June 2, 2023
Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Canva is expanding, E. Jean Carroll and Mary Trump are working on a book together, and Fortune senior features editor Indrani Sen dives into Caroline Ellison’s real story at FTX. Happy Friday!
– Who is Caroline Ellison? In the flurry of press coverage following the spectacular collapse of FTX last fall, the cryptocurrency exchange’s cofounder Sam Bankman-Fried was clearly the main character, his sheepish grin and unruly mop of hair everywhere you looked. But in the cast of supporting characters (or as they became known, coconspirators) another face stood out: that of Caroline Ellison.
In December, the 28-year-old CEO of Alameda Research, FTX’s sister cryptocurrency firm, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, commodities fraud, securities fraud, and money laundering. She was one of several FTX and Alameda employees to cut a deal, presumably cooperating with prosecutors building the case against Bankman-Fried. But as the CEO of Alameda, as Bankman-Fried’s ex-girlfriend, and as a woman in the bro-y world of crypto, Ellison garnered by far the most press coverage. Her face, peering out from large, tortoiseshell frames in a photo that had once been her employee profile headshot, was often shown side-by-side with Bankman-Fried’s.
Illustration by Joan Wong/photo from Twitter/@CarolineCapital
Meanwhile, Ellison herself was nowhere to be seen. Unlike Bankman-Fried, she did not attend business media conferences, conduct video interviews, or text message reporters to tell her side of the story. Photographers who staked out her parents’ home in Newton, Mass., left without a fresher picture of her. She shut down her social media accounts or made them private, and disappeared almost entirely from the public eye.
In her absence, many stories were told about Ellison. As the writer Courtney Rubin recounts in a new Fortune feature, the former Alameda CEO became a kind of celebrity, “her actions, appearance, and online presence examined in breathless articles claiming the leaders of FTX and Alameda all ‘dated each other’ and lived in a polycule in the Bahamas. Gawker dismissed her as ‘a chipmunk-cheeked Harry Potter superfan.’”
Rubin’s deep dive into what’s knowable about Ellison is a fascinating read (that I was lucky enough to edit). After reaching out to more than 150 of Ellison’s friends, former teachers, classmates, and colleagues, Rubin found nine who were willing to talk about her. Their memories and impressions, combined with a trove of Ellison’s posts on a now-defunct Tumblr, paint a picture of an academically gifted, intellectually strident person who grappled with questions of what it is to be ethical and altruistic.
Of course, there was nothing ethical or altruistic about the scheme Ellison pleaded guilty to playing a key role in—one that left billions in customers’ money missing, that a U.S. attorney called “one of the biggest financial frauds in American history.” What led to these crimes, which Ellison admitted in court that she knew were wrong and illegal, remains in the realm of the unknowable to all but Ellison herself. But Rubin’s reporting does yield some tantalizing clues about her character: her faith in economic reasoning and embrace of a form of “effective altruism” that exalts financial success; her eagerness to prove herself a kind of heroic, questing figure; and her social anxiety and insecurity as the young, female boss of a mostly male team.
None of what Rubin dug up ends up being in any way exculpatory, as my colleague Jeff John Roberts, editor of Fortune Crypto, points out: “This is a young woman who may have been awkward, but who was born with every other advantage—wealth, status, education, and a brilliant mind. Yet she chose to offer the world nothing in return, instead exalting in her own intellect while helping Bankman-Fried carry out a massive fraud.”
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