The Moment Jensen Huang Realized NVIDIA Would Change the World

by Bob Sherbin

In a tony restaurant overlooking the Bellagio Hotel’s ornate floodlit fountains, top execs packed into Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech dinner, which kicks off each year’s CES show.

NVIDIA founder and CEO Jensen Huang, who last month was named Fortune magazine’s Businessperson of the Year, was being interviewed on stage and was asked at what point he realized his company would change the world.

Raising the question from the floor was a face familiar to many there, Alan Murray. He runs editorial content at Time Inc.’s broad stable of magazines, and was referring to NVIDIA’s roots in computer gaming, before it turned to harnessing the powers of artificial intelligence.

“You started a company that made a chip used in cool video games, and now you run a company” focused on AI, said Murray, who’s spent decades as a top editor and columnist at Fortune and the Wall Street Journal. His question: When did it occur to you NVIDIA would change the world?

Huang replied instantly with a specific date: Feb. 17, 1993. That initially drew laughs, until the audience of 125 realized he was serious. It was the date he and two friends started NVIDIA.

“There’s no point to start a company unless you want to make a contribution to society,” Huang said.

“It’s incredibly hard to start a business. The depths of despair, the torture, the great joy of doing something the world’s never done before is beyond what words can describe,” he said. “Unless you believe you’re going to make a contribution, you can’t go down that journey.”

Huang noted that his company — which has grown from three to some 11,000 people with a value exceeding $130 billion — did start in computer gaming. But it then moved to workstations, and high performance computers, then servers, and ultimately supercomputers in the cloud.

“3D graphics and video gaming is the engine of innovation,” he said, which has allowed the company to fund billions in R&D, such as the $2 billion required to build its latest Xavier autonomous-machine processor, which Huang unveiled last night at his keynote and is at the heart of the company’s revolutionary autonomous driving breakthroughs.

In other words, NVIDIA didn’t change the world by changing what it does. Instead, it’s earned the opportunity to change the world by doing things the world needs.