The 84-year-old man who saved Nvidia

The 84-Year-Old Man Who Saved Nvidia

Nvidia was almost out of business before becoming one of the world’s most valuable firms.

And it only survived because of a man he refers to as Irimajiri-san.

Jensen Huang’s startup had been around for a few years in the 1990s when it appeared that it would not be there much longer. The first chip was a flip. Its next chip was destined to fail. According to Huang, this was a watershed moment for his fledgling business.

When Huang approached a senior executive at the massive videogame business Sega for a $5 million lifeline to keep his company going, Nvidia was on the verge of bankruptcy. Irimajiri-san had no motivation whatsoever to do it. Nevertheless, he did it.

Huang reportedly stated, “To his credit and my amazement.” Since the chip manufacturer’s founding, Huang has served as its CEO. Without him, Nvidia would not be today. However, he himself admits that without Irimajiri-san’s assistance, it would not exist today.

He conveyed to Huang one of the most significant and unappreciated business lessons through his ability to preserve the company.

The 84-year-old man who saved Nvidia
Credit: Jensen Huang © Provided by The Wall Street Journal

“When you’re starting your company, you can’t underestimate the kindness of people,” Huang explained in a podcast hosted by Sequoia Capital the previous year.

Read More – Important Fact about Shoichiro Irimajiri

It would have seemed absurd to him when he founded the firm more than 30 years ago that Nvidia would rise to the position of third-most valuable in the world, behind Apple and Microsoft. It was improbable even a year ago.

However, the market valuation of the company has tripled since the start of the Nvidia craze. It crossed $1 trillion last year. It surpassed $2 trillion this year. If demand for semiconductors with artificial intelligence helps the business produce another outstanding earnings report this coming week, it might reach $3 trillion.

However, every company needs a little luck and a lot of goodwill to succeed. Even a $2 trillion company. Especially a $2 trillion company!!!

One of the oddest characteristics of this firm that is driving the AI boom is that it would have gone bankrupt long ago if not for the real goodwill of someone who has never worked there.

That person was Shoichiro Irimajiri, also known as Irimajiri-san, Iri-san, or just Iri.

He was a smart engineer and charming businessman who rose to become one of Japan’s most regarded corporate leaders, first at Honda and then at Sega, where he played an important role in Nvidia’s history.

He is 84 years old today, but you wouldn’t know it based on his appearance. He is still consulting and was in his office after 5 p.m. when I spoke with him this week.

Irimajiri collaborated with Huang for a short period. Like Huang, he has never forgotten that time. “The presence of Nvidia in my mind is quite large,” he informed me through an interpreter.

So, how did Shoichiro Irimajiri manage to save Jensen Huang’s company from thousands of miles away?

Irimajiri, a postwar Japanese youngster, wanted to be an aeronautical engineer ever since he read about Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. After college, he worked for Honda Motor, inventing engines for Grand Prix bikes and Formula One automobiles that pushed the boundaries of ground speed.

His work on the world’s quickest racing machines earned him a legendary status in his own right. “He had ideas that other engineers considered impossible,” says motorcycling journalist Mat Oxley.

This accelerated his professional development. Irimajiri, Honda’s youngest managing director in history, was brought to America in 1984 to oversee the company’s manufacturing operations. When he relocated to Ohio, the name on his badge was his nickname, “Iri.

“He was recognized for his “easy smile” and “forceful leadership,” according to Wall Street Journal profiles. He was also known for his love of McDonald’s burgers, which he continues to eat every week. “Believe it or not,” he explains.

After four years of leading Honda’s growth in the United States, he returned to Japan in 1988 as a candidate to lead the firm but quit abruptly in 1992 due to stress and illness.

He was hired in 1993 by Sega, which had leapfrogged Nintendo to become the dominant force in video games. He was promoted to chairman and CEO of the American business in 1996 and elevated to president of the entire company by 1998.

Meanwhile, three guys in Denny’s booth were starting a company in Silicon Valley that would catch his attention.

Huang and two friends established Nvidia in 1993, as video games transitioned from 2-D to 3-D graphics. Sega was under pressure to make a hit product at the time, so it created the Dreamcast console in reaction to Sony’s phenomenal success with the PlayStation.

Nvidia was chosen to manufacture Dreamcast’s graphics processing unit or GPU after Irimajiri visited with Huang and was impressed by his enthusiasm and ambition.

Back then, the young entrepreneur didn’t have a distinctive leather jacket or admirers who packed arenas to hear him lecture about chips, but he carried himself with confidence.

“He had very, very strong confidence,” Irimajiri explained.

The arrangement with Sega provided funding for Huang’s company. However, dangerous actions and critical errors in Nvidia’s early days almost ruined the company.

The most important one was the startup’s faulty image rendering method. Nvidia pioneered a unique approach to 3-D graphics, using quadrilaterals, when other companies utilized triangles. It quickly became evident that Nvidia was betting on the incorrect form.

After a year of work, Huang concluded that Nvidia had to give up on the Sega project. The corporation was forced to decide between dying immediately or finishing slowly because of the inferior chip.

In a commencement speech at National Taiwan University last year, he discussed this seemingly insurmountable situation and disclosed the “humiliating and embarrassing” errors that laid the foundation for Nvidia’s development.

He cautioned that the company would fall too far behind the competition to catch up if it kept working on the console to fulfill its contract. But it would run out of money if it stopped using the Sega chip.

“Either way,” Huang said, “we would be out of business.”

The 84-year-old man who saved Nvidia
Credit: Irimajiri-san © Provided by The Wall Street Journal

He expected the worst when Irimajiri appeared at his office and informed Huang that Sega would launch the Dreamcast with a GPU manufactured by another company. NVIDIA had failed. However, Irimajiri had previously met Huang. He didn’t give up on him. He still liked him, however. “I wanted to make Nvidia successful,” Irimajiri explains. “Somehow.”

He called back to Japan and made an unexpected suggestion: Sega should invest in NVIDIA. It was tough to persuade his boss to invest in a struggling startup that had failed to meet its last contract. However, after some negotiating, Irimajiri secured the additional $5 million that Nvidia desperately needed. Somehow.

“It was all the money that we had,” Huang explained. “His understanding and generosity gave us six months to live.”

In those six months, Nvidia hunkered down and scrambled to develop the breakthrough chip that was released in 1997 and rescued the company, which went public in 1999.

The following year, Irimajiri stepped down as Sega’s president. It was only after he left the company that his best decision paid off: Sega sold its Nvidia stock for about $15 million, he says.

He now runs his own private consulting business from a Tokyo office. Behind his desk hangs a framed portrait of his friend Ayrton Senna, the adored late Formula One champion whose dominance was fueled by Honda engines. At home, there is a photograph of Chuck Yeager piloting a jet aircraft in his eighties.

He lost touch with Nvidia’s CEO until 2017 when Irimajiri was requested to host an AI symposium. That’s when he discovered Huang’s email address and wrote a note in English to the billionaire he hadn’t seen in 20 years.

The note says:

From Shoichiro Irimajiri.
To: Jensen Huang.
Subject: From an Old Friend

“Hello, Jensen-san,” he penned. “Hello, this is Shoichiro Irimajiri, a business associate of yours throughout the 1990s. You may recall our joint efforts back then to create cutting-edge graphics chips for the Sega Dreamcast. This is another nice memory I have from my life.

Then he asked for it. He was curious if Huang, or someone from Nvidia, would travel to Japan to speak to a select group of business executives.

Irimajiri wrote, “If possible, I would greatly appreciate it.” “I apologize for interrupting your hectic schedule, and I sincerely appreciate you reading my letter. Warm greetings and continued success in the future. Regards, Iri.

It reads like an email that everyone has written and rewritten at least once in their life.

He didn’t expect an answer. He received one the next day.

“Dear Irimajiri-san,” said Huang, 61, with silver hair. “What a delightful surprise to hear from you. Working with Sega at the beginning of Nvidia is also one of my fondest recollections.

As it turned out, he would soon be in Tokyo for a glitzy Nvidia conference, where he would take the stage and deliver a keynote address about the future. Of course, he would address a much smaller crowd and settle a debt from his past.

The 84-year-old man who saved Nvidia
Credit: Irimajiri-san © Provided by The Wall Street Journal

Anything for Irimajiri-san.

“I am delighted to be of service to you,” Huang wrote to his old friend.

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Who saved the Nvidia?

Irimajiri, a postwar Japanese youngster, wanted to be an aeronautical engineer ever since he read about Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. After college, he worked for Honda Motor, inventing engines for Grand Prix bikes and Formula One automobiles that pushed the boundaries of ground speed.

Who is Shoichiro Irimajiri?

Shoichiro Irimajiri, aka Irimajiri-san, Iri-san, or just Iri was a brilliant engineer and charismatic executive, and was one of Japan’s most admired business leaders, first at Honda and then at Sega, where he played an essential role in Nvidia’s history. Today, he’s 84 years old, not that you’d know it from looking at him.

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