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From Toilet Cleaner to CEO of $2 Trillion Company: The Remarkable Journey of Jensen Huang and Nvidia

Explore the inspiring immigrant success story of Nvidia's CEO from humble beginnings to becoming a tech industry titan

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31 Mar '24
6 min read


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Any gaming and AI enthusiast will be familiar with the tech giant NVIDIA. In February, the company overtook Google to become the third most valuable company in the United States, trailing only Microsoft and Apple. Over the past year, its shares have soared by 240%, propelling its market value to reach $2 trillion (£1.57 trillion) last month. The front runner in AI hardware took the tech world by storm with the launch of its new generation of AI Graphic Processing Unit (GPUs) called Blackwell, promising 30x speed faster than its predecessor.  

But this article isn't about the company but its CEO Jensen Huang, the 24th-richest man in the world

His life trajectory is an inspiration for aspiring tech entrepreneurs. 

Huang’s leadership style, characterized by humility and a hands-on approach, defines his personality. For him, no task is small or beneath anyone in a company’s culture. At Stanford Graduate School of Business, in a session titled ‘View From The Top,’ he reinstated his belief.

 “To me, no task is beneath me. Because remember I used to wash dishes, and I mean I used to clean toilets. I cleaned a lot of toilets. I've cleaned more toilets than all of you combined and some of them...just can't unsee. I don't know what to tell you. That's life.”

Born in Taiwan, at age 9, he was sent with his brother to live with an uncle in Tacoma due to civil unrest. The next year, Huang relocated again, this time to rural Oneida, Kentucky. He resided in an all-boys dormitory at the Oneida Baptist Institute, a religious reform academy which his uncle mistook for a prestigious boarding school.

Huang’s roommate was a seventeen-year-old lad who, on the first night, showed him multiple scars on his body from past fights. The teenager was also illiterate, so Huang struck a deal: he taught him reading in exchange for learning how to bench-press. This arrangement led to Huang doing a hundred pushups every night before bed.

However, bullying and racial slurring became a part of his daily existence. But his time at Oneida built his resiliency to brush off the torture. 

Huang's parents later joined him and his brother in the US, and the family settled outside Portland, Oregon. There, Huang attended high school, competed in tennis (nationally), and graduated two years early, at 16.

Huang went to Oregon State University, where he majored in electrical engineering and, also competed for his wife, then lab partner Lori Mills’ attention. Mills was one of the three girls out of 250 kids in electrical engineering. In an interview with the New Yorker, he shared that for six months every weekend, Huang would pester Mills to do homework with him till he gathered enough courage to take her out on a date. 

Jenson Huang with his wife Lori Mills. Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium

That worked out as both got married and got jobs as microchip designers in Silicon Valley before that. 

He completed his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering at Oregon State University and pursued a master's degree in the same field at Stanford University. 

In 1993, Huang, alongside veteran microchip designers Chris Malachowsky and Curtis Priem, established Nvidia. At the time, he was an acting director at San Jose chipmaker LSI Logic.

 

The trio met at Denny’s restaurant near Huang’s residence to discuss the future trajectory of computing, advocating for accelerated or graphics-based computing. The discussion convinced Huang to resign from his position. It was the same Denny’s where he was a dishwasher.

Despite being younger than Malachowsky and Priem at 30, Huang's rapid learning impressed both, leading them to believe he was prepared for the role of CEO. The founders just had just $40,000 in the bank between them, but they had a strong understanding of the future of computing. 

The other two co-founders aimed to develop a graphics chip that would leave competitors envious. So they thought of naming it NVision, they later changed it to Nvidia upon discovering that the former was already in use by a toilet paper manufacturer. Huang suggested Nvidia, emphasising on the Latin word "invidia," meaning envy. 

Huang was drawn to video games and believed there was a demand for improved graphics chips. But Nvidia broadened its customer base to include the supercomputing sector in 2006. The visionary in Hueng believed this model of computing could solve problems that general-purpose computing fundamentally couldn’t. Huang shared with Fortune in 2017, “We also observed that video games were simultaneously one of the most computationally challenging problems and would have incredibly high sales volume. Those two conditions don’t happen very often. Video games were our killer app—a flywheel to reach large markets funding huge R&D to solve massive computational problems.”

Then, in 2013, inspired by promising research in academic computer science, Huang shifted Nvidia's focus to artificial intelligence, betting the company's future on this emerging technology.

Nvidia secured $20 million in VC funding, with contributions from Sequoia Capital, making Huang one of the few tech founders to lead his company consistently since its inception.

But it wasn't this smooth always 

Nvidia’s first product, a multimedia card for personal computers called NV1, arrived in 1995 at a time when three-dimensional games began to gain traction. Despite the impressive features, the card didn’t sell well as Microsoft announced that its graphics software would support only triangles. But Nvidia had opted for quadrilaterals. 

Facing financial constraints, Huang opted for the conventional triangle approach and aimed to outpace competitors to the market. In 1996, he downsized Nvidia's workforce by over half and staked the remaining funds on an untested microchip production run, unsure of its success.

The gamble paid off when their new product RIVA 128 product became a success, allowing Nvidia to survive. Huang's leadership style, marked by urgency and perseverance, continued to drive the company forward, with the motto "Our company is thirty days from going out of business" becoming ingrained in Nvidia's culture.

Nvidia's 1999 IPO on the Nasdaq set off a chain of milestones. They debuted the GeForce 256 in 1999, the first GPU, and introduced CUDA in 2006, broadening GPU use. Repurposing Tegra chips for automotive use in 2014 unlocked new revenue streams across sectors like defense, energy, finance, healthcare, manufacturing, and security.

Nvidia Office 

Huang's leadership style merits recognition. According to Fortune’s 2017 profile, the billionaire doesn’t even maintain a desk or corner office; instead, he prefers to move freely around his building, utilising various conference rooms as workspaces. Additionally, he sports a prominent arm tattoo resembling his company's logo, acquired in the mid-2000s as a dare from his staff once the company's stock price surpassed $100. (Nvidia's offices embrace tattoos and leather jackets, fostering a culture of long staff tenure and strong bonds among employees.)

Jensen Huang's extraordinary journey from adversity to triumph is a testament to the power of resilience and hard work. His story is an inspiration to aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators, highlighting the importance of perseverance and a relentless pursuit of excellence. 

By overcoming challenges and seizing opportunities, Huang not only revolutionized the tech industry but also demonstrated the transformative potential of unwavering determination. Nvidia showed resilience in years of market doubt under Huang’s conviction in the power of graphics technology and ability to think in 10-year time horizons. 

His remarkable achievements underscore the enduring impact of visionary leadership and the limitless possibilities that await those who dare to dream big and pursue their goals with unwavering dedication.

Category : Technology


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Written by Madhuwanti Saha

Writer, Journalist , Photographer