The making of Sam Altman
Jul 9, 2024

The making of Sam Altman

Journalist Ellen Huet examines the OpenAI CEO’s rise to power over the past two decades in the new season of Bloomberg’s "Foundering" podcast.

The overnight success of ChatGPT helped turn Sam Altman, CEO of its maker, OpenAI, into one of the most powerful people in tech. But the rise of artificial intelligence has raised questions about safety and the people in charge of the technology.

At a conference hosted by Bloomberg last summer, Altman was asked why we should trust him. In response, Altman said, “You shouldn’t.” He goes on to say that if artificial intelligence development continues to create increasingly powerful technology, “you should not trust one company and certainly not one person with it.”

And yet, throughout his career, Altman has managed to win the trust of Silicon Valley’s kingmakers with ease. Famed investor Paul Graham once described Altman as “extremely good at becoming powerful.”

In the latest season of Bloomberg’s podcast “Foundering,” journalist Ellen Huet tries to understand Altman’s backstory. Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke to Huet about what she learned.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Ellen Huet: Sam has shown throughout his career an ability to accumulate influence and power and money, which is a form of power, by forming these strategic relationships and strategic alliances with people who then want to help him. So, one of the earliest examples is Paul Graham himself. When Sam was 19 years old, he joined the first batch of Y Combinator [tech founders], which wasn’t anything at the time, but is now an extremely powerful organization. Paul was running it, and according to people who knew Sam at the time, immediately picked Sam as his favorite. And over the years, Paul has built up Sam in sort of Silicon Valley lore and given him incredibly lucrative investment opportunities, and eventually anointed him president of Y Combinator. All this is due to that relationship. And similarly, Sam has struck these strategic relationships with people like Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Satya Nadella, and with people who were in positions of relatively more power, who then gave him money, influence, access. And this type of strategic relationship has really propelled Sam upward in Silicon Valley.

Lily Jamali: One of the episodes of “Foundering” takes a deep dive into what happened last November when Sam Altman was suddenly fired from OpenAI by four members of the board. How has that moment seemed to affect Sam Altman and OpenAI as a whole?

Huet: I mean, it’s an incredibly shocking, dramatic turn of events. Basically, no one saw it coming apart from the four board members who made plans in secret to decide to fire Sam. So, Sam was caught by surprise, Sam’s closest allies were caught by surprise, Microsoft — OpenAI’s biggest investor — was caught by surprise. And what we saw over the next five days was a lot of backroom negotiating and the conclusion of Sam returning to a position of power while the people who had tried to oust him, three out of four of them, were booted from the board. And so, in my view, and we talked about this in the podcast, Sam returns with his power more cemented than ever. This attempt to dethrone him actually increased his grip on the company. It seems to have affected him and the company in the sense that they were kind of shaken by this, but in the months since, Sam has also basically tried to sidestep some attempts to look more closely at what happened, or at least to share more publicly what happened. So, what we talk about in the fifth and final episode is a few other moments where Sam has been asked more detailed questions about the saga of November, or whatever you want to call it, and has tried to sidestep them.

Jamali: Yeah, he doesn’t very much like questions about it, does he?

Huet: No. He in fact flips it back on the interviewer and basically chastises them for asking. He says, like, “Do you really think this is important? We could be talking about artificial general intelligence, and you want to talk about this drama?” And I think that’s really telling. It’s a moment that can pass so quickly. If you’re just watching an interview, it only lasts 30 seconds, but I think it reveals something really key about Sam, which is his ability to just kind of grab a conversation and take it in a direction that he wants to go. You know, he’s a skillful talker, and I think he uses that to sidestep questions that he would rather avoid.

Jamali: You also spend two episodes of the series focused on an incongruity in Sam Altman’s life, that is his interest in universal basic income and his strained relationship with his sister, Annie. So, there’s a real contrast here that you say complicates the image of Sam. Talk about that.

Huet: Right. So, to give a little context, for the past decade, starting back when he was running Y Combinator, Sam has been an advocate for universal basic income, which is a an economic experiment or philosophy in which people propose that to lift people out of poverty, we should be giving them regular cash payments without conditions that they can use to spend on whatever they choose. And there have been some experiments that people have run on the effectiveness of universal basic income. One of those big studies was started by Sam at Y Combinator, and it’s still ongoing. And what a lot of listeners don’t know is Sam has three siblings. Two of them are his brothers Max and Jack, with whom he has been publicly linked. They actually have run investment funds together. They have lived together. They’re just part of his public image. And then his youngest sibling is his sister, named Annie. Annie is currently estranged from her family. Part of this estrangement has to do with her having financial problems for which she has asked for help from her family, from Sam and her mom. And in her telling, she has not gotten the help that she has needed, and she has only been offered help with heavy conditions that made her feel uncomfortable. Obviously, it’s a really complicated personal family matter, and we thought a lot about how to include this, to what degree to include it, how to talk about it, but we thought it was really important context.

Annie lives in Hawaii. She has struggled with houselessness, and in order to support herself, she has turned to sex work, which is something that she says she did not want to do. At times, when she has been offered help by the family and by Sam, [she says] it has come with conditions, like needing to share her bank statements, or having Sam or their mother sit in on her therapy sessions. We get into a lot more of this in the podcast. And I do think, as complicated as it is, we feel like it’s a relevant juxtaposition to Sam’s promises onstage about how we’re going to have this AI future of abundance. He talks about abundance a lot. And how it’s all going to be fine because we’re going to have these support networks that will help people.

Jamali: We actually have a clip from part of your conversation with Annie Altman that we can play. Let’s listen to it together.  

Annie Altman: It’s not only hard to do anything when you are housing insecure, it is impossible. I haven’t had a typical day in four years because of how much energy, both physically, like looking for places or doing things or looking for jobs, and emotionally, goes into housing insecurity. It has been the single biggest energy output of my past year.

Jamali: What stands out to you about that clip?

Huet: What felt really important to me as a reporter was giving listeners the chance to hear directly from Annie. And I think what struck me most about Annie’s story was that the issues that she faces, this sort of low-level, chronic uncertainty about where she’s living, or uncertainty about where she’s going to be able to get the money to provide for her needs, that is the kind of problem that universal basic income says that it is trying to address, right? It is trying to provide that sort of security to allow people to then think about the next step in their life that they want to do and get momentum toward their goals. And I just found the contrast really compelling and wanted to share it with listeners.

Jamali: And you approached Sam Altman for a comment about your reporting on Annie. What did he tell you?

Huet: So, in the end, his mom gave a statement on behalf of the family, and they basically said, “We love Annie, we have tried to help her, we are trying to strike balance” – I’m paraphrasing here – “between helping her and doing what we think is best for her.” I think they try to suggest that this is a complicated family matter, and I do think that that is also true.

Jamali: Of the many things that you learned about Sam Altman while reporting this series Ellen, what stands out the most?

Huet: I spent a lot of time listening to Sam talk. In 2023, right after ChatGPT became superpopular and everyone was talking about AI, Sam went on basically this media tour where he went around the world and met with world leaders, he appeared onstage and was interviewed over and over again, and there was all this material. And also, he’s been in the public eye for almost two decades. So there’s a lot of archival interviews and stuff that we listened to in order to try to get a sense of how he has changed over the years. And we really wanted the podcast to be like a nuanced character study of Sam. Sam is very good at redirecting the conversation away from what he doesn’t want to talk about and toward what he feels more comfortable talking about. And we come to this conclusion in the final episode that Sam is slippery, that he says things that sound really nice, you know, things that sound really uplifting and honest and earnest. And then when the rubber hits the road, it’s not always that simple. And it’s subtle, so it’s kind of hard to catch, but that’s what we hope to draw out for listeners over the course of the five episodes.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer
Rosie Hughes Assistant Producer