No. 262 – Building the Future

Kunle Olukotun

Over the past several weeks, Robert Smith, the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, has been making the media rounds. He’s been talking about his work ensuring that black small business owners get the funding they need in the next round of stimulus Congress passes. 

In the first wave of PPP loan funding that the SBA distributed, a black-owned banks were not integrated with the SBA’s systems, and weren’t able to make sure their customers were able to secure PPP funding. One of Robert’s portfolio companies, Finastra, has been working with black-owned banks to make sure they’re plugged in this time around. 

Also, in his media rounds, he’s been calling out the disparity in access black-owned banks and businesses have to the resources they need to survive. Making sure this reality doesn’t slip to the background in policymakers’ thinking. 

It’s been encouraging to see him work on this and I’m hopeful more black-owned small businesses benefit as a result. I actually was wondering the other day how he would look in that Treasury Secretary role. Perhaps, something to keep an eye on.

Robert Smith is an example of a black person making big moves that can benefit black folks at scale. Out in Silicon Valley, Kunle Olukotun is doing work that maybe doesn’t directly benefit black folks. Though, it is incredibly inspiring to watch someone push technology into the next generation. 

Kunle cofounded SambaNova Systems a few years ago. I’ve written about him before. They’ve raised $450M to develop an entirely new computing system designed for an artificial intelligence world. It’s not entirely clear what this computer system is going to look like, but a chip will be part of the system. 

This is important to know because there Is an arms race going on right now between the incumbent chip makers like Nvidia, AMD, Intel, and this new generation of startups that are building new chip technology including SambaNova. They are all pushing towards the new world of artificial intelligence we’re entering. 

Last week, Nvidia announced their new graphics processing unit (GPU) architecture called Ampere. I won’t go into details on the technology behind this technology because I’m still trying to make sure that I understand it well. Essentially, a GPU processes tons of calculations and data to power massive computing systems. What is important to know is that this GPU is extremely powerful and the chip it goes on, A100, is massive. This is one of the most powerful chips that has been created to date. 

The chip will be used in data centers and for artificial intelligence applications. The U.S. government has already installed some of these chips to use in conducting research on this COVID-10 pandemic to speed up the process of figuring out what’s happening and identifying potential solutions.

This is what Kunle’s SambaNova is up against. I love a good David and Goliath story and this is one. In its fiscal year 2020, Nvidia spent $2.8 billion dollars on research and development. That’s an enormous amount of money. I mentioned earlier that Samba Nova has raised $450M in total. SambaNova has an uphill battle in getting its technology out into the world. If they’re successful, the future looks slightly different for all of us – hopefully, for the better. 

So, while I root for Robert Smith as he advocates for black small businesses to get the resources they need to survive through this pandemic, I’m also going to be doing some cheering for Kunle as he shows the world an incredible example of black folks building the future. 

No. 213: Is That the Whole Story?

I’m working through The Quest for Artificial Intelligence by the late Nils Nilsson, a pioneer in the development of the field. He charts out the foundation for artificial intelligence beginning with Aristotle’s syllogisms and makes his way through various European mathematicians who made various contributions to mechanizing logic.

A couple of years ago, Chris Dixon, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, wrote a piece on how Aristotle laid the foundation for the creation of the computer. Is that the whole story? I think there’s more to it than that. I tweeted about this early last year.

It’s critical that black folks and other groups currently underrepresented in the development of artificial intelligence carve out a space for ourselves. I wrote a bit about why here.

Perhaps a good example of the impact carving out a space can have is in the news that Robert Smith committed to pay off the loans for the entire 2019 class of Morehouse graduates.

Smith has built Vista Equity Partners into a machine of a private equity firm that has outpaced its competitors investing in enterprise software businesses by executing a precise operations playbook in each of its portfolio companies before flipping them for real nice returns. Pitchbook estimates that as of 2017, Vista’s internal rate of return has averaged 22%. Compare that an industry average of nearly 10%, according to AQR Capital Management research. Smith has done quite nicely for himself as a result, generating the resources to be able to clean up $40 million in debt.

A key engine behind the playbook Vista Equity Partners deploys across its portfolio companies is Vista Intelligence Group. The group uses artificial intelligence to scan data across Vista’s portfolio companies to surface opportunities and stand up new businesses around them. In a fireside chat at Goldman Sachs, Smith talked about how Vista is navigating the fourth industrial revolution by trying to get the firm to a leadership position in the various ecosystems it invests in rather than just placing capital in particular narrow verticals. I venture that Vista Intelligence Group is the lever they’re turning to make that happen. Artificial intelligence is the magic sauce. Here’s that fireside chat.

Imagine it’s true that artificial intelligence is the new electricity as Andrew Ng claims. Now consider that Robert Smith has leveraged AI to generate $4.47B worth of resources personally while managing $46B. Imagine the possibilities of some of the 2019 Morehouse graduates going on to tap into their genius and reimagine AI and how it will shape the global economy.

What do these graduates need to tap into their genius? The lightened financial burden courtesy of Mr. Smith definitely helps. Another component is these graduates seeing beyond the narrative that the arc of technological development cuts through Europe. I’ve written about this narrative issue here. While Aristotle was developing syllogisms, equally brilliant philosophers and mathematicians were working on their own ideas across Africa. Drawing confidence and inspiration from that kind of foundation makes these graduates unstoppable in my mind and positioned to reshape the trajectory of this world.