Tech pioneer channels hard lessons into Silicon Valley success

Paul Sakuma/AP

Nvidia Chief Executive Officer Jen-Hsun Huang co-founded the graphics chip maker in 1993.

Modern computer games and their fast-paced graphics require an incredible amount of computing horsepower. So much, in fact, that the kinds of chips commonly used for gaming are now being built into some of the world's fastest supercomputers.

If you're a serious gamer, if realistic, detailed graphics get your pulse racing, you should write Jen-Hsun Huang a thank you note.

Huang co-founded Nvidia — the only computer chip maker in Silicon Valley that's devoted to building chips built designed for graphics. For a more than a decade, Nvidia's been creating circuits with one goal in mind — making stunningly beautiful images for games and movies.

There's only one final judge. "It's the human eye," says Chris Malachowsky, Nvidia's co-founder.

Today Nvidia's chips make most animated movies possible, from Avatar to Tin-Tin. Nvidia's graphics processors are so powerful they've are now built into three of the five fastest supercomputers in the world.

"What is it that graphics processors are good at? It's processing massive amounts of data," Malachowsky says.

But he says that without Huang, Nvidia probably wouldn't exist.

Huang's story has an unlikely start. When he was a kid, his parents were working in Thailand. "In 1973, there was social unrest and my parents decided that it was probably safer for the kids to go to the United States and then for them to follow," he says.

The Huangs ended up sending Jen-Hsun and his brother to a tiny boarding school — Oneida Baptist Institute — deep in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Huang was 9; his brother was 10. When they arrived at Oneida they slowly began to realize this was a rough place.

"And the kids were really tough," Huang says. "They all had pocket knives — and when they get in fights, it's not pretty. Kids get hurt."

In the early 1970s, many local folks thought of Oneida as a religious reform school. "We wouldn't take some of the students that we took back in the '70s and '80s," says Bud Underwood, a former student who is now Oneida's president.

He says Oneida was founded in the 1890s to stop the feuding clans in eastern Kentucky's Clay County from killing each other.

"A lot of the county schools in Kentucky knew that if you had a child that was just simply not conforming to their rules and regulations and they got expelled, they could apply to Oneida," Underwood says.

For local kids it was often free. But every kid had to work. When he got there Huang was assigned to clean the bathrooms. Soon he realized he could pick apples out of his window. He made some friends and some allies — he helped an older dorm-mate in math; he joined the swim team.

"The ending of the story is I loved the time I was there," Huang says. "We worked really hard — we studied really hard and the kids were really tough."

Malachowsky says that toughness rubbed off. "Yeah, I think he is tough," he says of Huang.

Malachowsky says Huang isn't a bully — he doesn't berate people. But when he's knocked down he quietly gets back up.

When Nvidia almost went bankrupt in the 1990s, Huang's grit helped save it. Recently he led his company into a legal fight against Intel, ultimately forcing Intel to pay more than $1.5 billion in licensing fees.

Malachowsky says, "To his credit he's never leaned on this immigrant ... 'you know I've had it tough when I was young and I had to make my way and get through this school.' You never heard it. It may have helped define him, but he wasn't defined by it."

While Oneida may have shaped Huang , over the last 30 years the school has also transformed itself.

Undrewood boasts that Oneida now resembles a miniature United Nations in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, with students from 22 countries — from Cameroon to Hong Kong.

He says most come hoping to get into an American university. But, unlike in Huang's generation, after college many of these students go back home — even the great ones.

"Silicon Valley is no longer the only place in the world where great engineers can work. I think that is a fact," Huang says.

Another fact — international graduates of Oneida who do go back home will go knowing how to clean a bathroom.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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