True billionaires aren’t exactly rare these days, but they’re a lot more common than they used to be. And few have followed the kind of jagged path taken by Chamath Palihapitiya. A Sri Lanka native whose family moved to Canada when he was just five years old, Palihapitiya now has a net worth of $1.2 billion.
Palihapitiya’s early struggles probably played a strong part in his desire to accumulate wealth. His first job was at Burger King, while his mother worked as a housekeeper. His father struggled to hold a job, but Palihapitiya’s fortunes changed when he began to show his future brilliance when he attended Lisgar Collegiate Institute, from which he graduated at the tender age of 17.
His early jobs came as an electrical engineer, and in 2004 he was a young VP working in AOL’s Instant Messaging department. He left AOL to become a venture capitalist at the Mayfield Fund, but when Facebook came calling Palihapitiya began to work for the social media giant, where he supposedly wasn’t well-liked, but his friends in high places happened to include Mark Zuckerberg.
By the time Palihapitiya left Facebook in 2011, he’d already made a fortune selling his equity and begun to branch out. His first savvy move was purchasing a stake in the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, where his minority stake included a seat on the board.
From there he started his own business, Social Capital, with his ex-wife Brigette Lau. Social Capital was wildly successful investing in other lucrative businesses. Palihapitiya sold his stake in Virgin Galactic for over $200 million, and by 2015 Social Capital had over $1.1 billion in assets.
The wealthy investor has become especially famous for his work with special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), which help the purchased companies raise capital via trading while allowing the owners to keep their majority interests.
Recently, though, Palihapitiya’s maneuvers have come under scrutiny and generated several serious scandals. In 2018 there were reports of a massive drop in Social Capital’s funding operation, and both founders and executives began leaving en masse.
Palihapitiya was rumored to be spending a lot of time with his new girlfriend in Italy, and phone calls and emails were going unanswered. The firm ended up returning investor capital, but that turned out to be just the beginning of his problems.
In 2019, an Ontario judge ordered Palihapitiya and two of his former partners to fork over almost $16 million to plaintiffs as a result of his acquisition of Xtreme Labs, a mobile software development shop, at a discount price.
The award also specified that Palihapitiya breached his contract with another company, EVP, and later that year he was forced to step down from the board of another previously-purchased company, Slack. Several US senators questioned his tendency toward conflict-of-interest acquisitions, but those inquiries didn’t prove costly.
Palihapitiya also made some minor headlines for investing serious funds in Bitcoin, which is hardly surprising given his history. Whether he’s learned his lesson with regard to future acquisitions is another question entirely, of course, but Palihapitiya’s tendency to dance on the financial edge doesn’t seem to have hurt him all that much in the big picture. Palihapitiya is now a co-host of the All-In Podcast alongside Jason Calacanis, David Friedberg, and David Sacks.