OpenAI leadership hangs in balance as Sam Altman’s counter-rebellion gains steam

Former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman had proposed a series of high-profile tech executives to potentially helm a new board. (File Photo: AFP)
Former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman had proposed a series of high-profile tech executives to potentially helm a new board. (File Photo: AFP)


The AI startup’s power struggle persisted on Sunday after igniting with the chief executive’s ouster on Friday.

SAN FRANCISCO—The abrupt shakeup at OpenAI turns on one of the oldest tales in Silicon Valley: a breakup between a founder and his board.

But in this case it was a very particular kind of founder—the face of Silicon Valley’s artificial-intelligence revolution—and a very particular kind of board, which was tasked with making social good a priority over profit. The rupture threatens the future of the company and the billions of dollars investors had put into it.

The leadership of the company that created the hit AI chatbot ChatGPT remained unclear Sunday, as investors and employees pushed over the weekend to restore Sam Altman, fired as chief executive officer on Friday. Altman was engineering a countercoup whose speed and likelihood of success has been virtually unheard of in the history of Silicon Valley.

Altman was also considering starting his own venture, potentially with talent from OpenAI. But his bid to return had traction among employees: On Sunday morning, Chief Technology Officer and interim CEO Mira Murati sent a note to staff telling them that Altman would be returning to the San Francisco office later that day as negotiations continued.

The former CEO entered with a guest badge hours later and tweeted: “first and last time i ever wear one of these."

Over the weekend, Altman made clear to his allies that if he does return, he wants a new board and governance structure, people familiar with the matter said.

Two days after the board fired Altman, different explanations persisted for the initial firing. The board said Friday it pushed out the CEO after it concluded he hadn’t been candid with the company’s directors. It didn’t elaborate.

Over the weekend, people close to Altman said it had more to do with disputes around the safety of the company’s artificial-intelligence efforts and a power struggle with one co-founder and board member in particular, Ilya Sutskever.

On Sunday, a person familiar with the board stood by the board’s statement citing Altman’s lack of candor. This person said there was no single precipitating incident but rather a mounting loss of trust over communications with Altman that led it to remove him as CEO. The person declined to offer examples.

The ouster from OpenAI wasn’t the first time Altman was asked to leave a company. Several years ago, senior leaders at the venture firm Y Combinator asked Altman to step down as president after mounting concerns about the time he was spending on his other business endeavors, including at OpenAI, according to investors briefed by the venture firm’s executives—information not previously reported.

In addition to OpenAI, Altman recently hatched plans for two new business endeavors. He enlisted Apple’s former chief design officer, Jony Ive, to create a new consumer hardware device. And he recently spent weeks in the Middle East gauging investor interest for a new startup aiming to create low-cost chips needed to train OpenAI’s artificial-intelligence models, people familiar with the matter said.

It is unclear whether those efforts, or the communication around it, played into Altman’s dismissal. Bloomberg earlier reported on the new chips venture. The Information and the Financial Times earlier reported the new Ive venture.

With his firing from OpenAI, Altman quickly got the upper hand in terms of public messaging. The board didn’t use a communications or law firm in its dealings, people familiar with the board said, expecting that the OpenAI team would help them. But Altman had loyalty from investors and employees.

The board ended up isolated as social media exploded with shock and support for Altman. His largest backers, including Microsoft and Thrive Capital, immediately on Friday began pressing for Altman’s position to be restored. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella began working with Altman that evening on his next steps, people familiar with Altman said.

Despite his business success, Altman had been losing the support of a board whose constituents changed as the company’s commercial efforts powered ahead. It was a board structure that he had ironically helped create and publicly promoted as he encountered questions about AI safety.

Before Friday’s dustup, the board consisted of six people, including Altman. Then, it abruptly removed Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s president and a close friend of Altman’s, and voted to oust Altman. None of the four board members remaining were affiliated with the company’s big investors. It isn’t clear whether the vote was unanimous.

The board that took the action was down from the nine seats it had earlier in the year and lacked at least one key prior Altman backer. Earlier this year, Reid Hoffman, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a long history of supporting Altman, stepped down after starting a rival company to OpenAI.

Separately, Shivon Zilis, a tech executive at Elon Musk’s brain implant startup Neuralink, and Will Hurd, who started a presidential campaign, also left this year.

The board had been working to fill those empty seats for months, though the process stalled, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The other four directors are: Adam D’Angelo, a former Facebook executive and the founder of question-and-answer site, Quora; Tasha McCauley, an adjunct senior management scientist at Rand Corp.; Helen Toner, a director at a Washington nonprofit; and OpenAI’s chief scientist, Sutskever.

Altman this weekend was furious with himself for not having ensured the board stayed loyal to him and regretted not spending more time managing its various factions, people familiar with his thinking said.

—Meghan Bobrowsky contributed to this article.

Write to Berber Jin at, Deepa Seetharaman at, Tom Dotan at and Keach Hagey at

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