Who is Sam Altman? A tech and venture capital visionary whose rapid rise in AI signalled the start of a new era in computing

  • Sam Altman, former president of Y Combinator, co-founded OpenAI with Elon Musk, focusing on safe and beneficial AI research and turned it into a tech powerhouse.
  • Under Altman’s leadership, OpenAI launched the groundbreaking AI Large Language Model ChatGPT, bringing generative AI tools into the mainstream.
  • OpenAI has undergone significant changes, with Sam Altman being reappointed as CEO after his dismissal, while the board members who fired him have all departed, except for Adam D’Angelo.

In November 2022, ChatGPT was launched by OpenAI, the company Sam Altman had founded along with several others, igniting an AI frenzy. While AI had been with us for many years already, it had remained a somewhat hidden and subtle addition to the tools we used. ChatGPT was a step-change in AI capabilities, and suddenly everyone was talking about, and trying out, this incredible digital chatbot.

A year later, in November 2023, Altman was fired by the OpenAI board, once again causing a maelstrom in Silicon Valley. While his departure, and next moves, are still under scrutiny, he was said to be moving to Microsoft to head up a new AI research lab, while Emmett Shear, formerly CEO at streaming platform Twitch, would step into the OpenAI CEO shoes. However, in a dramatic turn of events, Altman was reappointed as CEO within a few days of his dismissal.

Here’s Sam Altman’s journey and transformation into one of the most influential personalities in the AI space.

Also read: Sam Altman returns to OpenAI as board moves out

Sam Altman’s journey: From tech prodigy to influential investor

1985: Sam Altman shows early signs of technological prowess by acquiring his first computer at the age of eight. He develops an interest in programming and gains expertise in dismantling and understanding the mechanics of Apple’s Macintosh computers.

sam altman's post about his first computer
Sam Altman’s post about his first computer

Early 2000s: Sam enrolls at Stanford University, pursuing a degree in computer science, immersing himself in the heart of Silicon Valley’s technological innovation.

2005: Inspired by tech giants like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, Altman makes the pivotal decision to leave Stanford University. He embarks on an entrepreneurial path with his classmates, channeling his passion for technology into a startup venture.

2005-2012: Sam co-founds Loopt, a groundbreaking location-based mobile application that allows users to track their friends’ whereabouts. Despite its innovative approach and achieving a substantial valuation of $175 million, Loopt struggles to attain widespread market success.

2012: Facing tough market conditions and limited growth, the founders of Loopt decide to sell the company to Green Dot, a leading player in the prepaid debit card market, for $43 million.


2012: Following the sale of Loopt, Sam Altman channels his entrepreneurial learnings and financial gains into the venture capital sphere. He uses his $5 million share from the Loopt sale, bolstered by additional investments from affluent investors, to amass a $21 million fund.

Hydrazine Capital Formation: With this capital, Sam establishes Hydrazine Capital, a venture fund aimed at nurturing and supporting innovative startups.

Investment in Y Combinator: Demonstrating his foresight in the potential of startups, Sam invests a significant portion (75%) of Hydrazine Capital into Y Combinator, a renowned venture capital firm known for its role in accelerating startup growth.

Leading Reddit’s Funding: In his role at Y Combinator, Sam leads the Series B funding round for Reddit, significantly contributing to the growth trajectory of the well-known social networking site.

Post-2012: This period marks Sam Altman’s full transition from an entrepreneur deeply involved in a startup to a savvy investor with a keen eye for potential in the venture capital landscape. His journey reflects a blend of technological expertise, entrepreneurial spirit, and strategic investment acumen.

Also read: OpenAI boardroom backfire: Sam Altman fired, may be rehired, board could be booted instead

How did Sam Altman build a $500 million fortune?

Estimated net worth: $500 – $700 Million. Sam Altman’s financial success is largely due to his entrepreneurial ventures and wise investments. His wealth is primarily tied to equity in privately held companies, contributing to this figure. The collective worth of the companies he has been involved with totals approximately $500 billion.

$43.4 million. The acquisition of Loopt, a location-based social networking app co-founded by the then 19-year-old Stanford computer science major Sam Altman in 2005, for $43.4 million by Green Dot Corporation in 2012 marked a significant milestone. Altman, who wrote much of its original code, saw the app’s technology being adopted by Apple and Blackberry before this notable acquisition.

$200 million. In 2017, Reddit’s C-series funding, in which Altman participated, was worth $200 million. This followed his 2014 lead investment in the company’s B-round funding of $50 million when Reddit, a Y Combinator startup, saw him briefly assume the role of acting CEO for eight days in 2015. This interim position came after CEO Yishan Wong’s resignation and before the return of former leader Steve Huffman. Altman also served on Reddit’s board from 2014 to 2022.

$29 billion. The valuation of OpenAI reached $29 billion by May 2023, as stated by Sam Altman in his Congressional testimony. This significant increase in value followed the company’s efforts, under the guidance of Altman and his team, to make AI widely accessible. A key milestone in achieving this was the release of an early demo of the chatbot ChatGPT in November 2022, showcasing OpenAI’s commitment to creating personalized services on a large scale and marking AI as a pivotal element in business innovation.

A pioneering force in venture capital at Y Combinator

In 2014, at merely 28 years of age, Sam assumed the presidency of Y Combinator, a highly successful venture capital firm renowned for fostering American startups. This firm boasts a total market capitalisation exceeding $80 billion. During his leadership, Y Combinator invested in over 2,000 startups, accumulating a total valuation surpassing $100 billion, and became an investor in numerous prominent companies, including Airbnb, Stripe, Reddit, and Pinterest.

Y combinator
At just 28, Sam Altman became president of Y Combinator, renowned for nurturing US startups.

At 29, Sam graced the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, standing on stage with 30 of the world’s most distinguished under-30 venture capitalists, showcasing his remarkable talent and strength.

“Under Sam’s leadership, the ambition of Y Combinator has increased tenfold,” remarked Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.  

Sam Altman’s journey with OpenAI: From co-founding to focusing on groundbreaking AI research

In 2015, whilst serving as the president of YC, Sam co-founded OpenAI alongside Musk, CEO of SpaceX. Their objective was to conduct artificial intelligence research in a manner that is safe and advantageous for humanity, ensuring that AI does not become a threat. Upon the inception of OpenAI, several prominent Silicon Valley figures, including Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel, co-founders of LinkedIn, committed to investing $1 billion in the venture.

In 2016, Sam publicly announced OpenAI’s endeavour in developing General Artificial Intelligence (GAI) – an AI equivalent to human intelligence – known as GPT-1. Subsequently, to avoid any potential conflicts of interest with Tesla, Musk stepped away from OpenAI in 2018. In March 2019, Sam relinquished his position as president of YC to concentrate fully on OpenAI.

OpenAI’s transformation: From non-profit to tech powerhouse under Sam Altman’s leadership

As a non-profit organisation, sustaining the business is an unavoidable challenge. In 2019, when queried about how OpenAI generates revenue, Sam responded, “We don’t know,” acknowledging that OpenAI had “never generated any revenue” and had “no immediate plans to do so.”

In May 2019, OpenAI announced a transition from a non-profit entity to a “limited profit” company. This meant capping the profits returned to investors and employees, ensuring the majority of funds would be dedicated to ongoing research. In October of the same year, OpenAI secured a $1 billion investment from Microsoft. Sam, serving as the CEO of OpenAI, has spearheaded the launch of prominent AI models including GPT-3, DaLL-E, and ChatGPT.

Following the release of ChatGPT in November 2022, the application swiftly amassed over 100 million users in just two months, becoming the fastest-growing consumer application in history. OpenAI has thus emerged as a globally renowned technology company, owing to its development of ChatGPT.

Pop quiz

Who replaced Sam Altman as CEO at OpenAI after his firing?

A. Elon Musk

B. Emmett Shear

C. Greg Brockman

D. Mark Zuckerberg

The answer is at the bottom of this article.

Leadership shakeup at OpenAI: Sam Altman fired

On the November 17, 2023, OpenAI experienced significant upheaval when the board fired Sam Altman and chief technology officer Mira Murati took on the role of interim CEO. The board’s decision was attributed to Altman’s alleged consistent untruthfulness in communications with them, hindering their ability to fulfil their responsibilities, leading to a loss of confidence in his leadership. However, the specific instances of dishonesty were not detailed in the statement.

Subsequently, despite rumours of a potential return to OpenAI, Ilya Sutskever, co-founder and chief scientist, informed employees on November 19 that, while there were efforts to reinstate Sam Altman as CEO, he would not be returning. Instead, Emmett Shear, co-founder of the video streaming site Twitch, was appointed as the interim CEO. In addition, The Information had reported that Sam Altman informed investors of his intentions to launch a new artificial intelligence company.

In a series of rapid developments at OpenAI, Sam Altman, previously ousted as CEO, has been reinstated to his former role. This follows the departure of most of the board members who had dismissed him, with Adam D’Angelo remaining as the sole representative of the previous board. Greg Brockman, the former president who resigned following Altman’s initial firing, has rejoined the company. This leadership reshuffle comes after OpenAI cycled through three CEOs in just three days, ultimately returning to its original leader, Altman, who was briefly named CEO of a new Microsoft AI research lab during this tumultuous period.

As OpenAI navigates through this leadership transition, the tech world eagerly watches to see how this shift will shape the future of AI. Sam Altman’s departure marks the end of an era, but also the beginning of new possibilities, both for him and for OpenAI. With the AI industry continually evolving, the impact of these changes remains to be seen, promising an intriguing path ahead.

The correct answer to the pop quiz is  B. Emmett Shear


Ivy Wu

Ivy Wu was a media reporter at btw media. She graduated from Korea University with a major in media and communication, and has rich experience in reporting and news writing.

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