CEO and founder of Geomagic, Ping Fu discusses her extraordinary journey from the concentration camps of China's Cultural Revolution to becoming one of America's most influential women in reality capture technology.
Ping Fu and I are sitting in the London headquarters of her UK publisher, Penguin, in the Strand. The CEO of the US software modelling company Geomagic has a hectic schedule promoting her new book, and simply getting to be in the same room as her has been something of a logistical nightmare. At the time, neither of us could have known that the book would bring her to the centre of a firestorm of controversy. But as we sit in a conference room with a copy of 'Bend, Not Break' between us she is calm and attentive.
The book is an autobiography tracing Fu's journey from China's forced-labour camps during Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution to becoming the driving force behind a company that was to bring her recognition as one of America's most influential technologists.
In her mid-50s, well dressed and perhaps suffering from meeting fatigue, Fu tells me how she wrote a book that she had misgivings about starting. "Shortly after I was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2006, I had the idea for the book. But, going through the research material at the time, I found that it was going to be difficult. My daughter was an early teenager then and I wanted to protect her from a story that she might not be able to take. But in 2012 she turned 18, and I met my co-author MeiMei Fox. It was a case of all things coming together."
Fu kept a diary in China as a 12-year-old, an activity forbidden by the Red Guard, who ceremonially burned it before her eyes. "I couldn't pick up my pen again. And so to write now was a way to conquer the fear."
To make the transformation from a 'Black Element' in Communist China to a leading light of the western digital world is unusual, a fact reflected in our conversation continually drifting from one world to the other. Her book is subtitled 'a life in two worlds', and it is clear that the two don't separate easily. One minute Fu is busily describing Geomagic as a "leader in reality capture", and the next reminiscing on a background infected by fear and isolation, where conventional norms of childhood are stripped away by the state.
Reality capture could so easily be a term to describe day-to-day life in a concentration camp. But for Fu it is a technical term "about taking everything in real life and recreating it in a digital environment. Today, I think our physical environment and our digital selves are no longer separate. If you look at the publishing industry, we no longer think about the distinction between digital and physical. Publishing a magazine on paper or for a digital reader is now one and the same. I wanted to do this for products in healthcare and not just publishing."
In the early 1980s Fu worked in imaging software publishing, which led to her developing ideas for combining Internet technology with manufacturing "so that instead of desktop publishing we could have desktop manufacturing. That was my thought in starting Geomagic. I also decided some time ago that I wanted to have a technology company that is an enabler rather than being self-contained. We helped many companies in the orthodontic market as well as the hearing-aid industry, which we transformed from a manual process to becoming all 3D printed. Today, we are working with UNESCO. We want to scan 500 Heritage Sites to preserve those old treasures, which is the human collective memory. I think we owe this to future generations."
Today 3D modelling is more important than ever says Fu, because "given the economic climate it has now become a political issue rather than just a socio-economic issue. We are losing manufacturing jobs to the cheaper labour countries, and so this is how we can bring employment back to the US or the UK. If you fabricate things locally then you bring jobs in all spectrums of society: not just the thinkers, but also the doers. It is no longer efficient to produce a design locally, ship it overseas to make it and then ship it back."
Earlier this year Geomagic was acquired by 3D Systems, which will "combine the force of design and manufacturing in the digital space. Which is very exciting. That's why I started the company in the first place." In an official statement released by Geomagic, Fu said: "Joining 3D Systems provides us with the scale, resources and strategic platform to realise our shared vision of delivering functional, affordable and extensible 3D authoring solutions for the benefit of professional designers and engineers, as well as the exciting maker's movement."
Encounters with engineering
Fu's earliest encounters with engineering were to set her on the road to finding a meaning to her life outside of her imprisonment. "My first assignment was the factory. I was living in a concentration camp. Because I was of the younger generation I wasn't sent from the ghetto to the countryside to be a farm labourer. I wasn't immediately sent to the military camp, either. I was sent to the factory."
She remembers this as being "actually quite a good experience", partly because the workers were adults who tended to treat the young girl kindly, unlike the Red Guards, predominantly teenagers who went "around the country beating people. I had a supervisor who was very kind to me."
Her first job was building radios. "This gave me a great sense of accomplishment. I had been conditioned to think that I was useless. But to be able to make something with my hands made me feel I could contribute something. The radio is also such a common object. Back then it was just for Communist broadcasting. But I do remember that if you could get an antenna big enough you could pick up Voice of America. It wasn't easy, but at night we tried. It was a treat."
She could hardly have known at the time, but these early communications with the other side of the world were to become part of a chain of events that would lead to her eventual defection to America. With only rudimentary English and a few dollars, she took whatever work she could. At first this meant bussing tables in a Chinese restaurant, little more than a cliché in the Land of Opportunity.
Fu is keen to stress that at this point "I was running for my life. I didn't know anything about America. Everything I thought about the place seemed to be wrong. But at the time the unknown was better than a bad life."
The most alienating thing about America was its boundless freedom. "In China everything was completely suppressed. In America, everything is a choice and there is nobody there to help you make that choice. That was scary because, although in China you might get assigned a bad job, or be sent to a bad area, in America you have to find a job for yourself. If you can't find a job then you can't live. Initially I did not think that this was the land of opportunity. Very quickly I discovered that if I was to have a future then I had to make it for myself."
Realising that her lack of formal education would make it virtually impossible for her to follow her longed-for path into either literature or engineering at university level, she was at a loss. But she was quickly introduced to, and excited by, the idea of computer science. "Here was a manmade language I could learn. I thought it was great that I could make stuff and study a marketable skill." A chance encounter with start-up software company guru Len Sherman gave Fu an introduction to entrepreneurship, of which she admits "I had no idea how hard that could be." This would eventually open the door to career progression to Bell Labs, where she could simultaneously work and pursue her PhD programme. To be paid a salary and have her tuition fees paid "was like a fairy tale".
At Bell Labs Fu was primarily involved with networking, but it was computer graphics that really fired her imagination. "This was because it was the in-between space between art and science." Eventually she became director of visualisation at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, where she "initiated and managed the NCSA Mosaic software project that led to Netscape and Internet Explorer." Working on global warming models led to the idea of founding Geomagic.
As her career progressed Fu became more influential outside the immediate sphere of software development. She was recognised by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services as an Outstanding American By Choice. Since 2010, she has served as a member of the National Council on Women in Technology in the US, and the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship board at the White House, where she has been photographed standing between President Barack Obama and the First Lady.
Fu accepts that it is unusual for women to reach the level of influence that she has done in the engineering community, especially if they are from an ethnic background. "But I believe women will be the fastest emerging labour force for the 21st century. Unfortunately, whether you look at Hollywood movies or the Internet, Technology Woman has this image of being nerdy, which is something that a young girl doesn't want to be."
This is an image she wants to correct, and one of the reasons she is helping encourage young girls to follow a career in technology. "Once you are dealing with adults it's almost a hopeless situation. I asked my daughter what I needed to do or say to help girls, and she said that it is not what you say, but who you are. So I talk to women in technology and I tell them that it is up to us. If girls don't have an ambition to be like us, they will not choose a career in technology. I don't try to be a man. I try to show that being Technology Woman is really, really cool. You get a great job, you get paid well and we are not all nerds."
"Sad but not broken"
Since the publication of 'Bend, Not Break' (and the conversation that forms the basis of this article), Ping Fu has been subjected to a highly vocal and at times personally abusive smear campaign questioning the accuracy of her memoir that has left her "shocked, heartbroken and deeply saddened". Anyone who has read her book (many of her critics haven't) will recognise that the first half, which concentrates on her formative years in China, is the writing of someone traumatised by their past. While she has publicly admitted to minor inaccuracies in her text, it is clear that she endured suffering and privation under the Cultural Revolution that is hard for westerners to fully appreciate. There are certainly times when her story pushes credulity. But, as she told me, the reason she wrote the book is precisely that her story is so extraordinary. As she says: "It is a story about a life lived in two worlds: China and America. It tells of one person's journey from nobody to somebody. It reflects how my past experiences influenced who I am today and how I make decisions as an entrepreneur."