Forbes later changed the title to its current form. Jenna Goudreau responded by fact-checking with Fu Ping and discovered a few inconsistencies in her story, which was published in a follow up story in Forbes.
“I knew they were coming for me,” says Ping Fu. It was 1966, the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong, and she was 8 years old. “I heard this huge noise in the courtyard and saw the Red Guard. Then I heard my mom crying, saying, ‘She’s so little.’ They grabbed me. I wasn’t even given a chance to hug my mom. I was taken away from Shanghai, the only home I knew.”
[The original headline of this post has been changed to clarify that Ping Fu did not live in what is formally considered a Chinese labor camp.]
Taken from her parents, Fu was left to fend for herself and her younger sister in a government-run dormitory in Nanjing, China, where she lived for nearly a decade. There, she was brainwashed, starved, tortured and gang raped, becoming a factory worker and without proper schooling. Years later, when the schools reopened, Fu began rebuilding her life as a student at Suzhou University. It was short-lived. A few months before graduation, her senior thesis research on female infanticide in China’s countryside caught the attention of the national press. She was imprisoned and sentenced to exile.
Fu began her life in America broke, alone and knowing only three words of English. She put herself through school doing odd jobs and eventually earned a computer science degree, setting her up to become a leading innovator in the early dot-com era. In 1997, she launched tech firm Geomagic with her husband, creating 3D software to customize product manufacturing, from personalized shoes and prosthetic limbs to NASA spaceship repairs. By 2005, it had $30 million in revenues, and she was named Inc. magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year.
Today Fu sits on President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and this month agreed to sell Geomagic to 3D printing leader 3D Systems, where she will be Chief Strategy Officer. With a bigger platform and the time ripe for 3D printing, she believes it’s finally within her reach to “revolutionize American manufacturing.”
from Chinese labor campto U.S. innovator is outlined in new memoir Bend, Not Break, a reliving that she calls both “horrific” and “healing.” She sat down with Forbes to discuss her dark past and how it shaped her into a resilient leader.
Cultivating Resilience In The Darkest Moments
“The country was in chaos,” Fu says of the China of her youth. Because she was born into a wealthy, intellectual family, her parents were sent to the countryside to be “re-educated” while she and her 4-year-old sister lived alone in a one-room dormitory at the mercy of Red Guard soldiers. “We were told we were nobody–that our parents committed a crime against the people, and we were here to redeem their sins,” she remembers. “They used mud and tree trunks to feed us. We were put in place to witness the killing of our teachers.”
Her darkest moment came at age 10, when a group of boys chased her down, beat her unconscious and raped her. Rather than counseled and consoled, her peers started a rumor in the camp that she was a “broken shoe”—a Chinese expression for ruined woman. “Many days I thought death would be easier than living,” Fu says. “But I had a little sister. I didn’t know what would happen to her if I was to take my life or was careless and somebody else [did]. It was the responsibility that kept me going.” Instead of giving up, she threw herself into caring for her sister and her factory work. She also employed a surprising strategy to combat the “broken shoe” taunt: kindness. She studied her tormenters to learn their weaknesses, and then offered to help. Enemies quickly turned to friends.
The resilience Fu cultivated in the darkest moments prepared her for her later years as a struggling start-up CEO. She says: “I am very good at self-learning because I didn’t go to school. Change doesn’t scare me. The ability to change, resilience, self-learning—those are the skills any entrepreneur needs to start a company.”
Adapting To A Foreign Land
At age 25, Fu was given two weeks to leave the country. She flew to San Francisco with just $80, enough to buy a ticket to Albuquerque where she would study English at the University of New Mexico. But when she got to the airport counter, the ticket price had gone up. “I was $5 short and couldn’t get a ticket,” she recalls. “An American man standing behind me gave me the $5. I learned a lesson: Always err on the side of generosity.”
With no friends or resources, Fu’s work ethic kicked in. Babysitting, house cleaning and waitressing earned enough to cover tuition and rent in a roach-infested apartment. She excelled at computer science–a man-made language that didn’t hinge on her understanding of English—and secured computer programming jobs first at start-ups and later at major corporations. She worked nonstop and became a star employee but had no life outside the office. “When I first came to America, I was very alone,” she says. “I didn’t have time for a social life. Later I became an entrepreneur, and found that the CEO job was very lonely. You have no peers when you’re at the top.”
Later, romance blossomed with a mathematics professor, and Fu took a job at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to be near him. Her personal and professional lives were falling into place. She married, had a child and steered the future of computing technology. At NCSA she worked on early cloud computing models, computer animation and 3D printing technology. She managed the team, including now renowned Netscape entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, that created Mosaic software, the first user-friendly Web browser. Andreessen’s business success and evolving 3D printing capabilities gave Fu a wild idea: Geomagic.
Learning To Be A Leader
“I call myself a reluctant entrepreneur,” says Fu. “At the time, my daughter was 4 years old. Starting a business is like giving birth to a baby. Once you have the child, you can’t put it back in your stomach.” Even so, everyone was talking about starting a tech company in the late ‘90s, and she’d become enamored with the idea of customized manufacturing. Rather than mass producing one item—a tennis shoe in standard sizes, for example–she envisioned mass producing unique items, each tailored to the customer’s individual needs. Geomagic created 3D mapping software that could make it a reality.
As CEO of Geomagic, Fu excelled at pitching the vision to investors. Public humiliation by Red Guard soldiers erased any stage fright, she says. She raised $6.5 million and staffed up quickly. Still, the childhood brainwashing that she was “nobody” stuck with her, and business conferences filled with tall, white, male CEOs crippled her confidence. “I thought I needed to hire one of them to run the company,” she says. She brought in a star from IBM and demoted herself. Although he was capable, he didn’t have start-up experience and ran the company into the ground. “That’s when my survival instincts kicked in,” she says. In a matter of months, Geomagic secured three major contracts. Soon it was growing rapidly and expanding overseas with Fu at the helm. “Saving it built my self-confidence. I realized I can do this.”
Fu says she didn’t plan to sell Geomagic, but the opportunity knocked and the timing may be right. “3D printing is the next big thing,” she says, adding that publicly traded 3D Systems will give her a larger platform to impact the industry. “It will completely change the way things are designed and made.” The technology already exists to print customized consumer products like accessories and shoes, construction materials and even meat (by printing the casing and stimulating natural growth). One cow could feed an entire nation, she says.
What’s next for Ping Fu? “I want to do things that will today create jobs and contribute to the economy, but also tomorrow will help us be a sustainable society. I had a vision to advance and apply 3D technology for the benefit of humanity. That has never changed.”