OpenAI Investors Try to Get Sam Altman Back as CEO After Sudden Firing

Co-founder of artificial-intelligence company behind ChatGPT was pushed out by board Friday

Under Sam Altman, OpenAI went from a small nonprofit to a multibillion-dollar company at near-record speed. Photo: Clara Mokri for The Wall Street Journal

OpenAI’s investors are making efforts to bring back Sam Altman, the chief executive officer who was ousted Friday, the latest development in a fast-moving chain of events at the artificial-intelligence company behind ChatGPT.

Altman is thinking about returning but has told investors that if he does return, he wants a new board and governance structure, people familiar with the matter said. He has separately discussed starting a company that would bring on former OpenAI employees, including several who quit in protest over his ouster.

Altman is expected to decide between the two options as soon as this weekend, the people said. Leading shareholders in OpenAI, including Microsoft and the venture firm Thrive Capital, are helping orchestrate the efforts to reinstate Altman. Microsoft invested $13 billion in OpenAI and is its primary financial backer. Thrive Capital is the second-largest shareholder in the company.

Other investors in the company are supportive of these efforts.

As the uncertainty persisted, OpenAI employees, including interim CEO Mira Murati, showed support for Altman, reposting his “i love the openai team so much” post on the X social-media platform with heart emojis.

The talks come as the company was thrown into chaos after OpenAI’s board abruptly decided to part ways with Altman, citing his alleged lack of candor in communications, and demoted its president and co-founder, Greg Brockman, leading him to quit.

A spate of high-level researchers resigned, some of OpenAI’s corporate customers are looking for alternatives, and a high-stakes financing with venture capitalists is now in jeopardy, people familiar with the matter said.

The exact reason for Altman’s firing couldn’t be determined. But for weeks, tensions had boiled around the rapid expansion of OpenAI’s commercial offerings, which some board members felt violated the company’s initial charter to develop safe AI.

On Sunday, a person familiar with the board stood by the board’s explanation on Friday that cited candor. This person said there was no one precipitating incident but rather a mounting loss of trust over communications with Altman. The person declined to offer examples.

Under Altman, OpenAI went from a small nonprofit to a multibillion-dollar company at near-record speed, thanks in part to the launch of a for-profit arm that enabled it to raise billions from Microsoft.

The whiplash of the past 24 hours reflects the tension between the research nonprofit Altman co-founded eight years ago, whose board just fired him, and the commercial arm that released ChatGPT a year ago, which became one of the most viral products in the history of technology.

Behind the turmoil is the odd governance structure that Altman helped create for OpenAI, which he often noted had the power to fire him.

Greg Brockman, co-founder of OpenAI, resigned as the company’s president after OpenAI ousted its CEO. Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg News

Most tech founder CEOs own equity in their companies and report to a board filled with representatives of their investors to help ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of shareholders. Altman and his co-founders purposely created a structure in which neither of these things was true.

OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit in 2015. Altman created a commercial arm for OpenAI four years later—shortly after he became chief executive—to allow the company to raise the billions of dollars it needed to fund the training of its AI models. That commercial arm was still governed by a nonprofit parent.

The nearly $30 billion for-profit arm is 49%-owned by Microsoft and includes a bevy of top venture capitalists as backers, who were promised a share of OpenAI’s profits. But none ultimately had any control over running the company.

Instead, OpenAI is governed by a nonprofit board. Only a minority of its members were allowed to have a financial stake in the company at any given time, according to the company’s bylaws. Altman himself had no equity in the company, further diminishing his influence with the board.

This setup allowed the board to essentially oust Altman without the consent of some of OpenAI’s largest investors and even though he delivered rapid financial success for the company and sent its valuation soaring.

OpenAI said co-founder Sam Altman is leaving as chief executive. Mira Murati, chief technology officer at the artificial-intelligence company, will serve as interim CEO. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

His ouster came as a shock to OpenAI’s investors, employees and customers. Microsoft, Thrive and other investors were told of the news minutes before it was announced. Most employees and customers found out when the blog post was published Friday afternoon.

Altman was enraged by the board’s decision and complained to associates about not doing a better job managing its members and ensuring their allegiance, according to people who heard his remarks. He told friends this past week that it was ridiculous that the major shareholders had no say in the company’s governance, the people said.

In a separate note sent to employees Saturday morning, Chief Operating Officer Brad Lightcap appeared to temper the board’s tone, saying its decision wasn’t because of “malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices. This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board.”

The board that fired Altman included Helen Toner, director of strategy and foundational research grants at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology; Tasha McCauley, an adjunct senior management scientist at Rand Corp.; Adam D’Angelo, a former Facebook executive and a co-founder of Quora; and Ilya Sutskever, the chief scientist of OpenAI. Members of the board couldn’t be reached for comment.

Tom Dotan contributed to this article.

Write to Keach Hagey at Keach.Hagey@wsj.com, Berber Jin at berber.jin@wsj.com and Deepa Seetharaman at deepa.seetharaman@wsj.com

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