When larger-than-life executives become victims of their own success


Former Twitter (now X) CEO Jack Dorsey when he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. [AFP]

On November 17, the board of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, fired CEO Sam Altman, regarded by many as the face of artificial intelligence (AI).

Journalists and the tech community couldn’t make sense of this.

In a statement, the board of directors said they believed he had not been “consistently candid in communications” with them, and as a result, they had “lost confidence” in his leadership.

“Mr Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities,” the company said.

But in a dramatic turn of events on November 29, Altman and some of his senior executives who had quit were back at the helm of the company.

Altman returned as CEO, Mira Murati as chief technology officer (CTO) and Greg Brockman as the company’s president.

“On behalf of the OpenAI Board, I want to express our gratitude to the entire OpenAI community, especially all the OpenAI employees, who came together to help find a path forward for the company over the past week,” said board chairman Bret Taylor.

“Your efforts helped enable this incredible organisation to continue to serve its mission to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.”

From search bars and social media feeds recommending purchases in e-commerce sites to movies on streaming platforms, AI has been around for some time now.

But until ChatGPT was launched, AI was not actively in the conversation.

In November 2022, OpenAI, an artificial intelligence research company, launched ChatGPT, and the chatbot quickly went viral on social media as users shared examples of what it could do. 

This accelerated the use of AI in most day-to-day activities. The chatbot attracted over one million users in less than one week.

OpenAI’s profile has skyrocketed since the launch of ChatGPT. Earlier this month, Altman announced that it has over 100 million weekly users, making it one of the fastest-growing services of all time.

AI industry stakeholders believe the technology has the potential to improve education, finance, agriculture, health care and nearly every industry.

However, it will also take jobs away from humans, according to the World Economic Forum.

According to reports, the board felt Altman was moving too fast in what could be potentially dangerous technology, hence the sack.

According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft, OpenAI’s largest investor, remains committed to the partnership. “We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap,” he said.

Meanwhile, Altman and former president Greg Brockman are joining Microsoft “with colleagues” to “lead a new advanced AI research team.” 

“We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success,” Nadella said.

The return

After a five-day attempted boardroom coup, Altman officially returned as CEO of OpenAI last Wednesday. The company’s biggest investor, Microsoft, is planning to take a nonvoting board seat as well.

In an interview with The Verge, Altman refused to answer the main question on everyone’s minds: exactly why he was fired to begin with. OpenAI’s new board, led by Bret Taylor, is going to conduct an independent investigation into what went down.

“I very much welcome that,” Altman told the publication.

In an official statement after his appointment, Altman expressed his excitement to continue with OpenAI.

“I have never been more excited about the future. I am extremely grateful for everyone’s hard work in an unclear and unprecedented situation, and I believe our resilience and spirit set us apart in the industry. I feel so, so good about our probability of success for achieving our mission,” he wrote.

It may sound counterintuitive, but starting a company doesn’t guarantee a job for life. Founders are forced out all the time.

Apple’s Steve Jobs and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey are some of the high-profile founders who once got pushed out by their respective boards.

But how does it happen? Interestingly, a founder’s early success can play a crucial part in their firing.

As startups grow, they often bring on board more investors. These investors end up on the board of directors and can make management decisions on hiring and firing.

A study by Noam Wasserman, a professor at the University of Southern California, found founders rarely last.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

On average, four out of five entrepreneurs are forced to step down or be removed from management. By the time startups reach the three-year mark, 50 per cent of founders are no longer CEO. 

Why startups fail in Kenya

While Silicon Valley’s dirty laundry is out there for all to see, what could be the reason why Kenyan tech startups haven’t reached such heights as their American counterparts, bar Safaricom’s M-pesa?

Most of them are facing difficult market conditions and a lack of funding, which has wiped out several tech start-ups.

When Microsoft first invested $1 billion (Sh153 billion in today’s exchange rate) in OpenAI in 2019, the deal received no more attention than your average corporate venture round.

The startup market was blazing hot, and artificial intelligence was one of many areas attracting mega-valuations, alongside electric vehicles, advanced logistics and aerospace.

While a good idea or solution attracts heavy investment, most Kenyan startups do not get to this point however good the innovation might be.

In 2022 alone, Kune Foods, Notify Logistics, WeFarm, BRCK, Sendy and Sky-Garden started shutting down their operations in quick succession.

That said, the failure of startups is a worldwide phenomenon and not unique to Kenya. External factors such as inflation, currency fluctuations, economic downturns and lack of proper markets have seen shocks emerge in many startup operations.

In a nutshell, the lack of funding or mismanagement of funds, retaining an efficient management team, faulty infrastructure or business model and unsuccessful marketing strategies ideally lead to business failure for startups. 

What is AI, how does it work and the dangers?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is developing at high speed, transforming many aspects of modern life.

Like humans, AI allows computers to learn and solve problems.

AI systems are trained on huge amounts of information and learn to identify the patterns in it, to carry out tasks such as having human-like conversations or predicting a product an online shopper might buy.

AI is behind social media post feeds, while voice-controlled virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa help e-commerce platforms analyse buying habits to recommend more. Most simply, AI is on your search bar predicting words and sentences before you type in full. 

Many experts are surprised by how quickly AI has developed and fear its rapid growth could be dangerous. Some have even said AI research should be stopped.

Earlier in October, the UK government published a report, which said AI might soon assist hackers in launching cyberattacks or help terrorists plan chemical attacks.

Some experts even worry that in the future, super-intelligent AIs could make humans extinct.