus in 2025 and test out humanoid robots in its own factories next year.

The company, he predicted, will have “over 1,000, or a few thousand, Optimus robots working at Tesla” in 2025.

This is all far-out stuff even for Musk, who is notorious for making ambitious promises to investors and customers that don’t pan out — from developing software that can turn an existing Tesla into a self-driving vehicle with an upload, to EV battery swapping stations.

Getting to a $25 trillion market cap would mean that Tesla would be worth about eight times Apple’s value today. The iPhone maker is currently the world’s biggest company by market cap, just ahead of Microsoft.

At Thursday’s close, Tesla was valued at about $580 billion, making it the 10th most valuable company in the S&P 500.

Musk didn’t provide a timeframe for reaching $25 trillion. He did say that autonomous vehicles could get the company to a market cap of $5 trillion to $7 trillion.

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Musk said he agreed with numbers from long-time Tesla bull Cathie Wood, the CEO of ARK Invest. This week, ARK put a $2,600 price target on Tesla’s stock by 2029, betting on a commercial robotaxi business that the company has yet to enter.

Wood’s price target equals a market cap for Tesla of over $8 trillion.

Musk’s comments at the annual meeting followed the shareholder vote to reinstate the CEO’s $56 billion pay plan, five months after a Delaware court ordered the company to rescind the package. The crowd cheered when the proposal was read aloud, and when preliminary results were announced.

Taking the stage following the readout of the shareholder votes, Musk said, “I just want to start off by saying hot d—! I love you guys.”

Tesla shares have dropped 27% this year as the company reckons with a sales decline that’s tied in part to an aging lineup of electric vehicles and increased competition in China. The company has also implemented steep layoffs. Musk has encouraged investors to look past the current state of the business and more toward a future of autonomous driving, robots and artificial intelligence.

Among his boldest claims on Thursday was Musk’s declaration that Tesla had advanced so far in developing silicon that it’s surpassed Nvidia when it comes to inference, or the process that trained machine learning models use to draw conclusions from new data.

Nvidia shares have soared almost nine-fold since the end of 2022, driven by demand for its AI chips. The company is now worth about $3.2 trillion.

One concern swirling around Musk is his focus on Tesla given all of his other commitments. He owns and runs social media company X, is CEO of SpaceX, and founded The Boring Co. and Neuralink. He launched another startup, xAI, in March last year and the company recently raised $6 billion in venture funding.

Musk was asked by a shareholder at the meeting how important he is, personally, to the future of Tesla.

“I’m a helpful accelerant to that future,” he said, emphasizing his role in innovation.

He said that, when it comes to humanoid robots, other companies, including tech startups, are going after the market. Competitors include Boston Dynamics, Agility, Neura and Apptronik.

“What really matters is, can we be much faster than everyone else and our product be done a few years before theirs and be better,” Musk said.

WATCH: Tesla shareholders approve Musk’s $56 billion pay package

Tesla shareholders approve CEO Musk's $56 billion pay package

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