“THERE are three friends of winter: the pine tree [strength], the plum blossom [courage], and bamboo [resilience],” Ping Fu was told as a child on the eve of China’s Cultural Revolution. “When you are like the three friends of winter, you take everything in your stride with grace.” Ms Fu has clung to these words ever since. Today she lives in North Carolina, and last week agreed to sell her company, Geomagic, to 3D Systems, one of the biggest producers of 3D printers, where she will become chief strategy officer. The company she founded produces 3D imaging software and has worked with Boeing, Fisher-Price and NASA. It has made personalised prosthetic limbs and customised invisible teeth aligners. She has even used the technology to print her own shoes.
Yanked aged eight from her warm, highly educated Shanghai family by Chairman Mao’s Red Guards, Ms Fu was dumped in a dank dormitory to look after her baby sister. They lived on rations and furtive acts of kindness. Gang-raped and beaten, Ms Fu survived by secretly reading books smuggled in by her Uncle W, between factory shifts and foraging for scraps with which to make watery soup.
On Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 Ms Fu rushed to enroll at university. She wrote her dissertation on China’s one-child policy, recalling the lengths officials had taken to enforce the rules—inspecting girls’ sanitary towels to check they were menstruating, eventually resorting to checking their anatomy directly. Ms Fu’s research revealed infanticide on a shocking scale. Unknown to her, the thesis was sent to the press, becoming headline news and, according to officials, bringing international shame on China. She fled to America.
Ms Fu waitressed, learnt English, studied computer programming and took a job at the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) where she worked on predicting earthquakes and 3D imaging. She hired Marc Andreessen, now a software millionaire, and ran the team that created Mosaic (later renamed Netscape), the first web browser to make the internet widely accessible to non-techies.
Ms Fu describes her life as an embodiment of the American dream. When her boss at NCSA asked at a staff meeting who had the guts to start a business, she volunteered. Ms Fu’s 1997 new-year resolution was to create something of value.
Being a CEO has been Ms Fu’s biggest challenge, she says. She offers no blueprint here for building a business, but adds, perhaps a little too simplistically, that “the only way to triumph in business and in life is to love what we do.” She advises readers to focus on personal or social progress, rather than simply clambering up the hierarchy. “In order to make it to the next mountaintop we must first descend the one we are on,” she says. Ms Fu also trumpets retreat as the most important strategy, and tries to resolve conflicts before they escalate. She strives above all to “be like bamboo, bending from the prevailing wind, but never breaking”.