Sackur: My guest today is fast becoming one of America's most celebrated female entrepreneurs. It is not just because the company she founded is revolutionizing manufacturing in the digital age, but also because her own life story represents a triumph over long odds. Ping Fu was just eight years old when her life was turned upside-down by Mao's Cultural Revolution. She endured years of abuse before being thrown out of China. Three decades later, she is an adviser to President Obama on innovation. What lessons lie behind this extraordinary journey?
Sackur: Ping Fu, welcome to HARDtalk. You grew up in Mao's China. Your life was turned upside-down by the Cultural Revolution. I wonder if the sort of disruption you experienced in your childhood in a sense prepared you to thrive in a business sector, the tech industry, which is constantly being disrupted, where the roles are constantly changing.
Fu: When I grow up, with the life journey that I had, I had a lot of practice in self-learning
adaptability to change, and also the endurance of resilience in difficult times. Those were the skill sets that I needed for entrepreneurship. I just happen to have a lot of practices.
Sackur: I suppose it gives you an awful lot of perspective when you have had such a very difficult upbringing.
Fu: That's right. My life had been turned upside down, from a loving family with a nice big house in Shanghai, to a ghetto in Nanjing and lose both sets of my parents: the parents who raise me and the parents who born me. In one day, I became a surrogate mother to my little sister. She was only 4 years old.
Suckur: We're talking about the early 1960s. In essence you were grabbed by Red Guards who were obviously working for Mao's party, working for the Cultural Revolution. Because your family was regarded as intellectual, they were relatively privileged. You had to be taken away and reeducated, reprogrammed.
Fu: Mao said we don't need formal education. We needed to be educated by workers, farmers and soldiers. We had to work in factories, farm rice or learning how to march in the military during K to 12, basically.
Suckur: You have described how in the early days there was a lot of hate in the souls of the young guards looking after you in the military-style barracks. You were forced to eat animal dung. You were brought close to death at times.
Fu: Yeah, we were fed bitter meals and, at age of 10, I was gang-raped by a dozen of teenage boys and left on a soccer field to die. It was very hard.
Suckur: It was a long time ago. You are in a very different place. But, does the power of the memories you have still live with you?
Fu: It does from time to time. It will catch up with me. I learned for a long time to put it away by writing the book that just came out. I learnt how to heal those wounds.
Suckur: Your birth parents were not the lady and gentleman who raised you. You had two sets of parents. Was there any way in which either your birth parents or those who nurtured you were able to reach you at this terrible time when you and your sister were living the most dreadful and hard life?
Fu: Not during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution. My birth mother came back when I was 13. She was put away when I was eight. Otherwise all of the other parents were sent to remote areas of China.
Suckur: What was it that you found within yourself that allowed you, enabled you, to cope with what you went through?
Fu: My Shanghai papa was very wise. He anticipated the trouble coming to my life. So he taught me the "three friends of winter". Before I was taken away from the family, he told me, Ping, you need to be bamboo, bend with the prevailing wind and never breaking. That is kind of a mental symbol that stayed in my mind.
Suckur: It is interesting that idea of bending and never breaking? Looking back on it, do you think you ever came close to actually breaking?
Fu: Several times. When my journal was burned when I was 12 years old. I think I thought about dying. I wanted to jump into the fire.
Suckur: That's where you had written your innermost thoughts and kept a sense of yourself?
Fu: I did not have anyone to talk to. I didn't even know where to send letters to my parents. So I kept a journal on the backside of the Communist propaganda for years. That was the only place I could express my innermost thoughts and emotions.
Suckur: It amazes me in a way that you were so resilient. I guess it was partly of being young as you were. You're so resilient that when the Cultural Revolution, this very hard-line phase of it, came to an end you were actually able to resume studies. You made contacts with your family and you ended up going to a university and studying journalism.
Fu: That is right.
Suckur: But it was not the end of your problems, was it?
Fu: No. Right before I graduated from college I was doing my thesis research. I thought I was picking a humanitarian topic, which is infanticide. I heard that the one-child policy in China caused farmers to kill baby girls because they wanted boys. I did not realize how widespread the killing was. When I went to do the research, in my bare eyes I saw babies being tossed into river with their umbilical cords still fresh. It broke my heart. I was a mother since I was eight.
Suckur: You mean since you raised your little sister?
Suckur: It strikes me in a way, looking forward and back, knowing what happened to you, that you made it to the States and made it into business, I am beginning to feel that there was something about you that refuses to bow down to authority. You refuse to accept the received wisdom. Otherwise you would not have embarked on this challenging university dissertation about the terrible impact of the one-child policy.
Fu: That is quite insightful. I think when I was looking back, I realized that even though I was brainwashed that I was nobody, I never really believed it subconsciously. I always wanted to be somebody. It was not specific. I never knew how to stop it. I kept travelling and wanting to be somebody.
Suckur: You talk about brainwashing. What do you really mean by that? It is a phrase that is easily used, but in what way were you actually brainwashed through your youth?
Fu: We did not study anything in the normal academic field. We always studied Communist propaganda or Mao's Little Red Book. That's all we have. I was told that I was nobody, my parents were criminals. I was born with black blood.
Suckur: You're in a black file, weren't you? You were a black element. I wonder that you, in turn, having been dismissed by the party, by the system, were you angry with the party? Even before you left China, had you decided that communism was deeply, deeply damaging to your Country?
Fu: I believed some of the concept of what communists taught me, about helping others and being good. Yet at the same time, I did not believe much of what they said, like rather to grow Communist weed rather than capitalist rice. When we didn't have anything to eat, weed doesn't sound very good.
Suckur: In the end, you were forced out of the country. Some people listening to your story might wonder how come, in a sense, you had the great fortune to be allowed to leave China and make your way to the United States when So many other people who were described as black elements, put on blacklists ended up either in the most hard and difficult provinces working in fields or worse than that, imprisoned or even killed. How come you were allowed out?
Fu: I was kicked out. I did not speak any English, I had no idea what American life is like. At the time I was running from trouble. I thought anything is better than death or being exile to a remote area. I knew I did not have a future in China. The future was unknown to me when I came to the United States. Back then, I did not know it was going to be a good future. I was just asked to leave and never come back again.
Suckur: You had no family in the US, and you had never been on a plane before. There you were, a girl in her mid-20s, on a plane from Shanghai to California and then onto New Mexico. It must have been phenomenally daunting.
Fu: It was very scary. No family, no friends, I did not speak the language, I did not know what life was ahead of me. At that time, the unknown was better then trouble.
Suckur: I supposed so. Yet when I picture you as a young woman in New Mexico, with no language, no money and no contacts, then I think about how quickly you got on. Within a few years you were becoming a specialist in computing and software. What was it within you that allowed you to get on so quickly?
Fu: One part of it is that America is a wonderful place for immigrants. Many people helped me when I first landed in the US. The other part is that I've always learn how to do things by myself. When I grow up there were no teachers or parents around. I had to learn cooking very quickly. When I was at a factory, I learned how to put lights in the factory, how to build radios. I had this ability to learn. I never thought I could not do anything. Life just throw at me with many things that wasn't supposed to be when I was at that age. Coming to the United States was not as hard as the life I had from 8 to 18.
Suckur: You were arriving and studying science at a time when the digital era was just beginning. The era of computing was taking off. What drew you to that?
Fu: First I wanted to study comparative literature. I could not do it because it did not have English skills. I asked somebody what I could study since I did not have a math, science background. Somebody told me to look a computer science. I said what is that. He told me it was a man-made language that is used to make stuff. I thought to myself, I'm good with language and know how to make stuff. So I just picked that up. The interesting thing is, even this experience teach me that behind every closed door there is an open space. Every time life slams the door at me -- in this case that I didn't have the language skills, I end up picking up a skill set that is very beneficial in my later life.
Suckur: You say that with a degree of understatement. As it happens, by the mid-to-late Nineties, you had alighted upon an area of software development and computer technology which frankly over the last ten years has become the absolute cutting edge of where many people think the next phase of the digital revolution is going. Perhaps we should in simple terms explain to people that your interest in 3D printing, in a sense shaping things by computer and then turning those shapes into actual products in a new way, it's potentially revolutionary, isn't it?
Fu: That's the next big thing. It's as big as steam engine, Henry Ford, assembly line, or the Internet.
Suckur: That's a big claim, can you justified it for me?
Fu: When I was at Supercomputing Center I hired a student whose name is Marc Andreessen. We started the Mosaic that became internet Explorer and Netscape. After that success I went out to start my own company called Geomagic. That was 15 years ago. I thought about combining the internet with manufacturing to create the internet of things. That was of course way ahead of its time. I went out and I saw this machine, which is a 3D Printer from 3D systems, and I was just totally amazed by this machine. It can literally print a 3D product from a machine. Not just paper.
Suckur: Out of this machine comes a tangible product?
Fu: Yes. It prints layer by layer. If you print on paper you just grinned one layer. Imagine you add a layer up...
Suckur: The best way we can make sense of this at least visually is to look at your shoes. You have come in today to the studio with a pair of shoes that were printed.
Fu: That's right, this is the 3D design and 3D printed shoes that is made to mold to the shape of my feet. So I think, in the future, the product design will be in the software code. The product fabrication can be locally next to you. The product will be built start with the person. We call it mass customization of personal factories.
Suckur: If you think of a shoe company that wants to make big profits by producing millions of pairs of shoes for the mass market, they can't use this technology, can they? Aren't you talking about something very local, very small scale and will never in terms of cost be able to compete with the traditional production line?
Fu: It's actually not true because the traditional shoe, the most cost is not in the material and the making of the shoes. It is the inventory, shipping across the sea, retail shops and shoes that made nobody wants. 90% of the cost is in that. Less than 10% of the cost is the material in making the shoe. In this case the material and the making of the shoe is not more expensive because the machine is making it. You can make it locally so you don't have to ship across the sea, which is not only cheaper but less foot print.
Suckur: In a sense it is the end of globalisation, the end of making something that has to be originated in some place like China and have it shipped to the United States. It is bringing manufacturing back home?
Fu: Absolutely. In 2006 When Thomas Friedman wrote the book, "The World Is Flat". I went on the stage and said, no the world is 3D. We were sharing a stage. I talked about globalisation is passing, it is now about localisation. We live on one earth, we watched one moon, we inhale the same air. Localisation is very interesting.
Suckur: We will get to that but I want to stick with the shoes are a little bit more. The material, what are they made of?
Fu: In this case it is a linen, a natural fiber.
Suckur: Linen shoes?
Suckur: The idea of 3D printing, would it be applicable to other materials? Could you make things out of metal?
Suckur: Obviously plastic could be quite amenable?
Fu: Yes, plastic, metal, rubber, linen, ceramic. There's more than 100 materials.
Suckur: Could you make a mix of materials? Let's be ambitious, could you make a car via a printer?
Fu: Not today, yet some of the car parts can be made via a printer, and even better, because you can design geometry inside of the metal to make it lighter, stronger on impact, and you can use material to make new material, which is very interesting.
Suckur: The what-ifs that apply to this technology seemed to run in different directions, one is a dangerous direction. We have already seen the notion of a Wiki weapon aired on the internet, and there's one particular student and some associates of his in Texas who are determined to use 3D printing to make a home-made gun. All you need is the software and a 3D Printer and he believes you can make all the necessary components for a working weapon. It does raise real questions about where this idea of home made assembly and production ends up, doesn't it?
Fu: Yes, but I always believe in our human history it always good against evil. The gun doesn't shoot itself, it is the human that takes the gun to shoot. Technology itself is not evil. Right?
Suckur: But technology can play to our worst instincts. One of the things that seems to me a danger with the spread of 3D printing is that it enabled piracy, copyright infringement, to become even easier.
Fu: Maybe. But it could generate more innovation. If you make one of a kind, not one in a million, why would you care about piracy?
Suckur: You care about piracy and Copyright for lots of reasons. The one story that intrigued me, a German man saw a picture of a Dutch policemen carrying his handcuffs. He took a picture of those handcuffs, blew it up, looked at it in great detail, scan it, and he was able to make a key through a 3D Printer to fit the handcuffs. It sounds extraordinary but apparently is true. That's the sort of danger that you could never anticipate that might come with your technology?
Fu: That's true. But innovation is also going to create so many more solutions that counter those bad intentions. It's interesting, in human history, when good against evil, there's always more good and evil otherwise we would have been erased from Earth already. The reason we evolve is that we are always able to make solution.
Suckur: That's a very optimistic view. I want to reflect again on your background in China, you've been appointed to the US National Advisory Council on entrepreneurship and innovation, but there are voices in the US saying that they are losing their innovative edge, especially compared with China. You have got a unique insight into both cultures, is there some merit to that argument?
Fu: The US has been a very inventive society. We invented many, many technologies that have been adopted by other countries. Innovation is about invention made real. Our US or developed Western countries have this issue of not adopting our own invention. We need to look at that more.
Suckur When Peter Thiel, I don't know if you have met him, he is the founder of Paypal, he said innovation in America is somewhere between dire Straits and dead. You don't share that view?
Fu: I'm not that pessimistic. I think the United States is still quite an innovative country. I don't share that.
Suckur: Particularly in your field, information technology, and other economists, Robert Gordon, he said the benefits of information technology have largely run their course, which suggests he is not quite as thrilled with 3D printing as you are.
Fu: Let's wait for ten years and see what happens. I think he would have a lot of 3D printed things at his home.
Suckur: Do you ever go back to China and perhaps think about launching your business, that's done so well in the US, in China as well?
Fu: I do have a subsidiary in China that sells products we made in the USA. I don't think China needs to be a dumping ground. China has 1.3 billion people, would-be consumers. I think the competition between the US and China or the rest of the world is healthy. I hope we will all get together and live as one world.
Suckur: Ping Fu, we have to end that. But fascinating stuff. Thank you very much for being on our HARDtalk.