OpenAI’s biggest investors are pressing the company to reinstate Sam Altman as chief executive after the board’s stunning decision to fire him on Friday, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
Microsoft Corp., the startup’s biggest backer with a more than US$10 billion stake, is working with investors including Thrive Capital and Tiger Global Management to bring back Altman, said the people, who asked to remain anonymous discussing private information.
As part of the effort to reinstate the CEO, investors are also pressing for the replacement of the current board, the people said. The directors have considered stepping down, though they’re currently balking at such a move, the people said. The situation is fluid and final plans have not been set. If the board steps down, investors are reviewing a list of possible new directors. One contender is Bret Taylor, the former co-CEO of Salesforce Inc.
The OpenAI board has been subjected to intense criticism over its decision to remove Altman, which came as a surprise to both investors and to Altman himself. Over the years he pushed hard to change the company from a nonprofit to a commercially successful business and was the driving force behind new tools that have revolutionized the way people complete tasks from homework to coding. His ouster did not sit well with the firms that backed OpenAI.
Thrive, which was expected to lead a tender offer for employee shares, has not yet wired the money and has made it clear to OpenAI that Altman’s departure will affect its actions. Thrive, the largest OpenAI investor aside from Microsoft, is working to reinstate both Altman and Greg Brockman, the startup’s president who quit on Friday in protest.
Altman is open to returning to the company, some of the people said. However, they said if he were to return, he would ask for changes in the way the company is governed.
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella has been in touch with Altman and pledged to support him in whatever steps he takes next, the people said. Nadella was blindsided by the board’s decision, according to people familiar with the situation.
Representatives of San Francisco-based OpenAI and Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft declined to comment. Thrive and Tiger Global declined to comment. Taylor did not respond to a request for comment.
Several employees, including OpenAI co-founder Brockman, have departed the company in protest following Altman’s ouster. The resignations are likely to continue, the people said.
OpenAI is optimistic it can bring back Altman, Brockman and other key employees who left, the Information reported, citing a staff memo on Saturday night from chief strategy officer Jason Kwon. Kwon said company executives would be able to update staff by mid-morning on Sunday.
If he does not return, Altman has been considering launching a new venture, possibly with former staffers of OpenAI, according to several people. In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said that his firm wanted Altman “back at OpenAI but will back him in whatever he does next.”
Forbes and the Verge earlier reported some details of the campaign to reinstate Altman.
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In a memo to OpenAI staff on Saturday, chief operating officer Brad Lightcap said Altman’s ousting “was not made in response to malfeasance” or the company’s financial or safety practices.
The decision to force Altman out, he said, “took us all by surprise,” and he has since spoken with the board to better understand its decision, according to the memo, which was viewed by Bloomberg.
“This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board,” Lightcap wrote, adding that Microsoft “remains fully committed” as an investor.
With assistance from Rachel Metz, Hema Parmar, Katie Roof, Sridhar Natarajan and Sarah Frier.