Monday, June 30, 2008

NVIDIA Corporation Annual Shareholder Meeting (2015)

Jen-Hsun Huang reminds me of James Dean, if James Dean was a Silicon Valley tech founder and CEO.  As Nvidia’s President and CEO, Mr. Huang’s leather jacket, jeans, and cool demeanor are refreshing to see.  Whereas most CEOs and board members crumble when presented with a question requiring some thought, Mr. Huang not only relishes the questions, he enjoys displaying his prodigious intellect.  Perhaps that’s only natural when he’s led Nvidia for 20+ years and battled Intel (INTC) successfully. 

Nvidia’s 2015 annual meeting took place at the company's HQ in Santa Clara, CA.  About 50 people attended.  Unlike in past years, there was no “annual yearbook” or product displays, and sadly, the food options have dwindled to just a few pastries, a plate of fruit, and coffee and water.  If you come to the meeting, you’re coming to see Mr. Huang, who clearly takes deserved pride in the company he’s built.

He opened the meeting by talking up Nvidia and how it’s the “best in the world in our field.” He mentioned that Nvidia early on recognized video games would be tech-driven, a prediction which turned out to be “absolutely right.”  Looking forward, visual computing and game simulations will drive technological innovation for a few more decades as video games become even more complex. 

Despite being the leader in video game technology, Nvidia no longer wants to be known as a mere video game company.  It has branched out into virtual reality (the future of video gaming), self-driving cars, and deep learning (AI, image recognition, pattern recognition, etc.).  Nvidia’s sales to the auto industry are booming, with 85% growth from FY14 to FY15.  That’s more than cloud and HPC growth—53%—during the same time period.  Mr. Huang said that future cars are going to be “computers on wheels,” and “safer and easier to drive.”  Overall, “simulation work” is largely done on Nvidia technology, which allows people to “see the world around you in real time.” 

Nvidia has two women on its board, Dawn Hudson (CMO, NFL) and Persis Drell (Dean, School of Engineering, Stanford University).  I asked how Nvidia could become more diverse, as all the board members except for Mr. Huang appeared to be white, which is an unusual composition in the very diverse Silicon Valley, where about 40% of Santa Clara County residents are immigrants. 

Mr. Huang delivered a great response, unlike many other companies, which become defensive under the same line of questioning (I’m looking at you, San Jose Water Company (SJW), with your one female board member and not a single person of color in the front of the room at your 2015 shareholder meeting).  Mr. Huang responded that “through diversity, we get better answers,” and explained that it was difficult to attract board members when Nvidia was known only as a video game tech company.  Now, as Nvidia successfully branches out into several different areas, it is getting more and more attention and interest. 

I then asked what advice he had for a new entrepreneur starting out in Silicon Valley.  That’s when he delivered the line of the night—“Don’t go into video graphics,” which caused the entire room to laugh.  When the noise settled down, Mr. Huang said that success requires serendipity, and it’s never just one person—it’s the people you’re surrounded by.  As for how he’s managed to remain CEO for so long, Mr. Huang showed a bit of a Mark Cuban streak when he remarked that he and the company (have not been and) should not be complacent.  Today, in part because of his leadership and willingness to take calculated risks, Nvidia is succeeding on multiple platforms—PC, cloud, and mobile, while some other companies struggle with the shift to mobile, such as Intel (INTC). 

When the meeting ended, I wanted to talk to some board members.  I wasn’t impressed with board member Dawn Thomas—she seems standoffish and plastic—but I was honored to talk to Stanford’s Persis Drell.  I asked her how to increase diversity on the board and in Silicon Valley.  She said it would take time, but talking about the issue was the first step.  Also, diversity of experience matters, not just race or gender—she remarked that one of the best people she had on her team was a white gentleman who was ex-military, and because of his military experience, he was comfortable pushing to get things done when others might sometimes dither. 

As for why persons of color in America are underrepresented in the science and engineering fields, she said some of it has to do with resources.  Many kids have access to computers and other resources at an early age, but this access is not universal.  I couldn’t help but think of where Bill Gates might be had his parents not enrolled him in a school where a computer company provided computer time for the students.  In the 1970’s, having access to computers was not common, and Gates’ privileged access allowed him to become who he is today.  It was a pleasure speaking to Dr. Drell. 

Let’s start talking about diversity, complacency, and other difficult topics, folks.  The world ain’t gonna fix itself, but as long as there are people like Dr. Drell and Mr. Huang—intrepid pioneers who aren’t afraid to meet challenges head-on—I have a feeling things are going to be just fine.

(Originally published May 21, 2015, referring to NVIDIA's May 20, 2015 annual shareholder meeting.) 

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