OpenAI has a peculiar business structure. At the top of the group is a non-profit company controlled by a board of directors. Its accountability is not to shareholders, investors, or company employees, but rather to its mission that artificial intelligence should benefit all mankind. As of last Friday, the board had six members: three independents and three from the company’s founders. Only one of them, Quora founder Adam D’Angelo, remains in post five days later. Two other independents have joined the board: former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and former president of Twitter and former CEO of Salesforce, Bret Taylor.
Sam Altman was not only the chief executive, but also a member of the board. Joining him was Greg Brockman, who served as president, and a third founder, Ilya Sutskever, the group’s chief scientist. In addition to the three founders and employees of the company, there were three independents on the board: Adam D’Angelo, Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner. The independents ousted Altman and Brockman with the support of Sutskever, who later regretted his role in the coup. Pressure from employees and investors has led to the return of Altman as chief executive, but not as a member of the board. McCauley, Toner, and Sustkever have also left, and the new board is made up of Bret Taylor as president, accompanied by D’Angelo and Summers.
Taylor has a long and varied career in Silicon Valley. Stanford, Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Slack, and Twitter appear on the 43-year-old’s resume. Trained as a computer scientist at Stanford University, he began his career at Google in 2003, where he was part of the team that created Google Maps. He left the company in 2007 and founded the social network FriendFeed, which he ran until it was bought by Facebook in 2009. He joined Facebook, where he was named chief technology officer in 2010 — a position D’Angelo had previously held. It didn’t last long. He left the social network in 2012 to found Quip, a cloud software firm. History repeated itself; Salesforce acquired the company he had founded in 2016, and Taylor ended up joining the purchasing firm. At Salesforce he negotiated the purchase of Slack, which closed in 2021, and was appointed joint CEO of the group in November of that year, along with its founder, Marc Benioff. He didn’t last long there either; a year later he announced that he was leaving office. In parallel, he was appointed president of the board of Twitter in 2021, without executive duties. He remained in office until Elon Musk acquired the social network and dissolved the board. But before that, he was the one who forced Musk to jump through hoops when he wanted to reverse the agreement. He has come to OpenAI with a lot of experience.
Summers is the most talked-about signing. The 68-year-old was Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton between 1999 and 2001 and president of the National Economic Council of the White House under Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011. Between both periods, he presided over Harvard University from 2001 to 2006. His departure was somewhat traumatic, as he resigned following a sexist comment. He received a vote of disapproval for arguing that “innate differences” between men and women could explain the low number of women in prominent positions related to mathematics and science. That probably also closed the door for him to chair the Federal Reserve years later. Despite everything, he is a prestigious economist who is very well connected in the power circles of money and politics. His Washington connections could serve OpenAI well at a time of heightened scrutiny over artificial intelligence. At the same time, his economic rationalism provides some reassurance to investors that he will take their position into account. He himself has worked for investment funds and venture capital firms. “More and more, I think ChatGPT is coming for the cognitive class,” he wrote on the social network X last April.
D’Angelo is the only surviving independent from before the coup. He won several awards as a computer programmer at a young age. He was Facebook’s chief technology officer and its vice president of engineering until 2008. In June 2009, at the age of 25, he founded the question-and-answer website Quora, along with another Facebook employee, Charlie Cheever. D’Angelo has been the CEO since its founding. The company is not listed on the Stock Exchange, its business model has not worked very well, and its valuation is uncertain. But 39-year-old D’Angelo’s fortune is estimated at several hundred million or billions of dollars, depending on the sources consulted. He has been an investor in emerging technology companies, and of the three former independents, D’Angelo was the one who had the best relationship with Altman. He has been on the board of OpenAI since April 2018 and has always argued that the firm should not become just another big tech company, but rather maintain its structure as a non-profit organization.
The three wise men are now the new board of directors of the non-profit organization that acts as the head of the OpenAI group. The right thing for them to do now is to keep choosing new figures for a broader and more diverse board.
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