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OpenAI ex-employees worry about company's control over their millions of dollars in shares

OpenAI plans to allow stakeholders to sell a portion of their shares every year, but the company, which has been valued at over $80 billion, is taking a restrictive approach that's raised concerns among current and former employeesabout the startup's power to determine who participates, CNBC has learned.

Due to OpenAI's skyrocketing valuation following the launch of ChatGPT in late 2022, many early employees are sitting on millions of dollars worth of equity. With no IPO on the horizon and a price tag that makes the company too expensive to be acquired, the only way for shareholders to realize any value from their equity in the near term is through secondary stock sales.

However, current and former OpenAI employees have been increasingly concerned about access to liquidity, according to interviews and documents shared internally. Those fears have intensified in recent weeks after reports that the company had the power to claw back vested equity, said people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the information they shared is confidential.

In an attempt to assuage some of those concerns, OpenAI recently circulated a document, obtained by CNBC, titled, "Overview and Recap of OpenAI's Tender Process," detailing how the company has conducted equity purchases in the past and how it plans to handle them in the future. The issue has become a major topic of conversation at OpenAI and among people who have recently left, according to internal documents, Slack messages and exit agreements viewed by CNBC, as well as conversations with multiple former OpenAI employees.

OpenAI has told employees that it will try to hold one tender offer roughly every year, but that depends on how both the company and the market are