Q&A--entrepreneur Ping Fu describes her journey from communist China to co-found Geomagic, a 3D imaging and design company.
Ping Fu's American Dream emerged from nightmare.
Raised in Shanghai by a loving aunt and uncle she believed to be her natural parents, Fu was 8 years old when the Cultural Revolution raged through China, decimating affluent, educated families like her own. Forcibly relocated to a dormitory in Nanjing, Fu survived for years in a single, squalid room, struggling to protect her younger sister and preserve some semblance of personal identity. Her stories are excruciating: beatings, gang rape, humiliation, starvation, incarceration, and endless self-denunciations meant to break her will and make her believe "I am nothing."
Expelled from China at 25 because of her research into forced abortions, Fu fetched up in Albuquerque with no money and no English. The next phase of her life is an immigrant epic that took her from menial labor to Bell Labs to the National Center for Superconducting Applications, where she supervised Marc Andreessen during development of the Mosaic browser. In 1997, Fu co-founded Geomagic, a company based in North Carolina's Research Triangle that makes software that captures "point cloud" images of 3D objects that allows them to be physically reproduced. (Most famously, the company scanned the Statue of Liberty in 2002.)
On the strength of her personal struggle and technological achievement, Inc. named Fu Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005. Fu's new memoir, "Bend, Not Break," (Portfolio/Penguin, January) is a full recounting of her harrowing, inspirational tale. Fu spoke recently with Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan.
Early experiences influence who you become in later life. Are you successful because of those horrific years in China, or in spite of them?
I hope that is not a reason behind my success, because nobody should live that kind of life. Nietzsche has a saying: "What doesn't break you makes you stronger." I think there's truth to that. But let me define "stronger" with a little more granularity. I would say my background has made me more tolerant with difficult situations. I don't give an extreme response when bad things happen. And in some ways it made me more optimistic.
Optimistic in what way?
Not in the sense that everything is good, but in the sense that I know things will work out, one way or the other. They always have in my life. For example, every successful company has had a near-death experience. In 2000 everybody told me that Geomagic was going to die. I remember being in line at an airport and I met someone from the area and he said, "Oh, Geomagic still exists?" But I never thought it would die. Maybe because I never died. I should have died many times, but I didn't. I always thought that somewhere around the corner was another road, and I would find it. It's just that right now there's a big mountain in front of me and I can't see it.
When you were hungry and hopeless in Nanjing, everything you loved stripped from you, how did you gird yourself psychologically to survive?
Partly, I think it's genetic. When I did Myers-Briggs I happen to be more a thinker than a feeler, which helped. Having a very loving family when I was young also gave me a good base. And I had my little sister. I had to survive to take care of her. She was my responsibility.The other part I think is my uncle--my Shanghai papa--instilled in me some of his strength and values before things fell on my head. My Shanghai parents taught me to look at the lights in darkness, to look at beauty when there are things around you that are ugly, to show kindness when others are cruel to you. So I applied some of those principles when I had to be on my own in that horrible place.
Where did you find beauty in that situation?
After I was removed from my Shanghai parents and sent to Nanjing, the Red Guards brought me to a dormitory for people who had been relocated. They took me to Room 202, a filthy place with not even a bed in it. The second floor of the dormitory was dark, but at the end of the hallway there was one light. It still worked but the fixture was broken so it was hanging on the side, like a person tilting his head. And I remember staring at that light and thinking it was beautiful and making paintings with it in my imagination, while everything around me was so scary and chaotic and dark and bloody.
In China, you grew up believing lies force-fed you by the government and society. Even members of your family voiced the party line out of fear. Has that made you more distrustful or cynical?
Growing up in the Communist system I was very young, and of course I was brainwashed. To this day I can't get rid of it entirely. Some of the Communist concepts that I have held onto aren't bad--like you always do things for others. That's why I'm attracted to servant leadership. But I struggle with things, like the message that money is bad and things should be equal. I still feel uncomfortable if I think I have it better than others. Not necessarily money. If other people are working and I am on vacation, I feel uncomfortable even though I take very little vacation.
Growing up in this country you choose what to believe. You believe what makes sense to you. So that becomes your anchor. Over there things did not make sense. Communist propaganda was trying to fill our heads and because there was not much schooling and no parents there was no one else to fill them. So my thoughts were just running around as though on vacant land. When I was old enough to reject the propaganda and do my own free thinking I became much more independent. Still, there are times when I talk to myself in my head and I don't know which voice is the right one. Because I grew up without that belief system to anchor me.
For years you were told that you were nobody, and you believed it. How did you grapple with that inculcated sense of inferiority as you became a leader? I have always been a leader, although I did not always recognize it. Because I led myself and my sister through a very hard time. I led my mother when she returned and lived with us in Room 202. She couldn't manage money, and so from a very young age I had to make all the decisions. I ensured that there would be tranquility and harmony among us, otherwise there would have been a lot of conflict. So maybe there is a bit of natural-born leader in me. But I have also had a lot of practice most children don't have.