On a video call in early November, employees at Alameda Research dialed in to learn the fate of the trading firm, which was teetering on the brink.
It was up to Caroline Ellison to deliver the bad news. Alameda was at the center of Sam Bankman-Fried‘s collapsing FTX empire. Ms. Ellison, who had just turned 28, was at the center of Alameda. And they were all in crisis.
Alameda and crypto exchange FTX were both the brainchild of Ms. Ellison’s friend Mr. Bankman-Fried, and he had picked her to help lead Alameda the year before. For a time, they rode the crypto wave together, with FTX eventually notching a blockbuster valuation of $32 billion. This month, it all came crashing down in a matter of days.
Customers had grown fearful about the companies’ financial health, yanking their money from FTX in a short, frenzied period. The firms scrambled to stay afloat, but they filed for bankruptcy shortly after Ms. Ellison’s call with employees. Mr. Bankman-Fried resigned as FTX’s chief executive.
Prosecutors, regulators and even FTX’s new CEO are investigating what happened. Customers are losing hope they will ever see their money again. Lawsuits have followed, and many top employees have left. Ms. Ellison has been fired along with Gary Wang and Nishad Singh. They were also top deputies of Mr. Bankman-Fried’s.
Before the crash, Mr. Bankman-Fried hugged the spotlight, promoting crypto and lobbying for its interests in Washington, while Ms. Ellison remained in the engine room. Alameda, a trading firm owned almost entirely by Mr. Bankman-Fried, had one overarching purpose: Make money. Ms. Ellison was tasked with keeping it running.
In a handful of podcasts and other public appearances, Ms. Ellison was quick to summarize her rapid ascent as almost accidental. She joined Wall Street straight from graduating Stanford University in 2016, though the move was less a calling than an answer to the question she found herself asking in college: What are math majors supposed to do with their lives, anyway?
It was at her first job, at the quant-trading powerhouse Jane Street Capital, that she met another 20-something trader, Mr. Bankman-Fried. Like her, he had been raised by two professors. Like her, he spoke highly of a movement called “effective altruism,” or the idea of making big money to give away.
When Mr. Bankman-Fried left to start Alameda, Ms. Ellison soon followed in what she called “a blind leap into the unknown.” She was still barely out of college—but she was also one of the more experienced traders there, she said in an FTX podcast in 2020.
Caroline Ellison grew up in the Boston suburbs, the daughter of two MIT economists. At 5, she read the second “Harry Potter” book to herself, she said on the podcast. At 8, she wrote an analysis of stuffed-animal prices, according to Forbes. Her father, inspired by his daughters, wrote advanced-math textbooks for children bored by basic lessons.
She and Messrs. Bankman-Fried, Wang and Singh comprised the board of what they called the Future Fund, with the goal of making grants to nonprofits and investments in “socially impactful companies.” Critics say the effective altruism worldview can encourage excessive risk-taking—since people can always argue that bigger paydays lead to bigger donations.