At NVIDIA, she oversees corporate responsibility and ESG, a function she helped to build since starting in 2006. As a strategist and communicator, she drives initiatives that strengthen NVIDIA’s ESG and brand reputation. Tonie publishes the company’s ESG report and engages with shareholders, NGOs, and customers to understand their expectations and present NVIDIA’s positioning around ESG issues. She also helps NVIDIA keep its position as an ESG leader by delivering to execs insights on societal issues and their impact on the company, as well as robust benchmarking.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian and I’m so honored to have you with us today, Tonie Hansen. She’s the senior director of corporate responsibility for NVIDIA. Welcome to the Impact podcast, Tonie.
Tonie Hansen: Thanks John, really excited to be here.
John: For our listeners and viewers, just to find NVIDIA, you can go to www.nvidia.com. I have your website up Tonie, and we’re going to be talking about some of the things on your website and other things I’ve learned and that you’ve learned along the way as well. But before we get talking about NVIDIA, talk a little bit about Tonie Hansen. How did you even get here, Tonie? Tell our listeners and viewers a little bit about your journey.
Tonie: Yeah, I’m happy too. It wasn’t a straightforward journey. I think this is my third career iteration. I started in the hospitality and special events field, so that was kind of my focus in college, marketing business but with that specialty in mind. Right before I got into Tech, I was working in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts and doing client events and holiday parties, and medical conferences. And then I realized that in that career you’ve got this executive at the top and then you’ve got all these other people kind of competing for that one spot and just didn’t feel like opportunities to me and I thought maybe it’s a good time to go back to school. When I was in business school, I dove in kind of feet first into the tech world. I was relatively a latecomer compared to some folks in the tech space. For me, getting that hardcore indoctrination in the first year of business school was incredible. I signed up through the MBA internship program to go work at a tech company. From there, I just kind of jumped off. That was career number two. Getting to work for companies in Boston, in California, being able to help brands who were just starting to come online. These are some of the earlier days of the internet. Help them understand how to connect with their customers online, how to engage with them, how to get them to buy something, and I used to do contests were a big thing in the early days. We had all those crazy tools that we all kind of roll our eyes at now, but that was all fun unexplored, interesting territory back then. I was able to work with startups and a couple of big companies to convince those brands to work with us either to use our technology or come to our site and build those relationships that they wanted with their customers. That was wonderful for eight years. It was glamorous. Got to go all over the world and do cool stuff with the latest technology but it’s just started feeling a little hollow for me. I think because my personal life was becoming a lot more volunteer-focused. I was doing a lot more in the environmental space. This was a few years before the beginning of the Iraq War and I was kind of protesting, and my friends were starting to notice this change in me and I decided that I wanted to work and do something kind of more meaningful in the space. I was out to dinner with a couple of girlfriends one night. One of them had worked for a start-up. That was very successful. She did quite well, she started to go work for nonprofits to do development for them. And she said I go to these big companies in Silicon Valley to ask them for millions of dollars. There are people inside those companies that give millions of dollars away to charities for a living. So that would be the most amazing job in the world. And our friend Michelle said, “Oh my God, my husband Scott is hiring for that job at NVIDIA.” And so, boom, a few weeks later. Being able to come in and build from scratch always loved being able to solve a lot of problems that come up in the environmental and social space, have worked on the first iteration of the company’s climate program, and have worked on our internal and external diversity programs. Now, I do a lot of external reporting around all this work to investors and customers. It’s just been a progression of many different things over the past few years. But to help build the program has just been such a great honor.
John: You joined NVIDIA about 2000 and…
Tonie: Two thousand six.
John: In 2006. I know NVIDIA is a global leader in artificial intelligence in hardware and software and that you take on some of the world’s hardest problems. But how does that mean, practically speaking in terms of how you deploy these hardware and software technologies and what kind of problems are hard that you guys are solving for a layman like me?
Tonie: The idea of solving hard problems is core to our culture. It helps us focus as a company on where we can be profitable but also where we can have a significant societal impact. And those things have always gone hand in hand for us as a company. When we look at hard problems, we first identify the problem. It’s often something in the social sphere of medicine and general science. Those are two areas where we apply this process frequently. And then, we determine how hard the problem is. Because if it isn’t a hard problem, someone else’s likely already solving it, or they’re going to solve it and that would have diminished business value for us. And then we ask, do we have unique capabilities to solve it? This is fundamentally a technology question, as a technology company. And is it something that incredibly powerful accelerated computing technology is well suited for? Can we contribute meaningfully to the solving of that problem? And if we can’t get a resounding yes for all three of those things it’s likely not going to be a strong area of focus for us. When we look at things like some of these intractable societal problems that are out there medicine and disease are a big one that comes to mind. Science is always looking for ways to prevent, identify, and treat diseases. And until the application of accelerating computing, the technology was often the limiter of how much progress you could make. And to tackle these problems, you need to study them. You’ve got to assess massive amounts of data often in disparate data sets in combination with each other. And you don’t want to wait weeks, months, or years to get the results. And so, our technology is uniquely suited to take massive amounts of data in these areas. Accelerate these scientific processes that kind of underlying them, an example of that would be drug discovery. Whether you’re evaluating, whether certain molecules of a drug will connect with proteins or genes in the body and when you apply accelerated computing to that process, that not only speeds it up dramatically, but it happens more quickly. But it speeds up the number of targets that you can identify. Climate change is a perfect example of another intractable issue where we believe that our technology can have an impact. Understanding the changing climate means evaluating the past and making predictions. You need data to do this. And powerful ways to compute that data so that you can show how past behaviors or patterns will impact future results. The area of the climate is becoming a growing focus for NVIDIA.
John: That’s so exciting. I want to go back to climate in the second, Tonie. But when you brought up the medical issue, I happen to be lucky enough to be in the room in Armenia in October of 2019, when the CEO of a company that I never heard of before named Moderna was talking about the application of AI to pharmaceutical and drug manufacturing world. And what he was saying was brilliant. But being a non-medical person I said, I wonder if this is going to have any real-life applications. Of course, fast forward six months later, when he broke the code of the pandemic and Covid-19 using AI, I realized he was really impressive when he was speaking back in October of 2019. I saw personally his vision and heard his vision and then, saw it in action. It’s just so fascinating. Let’s go back to climate. What are some of the applications of some of your great and important technologies when it comes to AI in hardware and software that you’re using to help like you said fix or solve the historically intractable problem of climate change?
Tonie: We have seen some incredible instances where accelerated computing technology is having an impact across the entire cycle of climate change. Climate research to carbon reduction technologies to mitigating the impacts of carbon and adapting to climate change, which is working to restore ecosystems that have been impacted by extreme weather events for example. So again, all intractable problems with a technology solution and for climate, it is the case for many other areas of focus. We like to put our technology into the hands of people who deeply understand the science behind those areas so that they can drive innovation here. We consider ourselves the enablers of that innovation. In that research space, where it’s necessary to look at data from the past and understand what’s in store for us in the future, the acceleration that we’ve seen here has been the application of AI. Climate scientists are using NVIDIA’s accelerated computing technology to model climate scenarios and predict weather patterns. By applying AI to that, they can now actually model weather forecasting 4 to 5 magnitude faster than by traditional methods. And so, when you think about that speed, getting that data into the hands of people more quickly so they can make decisions that ultimately on the weather side of things save lives, that’s a huge impact there. In the area of reduction, the goal is never to generate a ton of CO2. And examples of this are companies in the renewable energy space and companies that are using NVIDIA technology to build more efficient wind turbines. To physically design them to be more aerodynamic and generate more wind energy by using our technology and computational fluid dynamics to do that. And other companies are using AI at the edge of these wind turbine farms to monitor the farms. And to ensure that the turbines are operating 24/7 and that they’re being properly maintained. On the mitigation front, which is a real burgeoning area, NVIDIA scientists have worked with leading institutions to use AI to model optimal sites for carbon sequestration. After you’ve captured that carbon out of the atmosphere, you want to store it away someplace. And you need to know when you’re storing it in that medium, how quickly can you do that? And how efficiently can you do that? AI can help you understand what’s going on underneath the ground and how to get that carbon stored in the most efficient way possible. And then that last phase the adaptation side of things is about ecosystems, biodiversity, and building resiliency. One of the areas where we have seen incredible innovation is from startups. We have a start-up network called the Inception Network. We’ve got 10,000 plus startups using our technology, where we provide training in marketing, resources, and exposure to them. And we support numerous companies and Inception that are using AI across all aspects of climate. Can I give you a few examples because they’re incredibly cool?
John: A hundred percent, I love that. And just for our listeners and viewers who you’ve just joined us. We’re so excited and honored to have you with us, Tonie Hansen. She’s a senior director of corporate responsibility for NVIDIA. You can find NVIDIA at www.nvidia.com. And also, I want to mention, Tonie, that your annual corporate, and social responsibility reports coming out this month in June. And we’re going to talk about that in a little while. Tell us some specific examples of some of these great applications. They’re going to help make our world a better and more sustainable place.
Tonie: Absolutely. Specifically, in the startup world. In “Conservation”, there’s a company in Kenya, they have created an AI-powered camera trap that can identify wild animals, vehicles, and civilians in a scenario. They can send alerts of poaching threats to on-duty wildlife rangers. As we know, poaching is a huge issue. You don’t often have the resources in countries in “Conservation Parks” to monitor these cameras. But being able to use AI to do that is a really powerful way to protect some of those animals that are really at risk. The same startup has another initiative. Talk about another species at risk. Talking about bees. This company has an initiative that monitors bee colonies. And they do that with a range of sensors. So they’re capturing acoustic data, vibrations, temperature, and humidity within the beehives. Again, with disparate data sources and massive amounts of data, what can you predict from all of those different things in play? And so, this platform that the company in Kenya has created can help beekeepers monitor their colonies’ health and they can fend off threats from bacteria or viruses from an animal, or even humans. Oceans are an incredible opportunity for us to look at things like carbon sinks. And so there’s a start-up in Germany that’s monitoring the ocean floors. They’re monitoring surrounding coastal ecosystems so they can find natural carbon sinks and this will help scientists understand how we can better leverage those sinks for storing even more carbon. There are a million examples, John. We could spend the entire podcast just talking about startups using AI in this space across the entire phase. It’s thrilling to everyday kind of learn about new companies that are using our technology to tackle some of these problems.
John: As you said, now we were intractable historically, but their paramount issues in terms of, if we want to be a surviving planet in the centuries to come. If they’re not solved now, we’re almost set at a breakpoint.
Tonie: Absolutely. The number of animals that we’ll lose, they need to get the carbon currently generated, the emissions in the air, out of the air, and stored away somewhere. These are huge critical big things that can have a tremendous impact. It seems so many people apply themselves to it with a technology solution, which we have course love just makes us proud as a company.
John: Tonie, you’ve been there now at NVIDIA for 16 or so years. You’ve seen an evolution in not only the company but also in your important role. So, one role is that you’d be the charitable foundation at NVIDIA. And that’s sort of or you did or something that was part of your role.
Tonie: Yeah, I helped to build that program from scratch. And I like to say that it’s in the hands of an incredibly capable colleague of mine right now. And actually, she’s doing amazing things.
John: To me that’s outward-facing. Now, talk about the inward. And when a company like yours is solving such hard problems or working on hard problems, culturally, in my experience, it creates an atmosphere in a culture that goes way beyond a paycheck. That the employees get excited because the mission is almost as important, if not more important than just a paycheck. We all need paychecks to pay the bills and keep our lights on and pay for gas, of course, and food, but your mission is unbelievably important and fascinating. Talk a little bit about how you get to attract and retain employees because of all the great work that you do and part of that deals with the messaging that you do on the important work that NVIDIA is up to.
Tonie: Yeah, I appreciate you bringing up the people piece because I’ve talked a ton about technology but technology is nothing without the people behind it. And so, NVIDIA, we talked about wanting to be a place where people can come and do their life’s work. Where people who want to work on hard problems go because they fundamentally believe that technology can change the world and it can make progress with many of these intractable things that we’ve been talking about. The list of people who come from is just incredible unique areas are huge. I’ll give you a few examples, we have on our team within the company a former cardiothoracic surgeon who’s now the head of medical AI. We have climate scientists who worked in the public sector, who just got to deeply appreciate and were so passionate about the power of our technology to help climate scientists come inside so that they could direct us on a path of helping climate scientists specifically, with our technology and making that available externally. We have Academy Award winners who have joined the company, who have used our technology, and who have won those awards for using our technology in the film and entertainment space. We have employees who won their very first Academy Award as an employee of the company using the technology in the film and entertainment space. Yeah, it’s incredible.
John: That’s awesome.
Tonie: And we’ve got hundreds of researchers working on building this energy-efficient technology that I would love to talk to you more about, that is enabling customers to use a lot less carbon. And there are 20,000 plus unique stories of people who were drawn here because again, of their fundamental belief in the technology. And to be part of that in a way that they can most their contribution.
John: And those 20,000 employees are mostly based in the United States or are they dispersed around the world?
Tonie: All around the world. I can’t even remember the number of offices that we have. I think it’s on our website. I feel there are 60 offices in multiple countries throughout every major region in the world. It is a truly global kind of mindset and belief system within the company around that solving hard problems and coming here to do that work.
John: Tonie, I’m going to date myself a little bit with regards to this analogy I’m going to draw, but I know your annual corporate responsibility report is coming out this month. And so, I can imagine for you it’s sort of Sophie’s Choice on what you would like to highlight from that report. To tease our listeners and viewers about what to expect, can you share just some of your favorite stories that you highlighted and that is going to be shown in this annual report that’s coming out?
Tonie: Sure. I do get the Sophie’s Choice reference, but you might need to explain it to some other folks just in case because I’m probably closer to your age than you might think of them. This is the 12th year of our report and every year we relish the opportunity to tell that story of how the people in the technology together kind of make that difference. And you got a sneak peek at some of that today. We talked about the energy efficiency of our products. And the story I told around the energy savings if everyone switch to our technology. As well as, how our technology is being used in all those different phases of climate change. That’s a super important focus for us. Another highlight is trustworthy AI. So, AI is just an incredible tool, and recognizing that technology can have a profound impact on people in the world. We have done work internally to enable transparency and trust in our AI development. And so, specifically around, how we design and deploy data sets and models and other tools. We want to tell that story because it’s important to be transparent around that area and we’ve done a lot of work in that space since our last report went out. We’re not just responsible for the technology itself, but there’s also a feeling that we need to ensure that people all over the world had an opportunity to benefit from it and develop with it. We tell the story of our AI nations team, which is forging relationships with emerging and established countries. And helping to bring AI to those countries, as well as our emerging chapters team, which brings education and support to countries whose communities are traditionally underrepresented in tech. And they’ve just done some incredibly impactful work in accelerating the use of our technology throughout Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and many regions throughout the world. I just want to make a final note on providing opportunities to traditionally underrepresented communities. That forms the heart of our responsibilities around the company that we build from a people perspective. This year in the report, we’re putting more effort into really emphasizing how diversity and inclusion actions are embedded across the entire company. Because you can’t have this one person that directs all that efforts. People need to feel it. It needs to be part of their everyday management. How we bring people into the company, how we support those people, how we promote them, and how we develop them. That can’t just be a separate group that’s doing that. We talked a lot about that integration story. I was fortunate enough to work on our DNI programs in their super early days. It’s just heartening for me to see how big the team has become. To see that we have a multi-year plan. We’re working on the plan and our initial feedback from these very consistent pulse surveys that we do with employees indicates that they feel included. They feel supported, they feel that they belong. And that NVIDIA is the place where they want to come and do their life’s work.
John: Wow. And that report will be coming out in June of 2022?
Tonie: That’s right.
John: And people could find that on the corporate social responsibility area on your website. Is that not correct?
Tonie: Absolutely, can’t miss it.
John: Yeah, quickly, since climate change is affecting all of us wherever you sit on this wonderful planet. Go back a little bit and let’s talk about obviously, we mentioned earlier, we discussed that one of the applications of your tremendous AI and robotics technology in both software and hardware is in the climate space. Talk a little bit about more specifically, the applications, and then, what goes into the technologies themselves, so our listeners and viewers can more understand and unpack the climate space applications that you have.
Tonie: I talked before about putting technology in the hands of scientists. But that usually means that we’re providing algorithms or applications or software development kits that either we or our partners create. But we felt that the way that we could accelerate climate science is to build and host a supercomputer that would be dedicated to climate science. And so, late last year, we announced Earth 2 and it is going to host a digital twin of the Earth. If your listeners aren’t familiar with digital twins, they are physically accurate simulations of particular scenarios. I will give you a super easy one. You’re an automotive manufacturer, you have an assembly line, and there’s robotics on the assembly line. There’s people power on the assembly line and you want to get those cars assembled and out as fast as possible because that means more revenue for you. Well, to figure out the best processes on the assembly floor, you’d have to spend probably hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars reworking everything and then seeing if it worked. But if you could digitally create a physically accurate simulation of your assembly floor and work. And replicate the people power and the robotics power you could do scenarios all day to figure out how you could save time, in this particular case. But from what we’re talking about, we’re talking about a physically accurate simulation of planet Earth. And the goal is that scientists can perform ultra-high resolution climate modeling of how cities and regions are going to be impacted at a hyper-local level by climate change. And be able to visually show local and global governments the risk that they’re at. And the goal with Earth 2 is to spur more urgency in reacting and coming up with mitigation and adaptation solutions to what a particular city or region is facing. Earth 2, we’ll see some definite progress on that next year. I just gave an example of how we’re deploying our technology to tackle climate change, but it’s also really important to mention how we’re building the computing technology and that’s with an eye toward energy efficiency. We aim to make every generation of GPUs faster and more energy-efficient than its predecessor. Our current architecture in use is up to 20 times faster for artificial intelligence workloads than our previous generation and compared to CPU technology, which is how AI has traditionally gotten done. NVIDIA’s technology is up to 20 times more energy-efficient for AI workloads than CPUs. I talked earlier about the greenest watt of energy being the one that you never have to generate. When you’re using our accelerated computing technology to perform a task, whether it’s a climate-related or financial scenario or genomic analysis, it’s the X-factor and more energy-efficient than traditional computing technology that still exists in data centers today. And we looked at the energy savings that would be realized if we were able to switch all of those CPU-only servers running AI worldwide to NVIDIA systems. We estimated that the world could save nearly twelve trillion watt-hours of energy a year. And that’s equivalent to the energy requirements of nearly 1.7 million homes in the United States. It was significant savings. So think about how AI is growing. AI training and deployment take place in data centers. There’s going to be an exponential increase in data centers and if they’re powered using more energy-efficient technology, you’ve got an exponentially positive impact on the environment, as well. So I’ll just wrap up. Sorry.
John: It’s fascinating, Tonie. What you’re saying, from a cultural and DNA perspective, NVIDIA is not only helping solve as you say, some of the most intractable and hard problems of the planet using climate change is a great platform for this discussion. But you’re also, yourselves working sustainably to make sure that you’re also not helping to further degrade or liquidate this precious planet that we live on. That you’re doing everything in the most sustainable way possible inside your operations, facilities, and technologies, as well.
John: It’s awesome. Go ahead. You’re going to wrap up with something. I’m sorry.
Tonie: Yeah, I just really wanted to talk about our operations. Our offices and data centers. Data centers are a huge part of that. We eat our dog food, so to speak. We’re heavy users of our technology. We do our research on it and we also run cloud-based businesses. And our data centers have become a test bed for us to be constantly improving server energy efficiency and deploying new cooling techniques. And so, all of those things that we learn, we can pass on to our customers who are buying our technology for their data centers. And so, again, passing on that goodness to our customers so that they can feel good about lowering their footprint and their climate impact when they’re needing to do this heavy computing work.
John: Tonie, Earth 2 sounds so fascinating, and never even heard of it before. And I’m now more fascinated by that. Then almost anything else that I’m hearing about in the climate space out in the rest of the world. So, tell me a little bit about when you start to think we’re going to start to see results from the modeling that you’re doing. And then, is that mean you’re going to see if the South Pole melts at this rate then the water table will go up in New York or San Diego at this rate? And is that the kind of measurements and modeling that Earth 2 is going to be up to?
Tonie: Those are some of the elements that will be able to be worked on in this digital twin, this replica environment. Modeling some of those arctic scenarios. I love the idea of being able to use this as a tool for school children. I mean, why limit creativity to just climate scientists. And I think that the goal of Earth 2 is if can make it easier for countries, cities, towns, and the government and the citizens behind those areas to see, what is happening to their cities? What is happening to their region? Because it’s too dry. Because the coastline is going to start encroaching on their part. What creativity can be spurred from that? And so, it is quite as kind of could be used as a global conversation tool.
John: We can do modeling that will help the original planet Earth avoid catastrophic results in the future and maybe make the adjustments that are necessary that we might not about wise made. Isn’t that the macro principle there?
Tonie: Yeah, that is absolutely the goal. I think you nailed that properly. A couple of the points that I would make around some of the forces that were kind of dealing with today. They call it climate simulations. And they look at these kilometer resolutions, how close can you get to what’s happening up in the sky or from up in the sky down to the Earth level. And so, the resolution that the technology will be able to bring, to model some of these changes could help with understanding the global water cycle. How is water moving from the ocean, sea, ice, land surface, and groundwater through the atmosphere and clouds? And changes in this whole system lead to instant intensifying storms and droughts. That’s just kind of one of the tons of examples of how applying science that is being done today but could be done at an X-factor resolution better. Some of the impacts that it can help us understand around storms and droughts and the danger, the ultimate risk that we’re going to be in 10, 20, X number of years from now because this is not something that’s going to go away anytime soon.
John: It’s satisfying to say that Earth 2 is going to make Earth 1 a more sustainable and better place, and it’s going to help us avoid some catastrophic results that we potentially going to walk ourselves into if we don’t take better care of the Earth 1.
Tonie: I think that you should come and join our PR team. Our Earth 2 PR team.
John: I’m already a fan. Wait for a second, I just want to go back to something. There is something out there called a kilometer because if there is one, I need one for my house. We’ll see where we are every day so I know how to adjust with my family and what’s going on. Anyway, Tonie, you’ve been amazing. And for our listeners and viewers out there to learn much more about what NVIDIA is doing and to see and read their new corporate social responsibility report that’s coming out in June 2022, please go to www.nvidia.com. Tonie Hansen, I am so thankful for your time today. Thank you for making the impacts that you make both at NVIDIA and for making the world a better place.
Tonie: Thanks, John. Great to meet you and thanks for letting me share.
John: This episode of the impact podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Closed Loops platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps, and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy, the fine Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.