The Dirty Jobs That Make Project Inspire Silicon Valley’s Best Holiday Party

by Liz Austin

Does the prospect of spending hours engaged in small talk with colleagues make you shudder? Do you suffer PTSD from the last time you tossed back a few drinks with the boss? Then we have the cure: Project Inspire.

Whether you’re a social butterfly or a bit of a curmudgeon, it’s the perfect holiday party. It’s for a good cause, of course. There are power tools, hammers and plenty of paint to play with. You get to meet people from outside of your department — even people who don’t work at NVIDIA at all. And the food is great.

It’s all part of Project Inspire, which is what we do instead of a traditional holiday party. Since 2007, as part of Project Inspire, our volunteers have made over community farms, restored historical parks and revamped schools in economically challenged neighborhoods across Silicon Valley. It’s part of our nearly $6 million effort to support the education of local kids.

The result: our hardest partiers might be a little different from yours.

Jeff Herbst, who runs business development, was among a half dozen volunteers wielding hammers and power tools as they built a small shed for Sheppard Middle School’s new garden.

Over the years, Jeff has acquired a reputation: he loves the tough stuff. “Usually digging ditches — it’s my specialty,” says Jeff. “As far as I can tell, there’s no real ditch digging to do, maybe next year.”

Making a Difference

The not-so-dirty secret, of course: it’s helping make the world a better place. Held each December, Project Inspire has grown over nine years to a two-day effort with 1,500 volunteers.

Last weekend, Project Inspire targeted Sheppard Middle School and the adjacent Painter Elementary School, which together have more than a thousand students (see “How Our Project Inspire Is Transforming Communities, Motivating Students”).

“Sheppard has families with means and families in great need, but being at school levels the playing field,” says Jackie Montejano, Sheppard’s principal.

Sheppard principal Jackie Montejano and 6th Grade teacher Severiana Tupai
Sheppard principal Jackie Montejano and 6th grade teacher Severiana Tupai.

“The physical space of the school is very important. It’s unique, it’s a place that connects people. For many kids it’s their preferred safe space, and making that space awesome makes them feel valued,” she says. “It’s hard to bring kids into a room with blank walls and say to them, ‛dream big.’”

To do that, we tackled 80 projects — using 300 gallons of paint and 70,000 feet of lumber — at the two schools. Among them: an interactive classroom — with decorative murals, bright colors and plenty of bookshelves — that can be replicated elsewhere on campus and in the district.

When Severiana Tupai, teacher of the 6th grade class that occupies the transformed room, saw the result, she declared, “I am never leaving!”

Paintbrushes and Pickaxes

The story behind this story of community transformation: the thousands of NVIDIANs who return, year after year, for the chance to mix it up with colleagues, and friends, while wielding everything from paintbrushes to pickaxes.

“I actually love doing stuff like this,” says Richard Yuan, an NVIDIA hardware engineer, as he dug a shallow trench on Sheppard Middle School’s front lawn. “I don’t often have a chance to do something like this.”

He and a crew of a dozen others were grunting their way through the construction of an outdoor classroom under a towering redwood tree. “This will look real pretty when we’re done,” Richard says as he leans on his pickaxe.

Visualizing Success

Other NVIDIANs worked on tasks that required more precision. Hundreds of NVIDIANs pulled out brushes to splash inspirational murals across the schools’ campuses. Some featured books, like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Others displayed inspirational words from Maya Angelou, Albert Einstein, and even professional mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey.

Tao Zheng, a memory architect, was busily painting the name and logo of the University of Notre Dame on one of more than two dozen college pennants for Sheppard Middle School’s cafeteria.  “It’s great fun,” Tao says. “And it’s a chance to make a contribution to the community.”

Open to All

It’s also a chance to get to know the community a little better. Project Inspire is open to anyone who wants to walk in and get to work. That’s inspired some to make Project Inspire a holiday tradition of their own.

“I don’t even work for NVIDIA, but my wife and I volunteer here every year because it’s so much fun,” says Jens Horstmann, managing partner at Crestlight Venture Productions, a VC firm. “It’s our Christmas party.”