The 84-year-old man who saved Nvidia

Shoichiro Irimajiri, the former head of Sega.
Shoichiro Irimajiri, the former head of Sega.


It’s a $2 trillion company today. It wouldn’t exist without someone known as Irimajiri-san.

Before it was one of the world’s most valuable companies, Nvidia was a company on the verge of going out of business.

Jensen Huang’s startup had been around for a few years in the 1990s when it looked like it wouldn’t be around for much longer. Its first chip was a flop. Its next chip was doomed to fail. Huang himself says this was nothing less than an existential moment for his nascent company.

And it survived only because of a man he calls Irimajiri-san.

Nvidia was running out of money when Huang asked one of the top executives at the videogame giant Sega for a $5 million lifeline to keep his company afloat. There was absolutely no reason for Irimajiri-san to do it. He did it anyway.

“To his credit," Huang recently said, “and my amazement."

Huang has been the chief executive of the chip maker since the day it was born. Nvidia wouldn’t exist without him. But even he says it wouldn’t exist today without the help of Irimajiri-san.

The way he saved the company taught Huang one of the most important and least appreciated lessons in business.

“You can’t discount the kindness of people when you’re starting your company," Huang said on a Sequoia Capital podcast last year.

When he started his company more than 30 years ago, it would have sounded completely preposterous that Nvidia would become the world’s third-most valuable company, behind Microsoft and Apple. Even one year ago, it was highly unlikely. But since the beginning of Nvidia mania, the company’s market capitalization has tripled. Last year, it cracked $1 trillion. This year, it broke $2 trillion. It could touch $3 trillion if demand for artificial-intelligence chips helps the company deliver another blowout earnings report this coming week.

But every company needs a little luck and a lot of goodwill on its way to success. Even a $2 trillion company. Especially a $2 trillion company!

One of the peculiar things about this company behind the AI boom is that it would have gone bust a long time ago if not for the human benevolence of someone who never worked there.

That someone was Shoichiro Irimajiri, aka Irimajiri-san, Iri-san or just Iri.

A brilliant engineer and charismatic executive, he 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. He’s still consulting and was in his office past 5 p.m. when I spoke with him this week.

Irimajiri worked with Huang for a brief time. Like Huang, he’s never forgotten that time.

“The presence of Nvidia in my mind is quite large," he told me through an interpreter.

So how did Shoichiro Irimajiri end up saving Jensen Huang’s company from thousands of miles away?

As a boy in postwar Japan, Irimajiri dreamed of being an aeronautical engineer from the day he read about Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. After college, he took a job with Honda Motor designing engines in Grand Prix motorcycles and Formula One cars that challenged the limits of speed on the ground. His work on the world’s fastest racing machines made him a legendary figure in his own right. “He had ideas that other engineers considered impossible," motorcycle journalist Mat Oxley says.

That put his career on the fast track. The youngest managing director in the company’s history, Irimajiri was sent to America to run Honda’s U.S. manufacturing in 1984. When he moved to Ohio, the name on his badge was his nickname, “Iri." He was known for his “easy smile" and “forceful leadership," according to Wall Street Journal profiles. He was also known for loving McDonald’s burgers, which he still devours every week. “Believe it or not," he says.

After four years of driving Honda’s growth in the U.S., he returned to Japan in 1988 as a contender to run the company but abruptly resigned in 1992, citing stress and health. He was hired in 1993 by Sega, which had leapfrogged Nintendo to become the dominant force in videogames. 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 a Denny’s booth were starting a company in Silicon Valley that would catch his attention.

Nvidia was founded by Huang and two buddies in 1993 as games were shifting from 2-D to 3-D graphics. At the time, Sega was under pressure to create a hit product, and it developed the Dreamcast console in response to the incredible popularity of Sony’s PlayStation. Nvidia was tapped to build the Dreamcast’s graphics-processing unit, or GPU, after Irimajiri met with Huang and left impressed by his passion and vision.

The young entrepreneur didn’t have a signature leather jacket back then or fans who fill arenas to hear him talk about chips, but he already carried himself with a swagger.

“He had a very, very strong confidence," Irimajiri told me.

The contract with Sega funded Huang’s company. But risky decisions and crucial mistakes in the early days of Nvidia nearly destroyed it.

The most consequential one was the startup’s flawed strategy for rendering images. Nvidia took an unconventional approach to 3-D graphics that used quadrilaterals, while other companies pursued a technique based on triangles. It soon became clear that Nvidia was betting on the wrong shape.

Nvidia had been working on the Sega project for a year when Huang realized that he would have to abandon its strategy. The inferior chip left the company in a pickle: finish and die slowly, or quit and die immediately.

He reflected on this seemingly impossible situation last year in a commencement address at National Taiwan University, where he revealed the “humiliating and embarrassing" failures that laid the foundation for Nvidia’s success.

If the company kept plugging away on the console to fulfill its contract, he said, it would be too far behind the competition to catch up. But if it stopped working on the Sega chip, it would be out of money.

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

He feared the worst when Irimajiri came to his office and told Huang that Sega would be launching the Dreamcast with a GPU made by another company. Nvidia had failed. But by then, Irimajiri knew Huang. He still believed in him. He still liked him, too. “I wanted to make Nvidia successful," Irimajiri says. “Somehow."

He called back to Japan with a surprising idea: Sega should invest in Nvidia. It wasn’t easy to persuade his boss to pump money into a precarious startup that hadn’t delivered on its existing contract. But after some negotiating, Irimajiri secured the additional $5 million that Nvidia desperately needed. Somehow.

“It was all the money that we had," Huang said. “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 when his best decision paid off: Sega sold its Nvidia stock for about $15 million, he says.

Today, he runs his own private consulting business from a Tokyo office. Behind his desk is a framed portrait of his friend Ayrton Senna, the beloved late Formula One champion whose dominance was powered by Honda’s engines. At home is a photo of Chuck Yeager flying a jet fighter in his 80s.

He lost touch with the CEO of Nvidia until Irimajiri was asked to organize a seminar on AI in 2017. That’s when he tracked down Huang’s email address and sent a note in English to the billionaire he hadn’t seen in 20 years.

From: Shoichiro IrimajiriTo: Jensen HuangSubject: from old friend

“Hi Jensen-san," he wrote. “This is Shoichiro Irimajiri, one of your business counterpart in 1990s. You might remember that in those days we struggled together to develop advanced graphic chips for Sega Dreamcast. Also, this is one of my happy memory in my life."

Then he made the ask. He wanted to know if Huang “or some Nvidia person" would visit Japan and give a lecture to an intimate group of business leaders.

“If possible, I would appreciate greatly," Irimajiri wrote. “Very sorry to disturb your busy time, but also very much thank you to read my letter. Best regards and hope your future more success. Sincerely, Iri."

It reads like an email that everyone has written and rewritten at some point in their lives.

He wasn’t expecting a response. He got one the next day.

“Dear Irimajiri-san," replied Huang, now 61 with silver hair. “What a wonderful and pleasant surprise to hear from you. Working with Sega in the beginning of Nvidia is one of the happy memories of my life as well."

As it happened, he would soon be in Tokyo for a glitzy Nvidia conference where he would take the stage and give a keynote speech about the future. But of course he would speak to a much smaller audience and repay a debt from his past.

Anything for Irimajiri-san.

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

Write to Ben Cohen at

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