OpenAI brings Sam Altman back as CEO less than a week after he was fired by the board

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks during the OpenAI DevDay event on November 6, 2023 in San Francisco, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Sam Altman will return as CEO of OpenAI, the startup announced early Wednesday morning on X, formerly known as Twitter. The move follows enormous pressure from employees and investors on the board that ousted him less than a week ago.

Former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers will join OpenAI’s board, the Microsoft-backed startup said, with Taylor serving as chairman. Adam D’Angelo, co-founder and CEO of question-and-answer startup Quora, will remain on the board.

“We are working together to figure out the details. Thank you for your patience,” OpenAI said in X contribution.

On Monday, hundreds of employees, including co-founder and board member Ilya Sutskever, signed a letter saying that if the board didn’t resign and bring Altman back, the overwhelming majority would work with him at Microsoft.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in an X post on Monday that Altman and his co-founder Greg Brockman would join Microsoft to create a new AI lab.

This followed the announcement late Sunday that OpenAI had hired former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear as Altman’s interim replacement. The board originally said OpenAI technology chief Mira Murati would take on that role, but she soon joined the parade of employees calling for Altman’s return.

“With the new board and the support of W Satya, I look forward to returning to OpenAI and building on our strong partnership with MSFT,” Altman wrote in his own post on X.

Nadella welcomed the changes OpenAI has made to its board X contribution.

“We believe this is an essential first step toward more stable, better informed and more effective governance,” Nadella wrote. “Sam, Greg and I have spoken and agreed that they, along with the OAI leadership team, have a key role to play in ensuring OAI continues to thrive and build on its mission. We look forward to building on our strong partnership and delivering the value of this next generation of AI to our customers and partners.”

Altman’s quick reinstatement appeared to be a possibility Saturday when news broke that a group of prominent investors, including Microsoft, Tiger Global, Thrive Capital and Sequoia Capital, were working to reverse the board’s decision the previous day. None of these companies had board seats and they were caught off guard by the decision.

In one Post on X Late Saturday evening, Altman wrote, “I love the Openai team so much.” Brockman, who left the company after the board removed him as chairman along with Altman, reposted the comment with a heart symbol. Other OpenAI employees did the same.

OpenAI, which was reportedly in talks to sell $86 billion worth of employee stock to investors just last month, has become the hottest startup in the world this year after releasing its ChatGPT chatbot in late 2022. ChatGPT allows users to enter simple text, ask questions and get intelligent and creative answers that can lead to deeper conversations.

Altman had led the company since 2019, serving as both the top executive of a high-flying company and the public face of artificial intelligence research and product development.

Unlike most Silicon Valley startups, OpenAI was not structured like a typical company, with large portions of equity controlled by the founders. Rather, it was part of a non-profit organization founded in 2015. The board oversees the nonprofit, which “acts as the overarching governing body for all OpenAI activities,” according to Friday’s blog post.

Sutskever and Brockman were both part of the founding team of OpenAI. The original investors included Altman, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who reportedly committed $1 billion to the project.

“Tonight I’m returning to OpenAI and starting coding again,” Brockman wrote early Wednesday X contribution.

Immediately after OpenAI’s board announced Altman’s firing, prominent Silicon Valley investors and founders were vocal about their concerns, even comparing the move to Apple’s decision to fire Steve Jobs 38 years ago. In 1997, Jobs returned and eventually led Apple to develop the iPhone and become the most valuable company in the United States

“What happened today at OpenAI is a boardroom coup the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1985, when then-Apple CEO ousted Steve Jobs,” longtime startup investor Ron Conway said in an X post. “It is shocking; it is irresponsible; and it doesn’t suit Sam & Greg or all OpenAI developers.”

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt called Altman a “hero of mine” who built a company that “changed our collective world forever.” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky described Altman as “one of the best founders of his generation.” And venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said he was a “once-in-a-lifetime CEO.”

Nadella, who made a surprise appearance at OpenAI’s developer conference earlier this month, was reportedly surprised and upset by the announcement. His company has invested billions of dollars in OpenAI and is a close technology partner, hosting large-scale GPT workloads on its Azure cloud infrastructure.

“This was the path that maximized safety while doing the right thing for everyone involved,” Shear said early Wednesday X contribution. “I’m glad to have been part of the solution.”

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