When she was eight years old, in the course of one day, Ping Fu was torn from the woman she knew as her mother and the woman who gave birth to her, and relocated to a new city where she became a “mother” herself, solely responsible for feeding and caring for her four-year-old sister in one of Chairman Mao’s re-education camps for “black elements,” those born to educated and affluent families. At ten, she was building 40 radios a day in a state-run factory. When she was 25, the Chinese government deported her from her homeland. She arrived in the United States with $80 and three English phrases: “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “Help.”
Today, she is the founder and CEO of a successful global technology company, an Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year, a member of President Obama’s National Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a proud mother of a daughter, and a U.S. Citizen.
Now, in BEND, NOT BREAK (Portfolio/Penguin; January 2013; $26.95), Ping Fu shares her remarkable and inspiring journey in a powerful testament to the resilience and strength of the human heart and spirit. As a child worker, Ping suffered unspeakable abuse, forced by Mao’s teenage Red Guards to eat “bitter meals” of dirt, animal dung, and tree bark, and gang raped at age ten. Holding tight the memories and teachings of her beloved Shanghai Mama and Papa — “Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting” — and any small kindness, like Uncle W smuggling to her forbidden Western novels including Gone With the Wind — she persevered.
Imprisoned in China when her university thesis on female infanticide was leaked from the Chinese press to international press (shaming her country to outsiders), Ping was exiled. She shares her experiences as an immigrant worker, teaching herself English and math, to become a pioneering software programmer, an innovative entrepreneur, and highly respected CEO, whose visionary leadership helped guide her young company through the recession.
Ping Fu is the founder and CEO of Geomagic, a 3D software company that has reshaped the world of design and manufacturing, from personalizing prosthetic limbs to repairing of NASA spaceships. She was Director of Visualization at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, where she initiated and managed the NCSA Mosaic software project that led to Netscape and Internet Explorer, the first browser to make the Internet easily accessible to non-techies, available for every desktop, for free. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Hopeful, heartbreaking, insightful, and empowering, BEND, NOT BREAK, written with MeiMei Fox, is the incredible personal story of a woman of enduring courage and compassion, unbreakable strength, and indelible spirit. Rich in detail, literary style, and career wisdom, it is unforgettable and uplifting.
A Conversation with Ping Fu: Author of “Bend, Not Break”
Q: What inspired you to tell your story now?
Ping: Since 2006, when Inc. magazine named me Entrepreneur of the Year, my friends have been asking me to tell my story. But I wanted to be sensitive to my daughter. When she was younger, it would have been distressing to put my difficult past in the public eye, but now that she is 18, I felt the time was right.
Q: As a “black element child” in Chairman Mao’s China, you were forced to denounce yourself and your educated parents, to declare and come to believe that you were a nobody. Your secret journal, your “voice in this world,” was taken and burned. What did the process of writing this book return to you?
Ping: The journey of writing “Bend, Not Break” helped me think more deeply about the larger significance of those experiences, how they have shaped me, and how they continue to influence me today. So it was at once a difficult and a rather healing process. I came to the realization that the events themselves are far less important than how we deal with the intensity of our emotions and how we make decisions in difficult situations. Some people, for whatever reason, may not be emotionally prepared to deal with traumatic events. I hope those readers will come away with new insights on how to manage that emotional intensity and make sound decisions.
Q: A child worker in a re-education camp, you suffered unspeakable abuse, were forced to eat “bitter meals” of dirt, animal dung, and tree bark, and gang-raped at ten years old. Did having sole responsibility for your younger sister’s safety and welfare help you survive?
Ping: The hardships certainly helped me to develop survival instincts. At the same time I developed a great deal of tolerance and resilience, which I rely on in difficult times, like those that may arise while running a company or personal difficulties, like a divorce. My past helped me deal with despair while maintaining the optimism that I find essential to life. I do believe that things always work out, even in apparently hopeless situations. From that perspective, the atrocities I endured absolutely helped me survive. That said, I don’t wish anyone to live that life. I don’t think that people would need to live a traumatic life to survive as I did.
Q: You chose to be good rather than resentful and bitter. Where did your strength come from?
Ping: I think my strength came from two sources. The first was my Shanghai Papa, who often said to me, “Don’t go to the praise” or be the person that you don’t want to be. He also said, “If you are straight, don’t worry if your shadow is not straight,” meaning that I shouldn’t concern myself with what others said or thought of me, as long as I was good. When I was being told I was worthless and nothing in the re-education camp, I always had those concepts in my pocket as reminders of who I really was.
The other source of my strength came about as a result of growing up as a nobody. As a nobody, I didn’t feel I had a right to behave badly. By being good it was much harder for people to be bad to me. While both of these elements were protective, one was conceptual and one was a survival skill.
Q: At 25, the Chinese government deported you, and you arrived in the U.S. with $80 and three English phrases: “hello,” “thank you,” and “help.” What did you learn from your early working experiences as a waitress and maid, and from teaching yourself English and math, that informed your work as a manager and business leader?
Ping: I have this principle that every job has value and no job is too small. I never equate what I do with a position. Even though I’m CEO, I’d be happy to clean out the kitchen, pick up trash, and carry machines with me. I’ve always done that. I think that comes from working manual jobs and being part of the society that struggles to pursue a better life. I also think that though I live a blessed life today, my childhood “re-education” years, in which every day was a struggle for your life, for food, and for shelter, gave me a greater understanding of other people and families. That time of my life developed my ability to have compassion and not make assumptions.
Q: What did it mean to you to become a mother?
Ping: It was such an incredible experience. My biological mother, Nanjing Mother, told me she never wanted to be a mother, so I didn’t really desire to be a mother, either. But when I was married I became pregnant, that was just the best thing that ever happened. Although I had cared for my younger sister, giving birth to my own child was something new and different, my journey was very pleasant. From time to time, I have a hard time understanding why, when I feel such a strong attachment to my daughter, my biological mother didn’t want me. To reconcile that was somewhat of a struggle, and at the end I just accepted that everybody is different, that not everyone feels the same.
Q: When you initiated and managed the NCSA Mosaic software project that led to Netscape and Internet Explorer, did you begin to have an idea of the trajectory of your career?
Ping: No. I do have this fundamental belief that life is like a mountain range. I believe more in going forward rather than going up all the time. To move on to another mountain peak, another success, I have to go down before I go up. From this perspective, I always knew that my trajectory would be to go toward the desired outcome. I have always tried to go to where my passions lay and have taken some risks along the way. If I arrive and feel, “Oh, this is not as pretty as I thought,” I’m willing to go down again to reach another peak that will amaze me, to find the fabulous and fantastic. No one will hand it to you. You have to travel there.
I was willing to do anything to get a better job, reach an attractive area, chase a passion, or seek people I wanted to work with. It was never about how successful I might be, money I might make, or a promotion. Rather, I thought, “OK, I’d really like a career that will allow me to do art and science,” or “I’d really like to take handcraftsmanship and combine that with digital technology.” So even though Mosaic was a great success, I decided to start Geomagic to focus on personalized manufacturing, on-demand manufacturing. At that time people asked, “Why would you do that? That is so not sexy.” Everybody was talking about dot-coms. GE CEO Jack Welch was saying, “Destroy your business,” because he wanted people to innovate and do business in new ways. My new way was to create an IT-enabled cottage industry. I wanted to bring thousands of years of handcraftsmanship into today’s digital technology and for the product to start with people. Fifteen years ago, very few people knew what I was talking about.
Q: Your ingenuity and the creativity of the Geomagic team has, among many inventive projects, revolutionized cleft palate treatments for infants, made possible the Invisalign system of braces, and has been a major part of the process that enables NASA to detect, assess, and repair space shuttle insulation tile damage. Please describewhat Geomagic does.
Ping: Think about Geomagic as Adobe in 3D. Adobe allows you to design your content for two-dimensional printing or display on the screen. At Geomagic, we create software to capture 3D images from the real world or real people. With 3D scan data, people can create a design and interact with those models. In 2D, you would call it editing a document: cutting and pasting your text or inserting images. We edit models. We may drop them into a larger environment to interact with other parts, cut and paste a previous model, or import and combine various 3D models. Then we make the output ready for display on the screen, send it to a 3D printer for people to produce a real object, or send it to a machine where people can cut away material to make a product. Geomagic software creates content. We sit between the input that can be sculpted by humans or captured by camera – we allow people to do anything with that data – and the output will be milled, casted, 3D printed, or digital displayed.
For Invisalign invisible braces, the process starts by scanning a dental impression of the patient’s teeth. From there our software creates a digital model based on the initial shape and also helps designers create the final perfect smile. With the initial and final stages known, the software will compute a set of models based on tooth movement for every two weeks in between. We print out the molds on a 3-D printer and apply a liner over that mold. Each progressive liner is two weeks ahead of the current shape of your teeth, so every time you wear a liner, it moves your teeth to the desired shape for two weeks forward. You go through each liner until you reach the desired smile.
NASA’s space shuttles were always vulnerable to collision and damage. The Columbia orbiter was destroyed when it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere due to damage to the insulation tiles under the wing. On its descent, the heat seared the shuttle and it exploded. So NASA put a 3D imaging camera on the space shuttle and used it to capture affected sites. That data was sent to the ground via satellite, and they used Geomagic software to do a custom repair. Imagine that the damage looked more or less like tooth decay, and we made the positive shape to fit into that area. The repair tool path was sent to the space station, where they milled the patch, placed it onto the shuttle exterior – and fixed it. It’s very similar to how we create fillings for a tooth but on a much bigger scale.
Q: As founder and CEO of Geomagic, you follow a mission of innovation and creativity as an American business. Please tell us about your understanding and involvement in pushing insourcing as a way for economic recovery and job creation.
Ping: Insourcing is about bringing manufacturing back and promoting distributed fabrication locally in the U.S. Currently, China’s top ten exports are U.S. companies. Long-distance shipping is inefficient; with the long lead-time between product request and receipt, you might only sell 10% or 20% with the rest going to discount or to warehouses. And it is not green because of the high carbon footprint. Insourcing is, in essence, the opposite of outsourcing, instead of being designed in the U.S. and made in China, we want to promote global design and local fabrication. It’s not unlike having the The New York Times printed in San Francisco for people who live there rather than printing it in New York and shipping it west.
With 3D printing and advanced manufacturing, there is no reason to outsource production to other countries. If it’s on-demand, we make it near the customer and for the customer. If I go to Walmart and see something made in China, I want it to be a Chinese-designed product that was made here. That way you capture Chinese culture, not an American product made in China and shipped here. Insourcing also creates local jobs. Manufacturing companies employ the most workers, and carry out the most R&D. If we lose that, we lose jobs. I saw news that Taiwan’s Foxconn is building a U.S. factory to make Apple products here in U.S. That’s insourcing. Instead of outsourcing Apple products to China, Foxconn will start to manufacture here and create American jobs in the process.
Q: What do you think about the glass ceiling, and the concept that women can have it all? What advice would you give to women who want to advance their careers?
Ping: First of all, we cannot do everything, and we cannot do it all perfectly. So just drop that concept. Anyone who tries to do it all will not have time to enjoy life. As for glass ceilings, I don’t believe in them. I always say they don’t exist for two reasons: First, I don’t believe success is about moving up all the time. I believe in moving forward and in progress; looking at your heart’s desire, finding what makes you happy, and then going there. Secondly, disappointment always comes with the concept of a corporate ladder. Why do you want to choose the VP position? Is it that you can affect people’s lives in that position, or you can contribute more? In fact, that position doesn’t matter. Everybody can contribute more, no matter their position.
I believe that leadership is a being, not a position. In this view, a leader is a person, not just a position of authority. If I am a leader and people trust me and want to follow me, that’s an awesome responsibility. And responsibility comes with a lot of work, so one has to think about what one wants in life. That’s what I tell female entrepreneurs.
When there are ten people who want a position, one woman and nine men, everybody has one-tenth of an opportunity. On an individual level, no one man has more of an opportunity than a woman, but nine men have more opportunities together than one woman. In a situation where you didn’t get the job, your response is important. If my response is, “A man always gets it, and a women never gets it,” then guess what, I’m giving up. If my response is, “Those other eight men didn’t get it either, I’m just as good as any of them and I’m going to get it someday,” then I try harder. My advice to women is to think individually, not as an issue of race or gender. If gender is important to you, then try to help more women to succeed.
Q: You are among a very few female entrepreneurs in high tech and advanced manufacturing. What would you tell young women if they want to enter a scientific field?
Ping: I generally don’t tell them anything. I show them, because I am a woman in science and I know where the cool things are. When they look at what I do and see my passion, the excitement I exude, they want to be like me. I didn’t figure that one out myself; my daughter said, “Mom look at you, you’re so cool. That’s the best selling point.” I said, “How are you so wise?” I asked several female rocket scientists to join me at a “Technology and Fashion” session last year at South by Southwest. We love what we do, we happen to be rocket scientists, we’re not nerds, we embrace life, when you are with us you are happy – that is the concept I use to influence women. If the image of women scientists in Hollywood movies is that of women who don’t wash their hair and wear really thick glasses, women don’t want to be them. They show their brilliance, but they don’t show zest for life. That’s the difference. To attract young women to science, we have to show them the complete woman, not just a brilliant one.
Q: You discuss the importance of liberal arts to our education system. Do you think the STEM initiative (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Coalition) should include liberal art?
Ping: Yes. I think to remove art from the science, technology, education, and entrepreneurship path is wrong. We know creative writing is the single indicator of girls who excel at algebra. So they’re connected. I think STEM should be STEAM, with an “A” for the arts. Liberal art is incredibly important in our education system. I love the STEM initiative, and I believe that if we don’t include liberal arts, we produce half-complete and biased people, and we won’t attract many women, either.
Q: What do you want to accomplish in the future?
Ping: When I was young, I was doing more career development than personal development. When I had a family, I cared about them. Raising my daughter is one of my biggest achievements. Then when I started Geomagic, being an entrepreneur, I cared about customers, employees, shareholders, and stakeholders, which goes much beyond my family. Now I am involved in policymaking on the national level, so the impact and influence goes to people I don’t even know, to the industry and to the future generations. At every different stage of life, I look for different ways I can contribute and feel good about myself. I know that on my journey, many people helped me directly and indirectly. Now that I’m at this place where I feel very blessed with my life, I very much want to give back not just in a monetary aspect, but also with intelligence, exuberance, love, passion, and anything else I can do to give back to the younger generation, to the people around me.
Q: You are an active mentor for The Clinton Foundation’s Entrepreneur Mentoring Program, you’ve participated in the kick-off for the White House’s 2011 Startup America initiative, and are involved in promoting entrepreneurship and women in mathematics and sciences. What draws you to these programs?
Ping: At this stage of my life I want to give back. I live in the community as a citizen and I think about what I can contribute to my family, to the community, to the city, to the state, to the earth and to future generations. I like to think about contributions because I can design how I feel. I can design my experience.
Q: “Bend, Not Break” includes many inspiring thoughts on the nature of life and business. What are some of your lessons for others in business, like entrepreneurs, managers, and staff?
Ping: I don’t think about success very much, I think about contributions. I took the word “success” out of my dictionary. If you define success, often you disappoint yourself because you compare yourself to others, and you’re not there yet. As many of us entrepreneurs know, when you arrive at success, it’s a very short-time thrill, and then you say, “What’s next?” I know what my contributions mean, and they make me feel good about what I do. If I feel good, I influence those around me. Chinese people say, “If you share your happiness with another person, it becomes two happinesses, and if you share your worry, it becomes half the worry.”
I have three things that I think about when it comes to defining happiness: pleasure, flow, and meaning. Pleasure includes those things I do for short-term joy: a good meal, getting a massage, going to the theatre, a great movie or book, or playing a sport. Everybody knows what is pleasurable to them.
Flow is when you love what you do so much you forget time, whether doing a job or project. You want to experience flow. You may not experience it every day or every hour, but if you have no flow at all, you know you’re in the wrong job.
And the third is meaning, being part of something that’s bigger than yourself, whether it’s helping in the community, helping your children to grow, or a donation to Hurricane Sandy relief. We should have all three in our lives. When you’re unhappy, think about which one is missing and then work on that to make yourself happy.