The Story of Jensen Huang and NVIDIA

1 minutes reading time
Published 6 Dec 2023
Author: Emil Persson
Reviewed by: Kasper Karlsson
Updated 6 Feb 2024

When looking at NVIDIA’s Jensen Huang today, it is easy to stereotype him as your archetypical big tech CEO. He doesn’t wear suits like a Wall Street Chairman, instead opting to wear his now-iconic leather jackets and casual polo shirts. He can convey how his incredibly complex products work in a manner that only begins to scratch at the surface of his technological knowledge, and he’s seen his net worth skyrocket together with the value of the company he leads.

But NVIDIA hasn’t become a trillion-dollar company by selling software that is more or less infinitely scalable and deployable. The company Jensen co-founded has grown by selling some of the most innovative computer hardware ever produced and as the world continues to change at an ever-increasing pace, NVIDIA is cementing its place as one of the most important companies of the coming accelerated computing era. While the story of his company is incredibly fascinating, the life and work of its figurehead is equally captivating and has been marked by the relentless pursuit of innovation and progress.

From Tainan to Oregon

Jensen, whose first name is actually Jen-Hsun, was born in Tainan, Taiwan in 1963 and the first years of his life were marked by moves. Funny enough, Taiwan is today the world's leading nation when it comes to advanced semiconductor manufacturing. In fact, TSMC has been manufacturing NVIDIA's most cutting-edge chips for years.

When Jensen was five years old the Huang family moved to Thailand, but his stay in the country would not be long-lived. After Huang’s father had been part of a worker-training program in the US with the air conditioner manufacturer Carrier, he made a promise that he would send his children to America. This was due to the ample opportunities available in the US, as well as due to the instability in the region as the Vietnam War raged just across the Thai border. To prepare her children for a future on the other side of the world, his mother, who didn’t speak or understand any English at the time, began teaching them. She picked ten words from the dictionary every day, and Jensen and his brother would learn and repeat them back to her. Needless to say, Jensen is incredibly thankful for his parents' sacrifices and hard work and credits them with putting him in a position to succeed.

The Huang brothers were eventually sent to Oneida, Kentucky to attend elementary school and live with relatives, and the years following the move were tough for the young Jensen. He had trouble fitting in with his peers and has spoken openly about attending a school for so-called “problematic” students, where he was made to clean toilets. The parents later emigrated as well and the family made their home just outside of Portland, Oregon, where Jensen was able to settle in better. While he still had trouble connecting with his fellow high school students from time to time, he excelled in his studies and worked his first job at a local Denny’s. He still speaks fondly of his time at Denny’s and the lessons he learned, and even as the CEO of a trillion-dollar company Huang is proud of having worked his way up from a dishwasher to a waiter.

Oregon State and Stanford

After High School, Jensen set his sights on higher education. His time at university started at Oregon State, where he earned a bachelor's degree in engineering. While his time at OSU built the foundation of knowledge he would need to succeed in the industry, this is also where he met his future wife Lori, who was his lab partner in an electrical engineering class. After graduating from OSU in 1984 Huang entered the workforce and gained experience at companies like AMD and LSI Logic, studied during nights and weekends, and earned a master's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1992, a year before founding NVIDIA. The academic environment of Stanford, combined with its culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, significantly influenced Huang's perspective and approach to technology. Jensen has made several charitable contributions to both OSU and Stanford during the 2010s, donating millions of dollars to his two alma maters.

AMD and LSI Logic

Before moving on to Stanford and the eventual founding of NVIDIA, Jensen worked at both AMD and LSI Logic. His time at AMD was short, with him being with the company for a little over a year, but laid the foundation for his future success in the industry. While with AMD he worked in the design of microprocessors, small electronic devices that perform the functions of a central processing unit of a computer on a single integrated circuit. Ironically enough, NVIDIA and AMD are now head-to-head competitors in both Graphics Processors and data center optimized Central Processors.

After his time at AMD, he was hired by LSI Logic (now owned by Broadcom). This was during a very exciting time in his former employer's history, as the company had gone public two years earlier and was still rapidly growing and expanding. LSI was at the time a semiconductor manufacturer whose products were used to improve storage capacity and network speed in areas such as networks and data centers. During his time there, Huang held several positions within the company including (unsurprisingly) engineering, marketing, and eventually general management positions.

The Founding of NVIDIA

NVIDIA was founded in 1993 by Huang, Chris Malachowsky, and Curtis Priem. The two other co-founders, who together brought experience from Sun Microsystems and IBM, met together with Huang at a Denny’s just outside of San Jose, and while eating diner food founded NVIDIA with $40,000 in starting capital. In a talk in 2023, Jensen described a “proud moment” that had happened during the previous year relating to the founding of NVIDIA. He was contacted by the CEO of Denny’s, who was happy to inform him that the booth that NVIDIA was founded in had received a plaque with the inscription “The NVIDIA Booth - The booth that launched a trillion dollar company”.

The Denny's booth where NVIDIA was founded
The Denny's booth where NVIDIA was founded

An Unfundable Idea

NVIDIA was founded during a time when the PC industry was just gaining momentum, and the industry was just beginning to grasp the impact the Central Processing Unit (CPU) was going to have. NVIDIA’s founding team was convinced that CPUs weren’t going to be the solution to all computational problems and envisioned a future of accelerated computing. They figured that if the accelerated computing vision would come to life, the world would need specialized purpose-built hardware. The first example of this was the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), which was NVIDIA's first blockbuster product and an incredible innovation in the world of computer graphics.

This is something that Jensen describes as putting a specialist next to a generalist. The CPU in this case acts as the jack of all trades, where the GPU comes in to solve more complex problems that the CPU is unable to solve efficiently. However, success was far from certain. Jensen has described the idea of GPUs as an “unfundable idea”, due to how outlandish it sounded at the time. In essence, NVIDIA was founded during a time when all eyes and venture capital were focused on CPUs, without an application on the market, and with a massive need for R&D expenditure. Wanting to build a product that complimented CPUs, where the number one application was going to be 3D video games, seemed like a surefire way to fail. Huang has described the founding of NVIDIA as a company with a “market challenge, a technology challenge, and an ecosystem challenge with approximately 0% chance of success,” adding that he would not have funded NVIDIA during the early days.

NVIDIA had a screaming need for external capital, and thanks to connections in the tech industry, Jensen and his co-founders were put in contact with Don Valentine. Valentine was one of the most influential Venture Capitalists in the industry during the time, and was given the blunt advice to “give this kid money and figure out if it’s going to work”. Roughly 20 years later, we now know that it did indeed work and that NVIDIA would go on to become a massive success.

Huang’s Leadership at NVIDIA

Huang has served as the CEO of NVIDIA since founding the company in 1993. During his time at the helm, the company has grown from three men in a booth at a local Denny’s to a trillion-dollar company. One of the constants during this time has been his leadership.

Instead of working with people trying to capture a share of the market by cutting prices or making slight improvements on an already established technology, Huang wants to hire people who are looking to build something groundbreaking. His goal from the get-go has been to create an environment in which people want to come and do their life’s work, and it's something that he has managed to do brilliantly at NVIDIA.

According to Jensen, the most important thing is being able to choose. NVIDIA chooses to do things that are incredibly hard to do for several reasons. One of the most striking aspects of this is the fact that it discourages a lot of the competition, while also being something that more often than not is incredibly inspiring to work with. Another key thing about choosing things that are incredibly hard ties in with attracting the best of the best. By doing things that have never been done before, and giving talented people the chance and patience to do what they do best, Huang states the outcome: great people go on to do great things. Through decades of chip design innovation and a few strategic acquisitions, the company has been able to build a virtuous circle, something which you can read more about here.

NVIDIA Virtuous Cycle
NVIDIA's accelerated computing virtuous cycle

Huang's Personal Life and Family

Jensen is not someone who likes to talk all too much about his personal life and family, choosing instead to keep the focus on his company. Huang is still married to Lori, his electrical engineering lab partner from OSU. He jokingly credits that the two became a couple following his “killer” pickup line, which simply entailed him offering to show her his homework. They have two children together and have worked together on philanthropy projects.

Interestingly it also seems like graphics cards and semiconductors run in the family. Jensen and Lisa Su, the CEO of AMD, are related. The now rival CEOs are first cousins, and while this is something that is far from being a secret, the two don’t appear to be very close and rarely speak of each other in anything other than professional terms. Both Huang and Su are originally from Taiwan and share family ties, but did not know each other growing up and it appears they see each other mainly as competitors, rather than family.

Summarizing Thoughts

The story of Jensen Huang and the subsequent founding of Nvidia is one of the sacrifices made by parents to give their children a better chance at life. But it’s also one of innovation and being willing to take risks to achieve something that has never been done before. Jensen and his view of leadership at NVIDIA revolves around building an inspiring place to work, and how the core values of his company enable them to constantly break new ground in the industry. As the age of AI continues to ramp up, he is positioning NVIDIA to continue to act as the tip of the spear in the specialized hardware production that’s going to make future progress possible.

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