An entrepreneur's long, strange tripJanuary 18, 2013: 5:00 AM ET
In Bend, Not Break, Geomagic founder Ping Fu describes her remarkable journey from victim of China's Cultural Revolution to success in the U.S. tech industry
By Jessi Hempel, senior writer
FORTUNE -- By all accounts, Ping Fu should not have survived. At eight, as a young victim of China's cultural revolution, she was wrenched from her home and sent to live in a dormitory as mother to her four-year-old sister. At 10, she was brutally gang raped. At 25, she was jailed for writing critically about the impact of China's one-child policy.
Yet Fu's indomitable spirit prevailed. In 1980, she escaped to the United States with just $80 in her pocket and a small palette of English words. She studied computer science and eventually started 3-D imaging software company Geomagic. Along the way, she helped develop the web browser Mosaic. She advised the Obama White House on innovation. And she never lost her sense of wonder.
Her autobiography, Bend, Not Break: A Life In Two Worlds, is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. I picked it up because I was curious about 3-D printing. I raced through it because I'm curious about tenacity. What enables some people to survive horrific circumstances? When you have seen the worst in other people, how can you continue to expect the best?
Fu is a child of China's lost generation, the group of adults who were robbed of their childhood by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, which spanned the decade from 1966 to 1976. Children of this decade were forcibly removed from their parents, denied education, and often starved. They were sent to dormitories in the country where they were "educated" through hard labor.
Eventually, the restrictions of the decade eased. As a young adult, Fu studied nights and was admitted to university to study literature. Her academic work soon landed her in trouble. Fu had written her senior thesis about the human rights abuses unleashed by the country's relatively nascent one-child policy. Her moving details about visiting country homes where families were forced to kill their infants inspired a newspaper editorial.
Though Fu wasn't named in the editorial, she writes that the government traced the research to her, imprisoned her for three days and promised further retribution. When a sympathetic policewoman helped her secure her passport, she caught a glimpse of her official record, which carried four black marks: anti-community, anti-socialist, anti-stability, and anti-China. Within months, she escaped to the United States.
Fu's experience in the United States was also marked by trials. Like so many immigrants, she landed in a country where she didn't speak the language or know the rules. Her luck was both good and bad. Shortly after she arrived at the Albuquerque airport with plans to enroll at the University of New Mexico, a man kidnapped her and locked her in his home to care for his children. After 36 hours of screaming she was rescued by law enforcement. But later, having traveled to San Diego to study computer science at the University of California at San Diego, she met a software entrepreneur while walking on the beach. He offered her a job that paid her way through university.
In 1988, Fu finished her studies and moved to Illinois where she spent a short period working for Bell Labs before accepting a job at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Among other things, she worked with a very young Marc Andreessen on the web browser Mosaic.) Nearly a decade later, she left to start Geomagic.
Much of the book chronicles Ping's efforts to manage her startup, which provides 3-D imaging software for custom manufacturing applications. It's the technology that enables personalized prosthetic limbs or orthodontic work. Fu believes that in the near future, even shoes will be made pair-by-pair to fit individual feet. But like any startup CEO, Fu has her trials -- employees who don't work out, funding crises, lawsuits, and management snafus. She addresses each of these issues with graceful specificity, making the second half of the book a first-person guide to good management.
Her most central message is clearly influenced by her early life experience. She writes: "I have come to the realization that challenging experiences break us all at some point -- our bodies and minds, our hearts and egos. When we put ourselves back together, we find that we are no longer perfectly straight, but rather bent and cracked. Yet it is through these cracks that our authenticity shines."
If Fu's narrative, which she wrote with help from co-author MeiMei Fox, contains a few too many platitudes and skips around a bit, she can be forgiven. Her story is worth a reader's investment. And just as the book went to print, she reached another professional milestone: 3-D printing company 3D Systems (DDD) purchased Geomagic in a deal announced January 3. It's a well-deserved victory for a remarkable leader.
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