The rise of Sam Altman, the OpenAI billionaire CEO who's just signed a deal with Apple

  • Forbes just declared OpenAI CEO Sam Altman a billionaire.

  • Before OpenAI, he was well-known in Silicon Valley as president of startup accelerator Y-Combinator.

  • Here's how the serial entrepreneur got his start — and ended up helming the most-watched AI company.

2024 is shaping up to be a big year for OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.

While the 39-year-old entrepreneur has been a household name in Silicon Valley for years now, the rest of the world has got to know him through the success of OpenAI's artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT, launched in 2022.

Then, this year, OpenAI launched GPT-4o — its new large language model. A few weeks later, Tim Cook announced at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in June that the tech giant would partner with OpenAI to bring ChatGPT to iPhones. And in April, Altman was added to Forbes' billionaires list, marking yet another milestone.

Although his Microsoft-backed company has grown wildly popular over the last two years, Forbes attributes Altman's billionaire status primarily to his other investments.

Before the AI boom, Altman spent years as president of startup accelerator Y Combinator, and he owns stakes in Reddit, a nuclear fusion startup known as Helion, and more.

Here's a look at Altman's life and career so far.

Altman grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and he was a computer whiz from a young age.

A view of st Louis with buildings and archway
Sam Altman is a Missouri native.f11photo/Shutterstock

He learned how to program and take apart a Macintosh computer when he was 8 years old, according to The New Yorker. He attended John Burroughs School, a private, non-sectarian college-preparatory school in St. Louis.

 

 

He told The New Yorker that having a Mac helped him with his sexuality. Altman came out to his parents when he was 16.

macintosh microsoft visitor center
Altman has been open about his sexuality since he was a teenager.Matt Weinberger/Business Insider

"Growing up gay in the Midwest in the two-thousands was not the most awesome thing," he told The New Yorker. "And finding AOL chat rooms was transformative. Secrets are bad when you're eleven or twelve."

Altman came out as gay to the whole community after a Christian group boycotted an assembly at his school that was about sexuality.

"What Sam did changed the school," his college counselor, Madelyn Gray, told The New Yorker. "It felt like someone had opened up a great big box full of all kinds of kids and let them out into the world."

Altman studied computer science at Stanford University for two years before he and two of his classmates dropped out to work full time on their mobile app.

Stanford University
Like many famous tech founders, Altman is a college dropout.turtix/Shutterstock

The app shared a user's location with their friends. Loopt was part of the first group of eight companies at startup accelerator Y Combinator. Each startup got $6,000 per founder, and Loopt was in the same batch as Reddit, according to The Business of Business.

Loopt eventually reached a $175 million valuation, but it didn't garner enough interest, so the founders sold it for $43 million in 2012.

sam altman
Altman has been a tech founder since his early 20s.Drew Angerer/Getty

The $43 million sale price was close to how much it had raised from investors, The Wall Street Journal reported. The company was acquired by Green Dot, a banking company known for prepaid cards.

One of Loopt's cofounders, Nick Sivo, and Altman dated for nine years, but they broke up after they sold the company.

After Loopt, Altman founded a venture fund called Hydrazine Capital, and raised $21 million.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, Palantir Technologies, and Founders Fund, holds hundred dollar bills as he speaks during the Bitcoin 2022 Conference at Miami Beach Convention Center on April 7, 2022 in Miami, Florida.
Peter Thiel has backed multiple companies founded by Altman.Marco Bello/Getty Images

That included a large part of the $5 million he got from Loopt, and an investment from billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Altman invested 75% of that money into YC companies, and led Reddit's Series B fundraising round.

He told The New Yorker, "you want to invest in messy, somewhat broken companies. You can treat the warts on top, and because of the warts the company will be hugely underpriced."

In 2014, at the age of 28, Altman was chosen by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham to succeed him as president of the startup accelerator.

Sam Altman
Altman was a teacher and a major player in the startup world in 2014.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

While he was YC president, Altman taught a lecture series at Stanford called "How to Start a Startup," in the fall of 2014. The next year, Altman was featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for venture capital at 29 years old.

After he became YC president, he wanted to let more science and engineering startups into each batch.

sam altman
Altman at the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Idaho in 2016.Drew Angerer/Getty

He chose a fission and a fusion startup for YC because he wanted to start a nuclear-energy company of his own. He invested his own money in both companies and served on their boards.

Mark Andreessen, cofounder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, said to The New Yorker, "Under Sam, the level of YC's ambition has gone up 10x."

 

He finds interesting ways to spend his free time.

An orange McLaren 720S on a wooded road.
Altman said he likes sports cars and planes.McLaren

Altman once told two YC founders that he likes racing cars and had five, including two McLarens and an old Tesla, according to The New Yorker. He's said he likes racing cars and renting planes to fly all over California.

He told the founders of the startup Shypmate that "I prep for survival," and warned of either a "lethal synthetic virus," AI attacking humans, or nuclear war.

"I try not to think about it too much," Altman told the founders in 2016. "But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to."

Altman's mom is a dermatologist and told The New Yorker, "Sam does keep an awful lot tied up inside. He'll call and say he has a headache—and he'll have Googled it, so there's some cyber-chondria in there, too. I have to reassure him that he doesn't have meningitis or lymphoma, that it's just stress."

Altman has a brother, Jack, who is a cofounder and CEO at Lattice, an employee management platform.

jack altman and his wife, julia, standing in front of a blurred palm tree in a park
Julia and Jack Altman live in the Mission District of San Francisco.San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/Contributor

Along with their brother Max, the Altmans launched a fund in 2020 called Apollo that is focused on funding "moonshot" companies. They're startups that are financially risky but could potentially pay off with a breakthrough development.

 

In 2015, Altman cofounded OpenAI with Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX at the time.

L-R) Tesla Motors CEO and Product Architect Elon Musk and Y Combinator President Sam Altman speak onstage during "What Will They Think of Next? Talking About Innovation" at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 6, 2015 in San Francisco, California.
Elon Musk and Sam Altman speak onstage in San Francisco.Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

Their goal for the non-profit artificial intelligence company was to make sure AI doesn't wipe out humans.

"We discussed what is the best thing we can do to ensure the future is good?" Elon Musk told The New York Times in 2015. "We could sit on the sidelines or we can encourage regulatory oversight, or we could participate with the right structure with people who care deeply about developing A.I. in a way that is safe and is beneficial to humanity."

Some of Silicon Valley's most prominent names pledged $1 billion to OpenAI along with Altman and Musk, including Reid Hoffman, the cofounder of LinkedIn, and Thiel.

After the 2016 election, Altman, who tweeted that he voted against Donald Trump, said he decided to talk to 100 Trump supporters around the US to understand what they did and didn't like about the president.

Donald Trump Hillary Clinton
Altman has been vocal about his lack of support of Donald Trump's principles.Drew Angerer/Getty Image

He also wanted to know "what would convince them not to vote for him in the future." In a thread on X, formerly Twitter, Altman said he was "voting against Trump because I believe the principles he stands for represent an unacceptable threat to America."

He also said Thiel, who was still working with YC at the time, "is a high profile supporter of Trump" and that "I disagree with this."

But, he said, "YC is not going to fire someone for supporting a major party nominee."

YC and Thiel stopped working together a year later in 2017 for unspecified reasons.

During his interviews, Altman said he "did not expect to talk to so many Muslims, Mexicans, Black people, and women in the course of this project."

He said almost everyone he approached was willing to talk to him, but they also didn't want to share their names in fear of being "targeted by those people in Silicon Valley if they knew I voted for him." Altman said one of the people he talked to in Silicon Valley made him sign a confidentiality agreement before talking because she was scared of losing her job for supporting Trump.

Altman stepped down as YC president in March 2019 to focus on OpenAI. He stayed in a chairman role at the accelerator.

sam altman
Altman went all-in on OpenAI in 2019.@sama

At a StrictlyVC event in 2019, Altman was asked how OpenAI planned to make a profit, and he said the "honest answer is we have no idea."

Altman said OpenAI had "never made any revenue" and that it had "no current plans to make revenue."

"We have no idea how we may one day generate revenue," he said at the time, according to TechCrunch.

Altman became CEO of OpenAI in May 2019 after it turned away from being a nonprofit company into a "capped profit" corporation.

Sam Altman
OpenAI changed from nonprofit status in 2019.Skye Gould/Business Insider

"We want to increase our ability to raise capital while still serving our mission, and no pre-existing legal structure we know of strikes the right balance," OpenAI said on its blog. "Our solution is to create OpenAI LP as a hybrid of a for-profit and nonprofit — which we are calling a 'capped-profit' company."

OpenAI received a $1 billion investment from Microsoft in 2019.

Sam Altman
Altman in 2014 in New York City.Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Altman flew to Seattle to meet with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, where he demonstrated OpenAI's AI models for him, WSJ reported.  The pair announced their business partnership on LinkedIn.

Current and former insiders at OpenAI told Fortune that after Altman took over as CEO, and after the investment from Microsoft, the company started focusing more on developing natural language processing.

Sam Altman
The company shifted its focus after Altman took over.Brian Ach/Getty

Altman and OpenAI's former chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever, said the move to focus on large language models was the best way for the company to reach artificial general intelligence, or AGI, a system that has broad human-level cognitive abilities.

 

In 2021, Altman and cofounders Alex Blania and Max Novendstern launched a global cryptocurrency project called Worldcoin.

Worldcoin founders Sam Altman and Alex Blania
Worldcoin founders Alex Blania and Sam Altman.Marc Olivier Le Blanc/Worldcoin

It wanted to give everyone in the world access to crypto by scanning their iris with an orb. The company was started in 2020, but stopped operating in a few countries in 2022 due to logistics issues, Bloomberg reported. In January, Worldcoin tweeted that it had reached 1 million people and has onboarded over 150,000 first-time crypto users.

Under Altman's tenure as CEO, OpenAI released popular generative AI tools to the public, including DALL-E and ChatGPT.

Screenshot of Dall-E webpage
A screenshot of a Dall-E webpage.OpenAI

Both DALL-E and ChatGPT are known as "generative" AI, meaning the bot creates its own artwork and text based on information it is fed.

After ChatGPT was released on November 30, Altman tweeted that it had reached over 1 million users in five days.

ChatGPT was made public so OpenAI could use feedback from users to improve the bot.

An image of a phone with ChatGPT and OpenAI's logo visible.
ChatGPT's success was nearly instant.Getty Images

A few days after its launch, Altman said that it "is incredibly limited, but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness." Altman posted that ChatGPT was "great" for "fun creative inspiration," but "not such a good idea" to look up facts.

ChatGPT recently began testing a paid version of ChatGPT called "ChatGPT Professional" that is supposed to give better access to the bot. In December, Altman posted that OpenAI "will have to monetize it somehow at some point; the compute costs are eye-watering."

In January 2023, Microsoft again announced it was making a "multibillion dollar" investment into OpenAI.

Y Combinator President Sam Altman
OpenAI's partnership with Microsoft further solidified its success.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Although specifics of the investment were not shared, it is believed it is worth $10 billion. Before Microsoft's investment, other venture capitalists wanted to buy shares from OpenAI employees in a tender offer that valued the company at around $29 billion.

Altman is still interested in nuclear fusion and invested $375 million in Helion Energy in 2022.

sam altman wearing a black t shirt, black jacket, grey pants and sunglasses
Altman said he's "super excited" about Helion's future.Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

"Helion is more than an investment to me," Altman told TechCrunch. "It's the other thing beside OpenAI that I spend a lot of time on. I'm just super excited about what's going to happen there."

He told TechCrunch that he's "happy there's a fusion race," to build a low-cost fusion energy system that can eventually power the Earth.

 

Last year, OpenAI launched its pilot subscription plan for ChatGPT Plus, which costs $20 a month.

OpenAI's ChatGPT
Users can pay for more features on ChatGPT.FLORENCE LO/Reuters

People who pay $20 a month for ChatGPT Plus get benefits such as access to the site even when traffic is high, faster responses from the bot, and first access to new features and ChatGPT improvements.

The subscription is only available for people in the US, and OpenAI said it will soon start inviting people on the waitlist to join.

Altman wrote that OpenAI's mission is to make sure AGI "benefits all of humanity.

OpenAI's Sam Altman
Artificial general intelligence is a big talking point for Altman.JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

"If AGI is successfully created, this technology could help us elevate humanity by increasing abundance, turbocharging the global economy, and aiding in the discovery of new scientific knowledge that changes the limits of possibility," Altman wrote on OpenAI's blog.

Despite its potential, Altman said artificial general intelligence comes with "serious risk of misuse, drastic accidents, and societal disruption." But instead of stopping its development, Altman said "society and the developers of AGI have to figure out how to get it right."

Altman went on to share the principles that OpenAI "care about most," including "the benefits of, access to, and governance of AGI to be widely and fairly shared."

Altman said he and OpenAI are "a little bit scared" of AI's potential as it continues to develop.

person holding phone with the word 'gpt-4' on it
GPT-4 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 4) is a multimodal large language model from Open AI, a predecessor to GPT-4o.Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In an interview with ABC News, Altman said he thinks "people should be happy that we're a little bit scared" of generative AI systems as they develop.

Altman said he doesn't think AI systems should only be developed in a lab.

"You've got to get these products out into the world and make contact with reality, make our mistakes while the stakes are low," he said.

 

 

 

In April 2023, OpenAI announced the option to turn off chat history in ChatGPT so the data can't be used to train and improve its models.

chatgpt on phone
Over the years, people have expressed concerns about the privacy policies of AI chatbots.Getty

In a blog post, the company said it hoped the option to turn off chat history "provides an easier way to manage your data than our existing opt-out process."

When a user turns off their chat history, new conversations will be kept for 30 days for OpenAI to review them for abuse, then are permanently deleted.

In his first appearance before Congress, Altman told a Senate panel there should be a government agency to grant licenses to companies working on advanced AI.

Sam Altman testifying before Congress in May 2023
Sam Altman testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law in 2023.Win McNamee/Getty Images

Altman told lawmakers there should be an agency that grants licenses for companies that are working on AI models "above a certain scale of capabilities." He also said the agency should be able to revoke licenses from companies that don't follow safety rules.

"I think if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong," Altman said. "And we want to be vocal about that, we want to work with the government to prevent that from happening."

OpenAI launched a ChatGPT app for iPhones and Android users in 2023.

ChatGPT iPhone app
OpenAI released its official ChatGPT app to iPhone users.Insider

The app, which is free, can answer text-based and spoken questions using Whisper, another OpenAI product that is a speech-recognition model. Users who have a subscription to ChatGPT Plus can also access it through the app.

Altman met with leaders in Europe to discuss AI regulations and said OpenAI has "no plans to leave" the EU, despite his earlier concerns over the EU's proposed AI Act.

Photo of Sam Altman speaking at the Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Altman believes AI could surpass humanity in most domains in the next 10 years.Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters.

At the start of his trip, Altman told reporters in London that he was concerned about the EU's proposed AI Act that focuses on regulating AI and protecting Europeans from AI risks.

"The details really matter," Altman said, according to the Financial Times. "We will try to comply, but if we can't comply, we will cease operating."

However, he shared on X later in the week that OpenAI is "excited to continue to operate here and of course have no plans to leave."

In an October 2023 interview, Altman expressed "deep misgivings" about people befriending AI.

Sam Altman
Altman has been vocal about his stance on AI's place in the future.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Altman made it clear that he doesn't believe humans should try to be friends with AI in an interview during Wall Street Journal's Tech Live event.

"I personally really have deep misgivings about this vision of the future where everyone is super close to AI friends, and not more so with their human friends," Altman said.

 

On November 17, 2023, OpenAI shocked tech fans by announcing that Altman would no longer be the company's CEO.

Sam Altman and Mira Murati
Altman and CTO Mira Murati, who briefly took over as interim CEO after his ousting.PATRICK T. FALLON/Getty Images

In November, the OpenAI board of directors announced that Altman would be stepping down from his role as CEO and leaving the board, "effective immediately."

In a blog post, the board said it "no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI," and added that Altman was "not consistently candid in his communications."

"We are grateful for Sam's many contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI," a statement from OpenAI's board says. "At the same time, we believe new leadership is necessary as we move forward."

Altman issued his own statement via a post on X.

"i loved my time at openai. it was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. most of all i loved working with such talented people," Altman wrote.

He added: "will have more to say about what's next later."

But days after the ouster, Sam Altman returned to the helm of OpenAI.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman
Altman returned to OpenAI days after his dismissal was announced.Markus Schreiber/AP

After a chaotic weekend over his firing, Altman and OpenAI announced that he would return to the tech company as CEO.

"We have reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board of Bret Taylor (Chair), Larry Summers, and Adam D'Angelo," the company wrote on X.

In January, Altman confirmed he married his partner Oliver Mulherin.

Sam Altman and his boyfriend
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (R) with his husband Oliver Mulherin (L) at a White House dinner.JULIA NIKHINSON/Getty

Altman is married. The OpenAI CEO wed his partner Oliver Mulherin, with photos from the wedding circulating on social media in January 2024.

An attendee of the wedding confirmed to Business Insider that the pictures weren't AI-generated. His husband is an Australian software engineer who previously worked at Meta, according to his LinkedIn profile.

OpenAI launched its text-to-video model Sora.

Screenshot from Sora-made video
Sora is still being tested, but OpenAI and Sam Altman are showing off what it can do.OpenAI

In February, OpenAI unveiled Sora to the public. The program — named after the Japanese word for "sky" — creates up to 0ne-minute long videos from text prompts.

"We're teaching AI to understand and simulate the physical world in motion, with the goal of training models that help people solve problems that require real-world interaction," OpenAI wrote in Sora's announcement.

Sora is still in the midst of risk and harm assessments by red teamers, but Altman is already showing off its capabilities on social media, and the company is reportedly shopping the tool around to Hollywood.

Altman and his husband signed the Giving Pledge in 2024.

Sam Altman and Oliver Mulherin
Sam Altman and Oliver Mulherin have pledged to give away most of their wealth.Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Time

A few weeks after Forbes declared Altman a billionaire, he and his partner signed the Giving Pledge, vowing to give away most of his fortune.

"We would not be making this pledge if it weren't for the hard work, brilliance, generosity, and dedication to improve the world of many people that built the scaffolding of society that let us get here," the pledge letter read.

They continued: "There is nothing we can do except feel immense gratitude and commit to pay it forward, and do what we can to build the scaffolding up a little higher."

OpenAI introduced GPT-4o in May and demonstrated its capabilities.

OpenAI CTO Mira Murati
OpenAI's CTO was the main speaker at the Spring Update in May.OpenAI

During its "Spring Update" on May 13, OpenAI announced GPT-4o, an updated version of its large language model that powers ChatGPT. OpenAI CTO Mira Murati made the announcement, and Altman didn't make an appearance despite actively promoting the event on X.

Altman might've been absent from the presentation, but the demonstrations of ChatGPT's voice and video capabilities created buzz online. It also led to Altman and his company being called out by actor Scarlett Johansson, who alleged that the OpenAI chatbot Sky's voice sounded "eerily similar" to her own after she declined a partnership.

Altman's post on X referencing a movie in which Johansson voices someone's virtual girlfriend was quickly called into question, and the company soon said that it would not move forward with the voice heard in the demo.

Apple announced a partnership with OpenAI at the Worldwide Developer Conference in June.

Sam Altman and Tim Cook
OpenAI's Sam Altman and Apple's Tim Cook announced a deal at WWDC 2024.Getty Images

After much debate about how it would enter the AI arms race, Apple announced at WWDC 2024 that it would partner with OpenAI to close the gap between it and its rivals.

Although Bloomberg reported that Apple isn't paying OpenAI in cash, the tech titan's solid installed base of over two billion users means more people may use ChatGPT if it comes integrated with Siri. According to the presentation, Siri will be able to handle more complex requests with help from ChatGPT.

Altman was spotted attending WWDC the day the partnership was announced and speaking to high-ranking Apple employees ahead of the keynote.

Correction: February 2, 2023 — An earlier version of this story defined AGI incorrectly and listed the incorrect age at which Altman was named president of Y Combinator. AGI in this context stands for artificial general intelligence. Altman became president of Y Combinator at 28, not 31.

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