“When I was in China I was told that I was a nobody.”
When she was eight, Ping Fu was a half-starved child laborer, forcibly “re-educated” by Maoist Red Guards. When she was in her thirties, she co-founded a pioneering U.S. software design company, Geomagic, which creates 3-D technologies for design and engineering. Her path from one life to the other is an extraordinary story of survival, grit, and the power of reinvention. She would call it The American Dream.
“I believe that behind every closed door there is an open space,” Ping Fu told CNBC’s “Off the Cuff.” “Life is a mountain range that you go up and down. It’s kind of like traveling through the mountains, sometimes you don’t see that there is a road behind that mountain.”
In 1966, Fu was taken from her well-to-do family and sent to live in a dormitory in Nanjing with her younger sister. From ages eight to 18, she didn’t set foot in a classroom. During the period of the Cultural Revolution, her parents were exiled to the countryside, and Fu was left to fend for herself and her sister. “I became a mother when I was eight,” she said.
When Fu was ten, a group of Red Guards threw her sister into a pond. When Fu rescued her sister, the guards raped and beat her. It’s a story she recounts in her autobiography “Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds".
Mao’s death in 1976 marked the end of the Cultural Revolution. Schools reopened and Fu won a place at Suzhou University. She was interested in journalism and wrote her thesis on the effects of China’s One Child Policy. Fu witnessed and reported the widespread practice of female infanticide. When her research garnered international attention, she was imprisoned, and in 1983, exiled to the U.S. Fu ended up in New Mexico, she said, with a student visa, $80 in her pocket, and only speaking a smattering of English. She was 25.
After her studies, Fu worked at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, where she hired Marc Andreessen in 1992, and managed the NCSA Mosaic software project that led to Netscape and Internet Explorer.
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“I think some of the things that when I went through my life’s journey I developed, are self-learning, adaptability to change, resilience,” she said. “Those are the qualities that are needed for entrepreneurs, especially for entrepreneurs during a time when the economy is not that great.”
Leveraging her expertise in computer visualization, she co-founded Geomagic with her ex-husband Herbert Edelsbrunner in 1997. Based in North Carolina, the company makes software that captures “point cloud” images of 3-D objects, scanning them virtually, and then reproducing them physically.
The technology can be used to personalize prosthetic devices, customize teeth braces, and make shoes, clothes, and jewelry to order. It was used by NASA to test how shuttles will perform when they re-enter the atmosphere. In 2002, Geomagic digitally recreated the Statue of Liberty, scanning the statue in its entirety, so it could be rebuilt if it were destroyed in a terrorist attack.
Fu sees a future where 3-D technologies will make mass-production obsolete. “The product will start with you, not a product nobody wants, and the product will be produced locally, rather than shipped across the sea,” she told “Off the Cuff.” “We will preserve personalized services, we will use less gas, and it will be better for the entire humanity.” Fu has advised the Obama White House on innovation in tech, and holds five U.S. and international patents.
Fu said her lack of schooling and traumatic childhood has helped and hindered her as a CEO. “The adversity certainly prepared me, or over-prepared me, with a certain skill set, but also under-prepared me in other skill sets. The normal knowledge that people usually have in K-12, for example. If I see a spread sheet I faint. But I fundamentally know how to do finance, it’s not about a lot of numbers,” she said. “For example, my people skills, or my ability to deal with emotions of normal people -- I may have less empathy. When I see something I may think it’s not a big deal, because it’s not big deal for me. So I have to learn some of the emotional responses that normal people would have that’s different from me.”
In early January 2013, Geomagic was acquired by 3-D Systems (NYSE:DDD). Fu remains as the company’s chief strategy officer.
“In China, I was there to serve everyone else and somehow I always developed this guilt that I need to do more than anyone around me. When I go to a vacation knowing other people are working, I can’t get away from feeling guilty about it. I’ve been working on that.” She laughed.