01.20.13

Ping Fu’s Journey from Cultural Revolution Orphan to Geomagic CEO

Ping Fu’s journey to the top of America’s tech world started during the darkest days of China’s Cultural Revolution. She talks to Katie Baker about her being a forced orphan, her return to China, the power of American manufacturing—and why it’s good to show weakness at work.

When Ping Fu was eight years old—the happy youngest child of a close-knit merchant family in Shanghai during the early years of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution—her life changed forever. One by one, her family members were accused of treachery and sent “up to the mountains or down to the countryside,” the coded phrase for conscription into the Communist Party’s forced labor camps. Then, one day, the Red Guards came for her, too. They told her she’d been adopted and forced her on a train to Nanjing, the city of her birth. There, she was cast into a spartan dorm along with her four-year-old birth sister, two sudden orphans labeled “black bloods” and persecuted by the new Communist elite.

Ping Fu
CEO of Geomagic Ping Fu. (Jonathan Fredin)

This harrowing tale opens Ping’s new memoir, Bend, Not Break, which tracks her life from the dark years of the Cultural Revolution through her journey to America—with no money and three words of English at her command—to her rise through the ranks of computer programming to become one of America’s most dynamic entrepreneurs as the founder and CEO of Geomagic, Inc, and a member of President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Hers is a story of endurance, of unbreakable spirit and ultimately, of hope that flourishes even in the most difficult of times.

I loved your book—it’s an amazing story that starts out with your childhood, growing up in Shanghai during China’s Cultural Revolution, when you’re ripped away from your parents by the Red Guards and sent to live alone with your little sister in Nanjing. When I read those chapters, I kept wondering, how did you know what to do in order to survive? You were so young.

That’s a good question—I think partly it’s because children are so adaptable. When we’re born, we haven’t learned what we can’t do yet. Being young, I think, certainly was one of the reasons that I experimented with many things and just did it. Cooking was something that I always knew how to do because I hung out with my mom in the kitchen when I was young … somehow, I just knew how to do it.

When you write about the things that were happening in China’s history—the horrors you witnessed as a child and that you experienced, like public executions, gang-rape—do you think that China has done an adequate job of coming to terms with what happened to millions of citizens during those years?

I think within China, yes, because in the ‘80s—the early 80’s, which was the most open in terms of ideology—there was this movement of literature… that wrote about what happened in the Cultural Revolution. It’s very similar in a way to that the literature movement after the Vietnam War. There was a lot of change about what people thought about war and peace.

You write about the Red Guards, who had this Lord of the Flies-like mentality. And some of those people are now in positions of power in the country, is that right? Can their behavior be written off as a youthful error, of just being swept up by a revolutionary movement?

That’s a good question. Let me go back to the other question and I’ll come back to this one. Although within China it was acknowledged, the atrocity of the Cultural Revolution, it was not outside of China. Because of the concept of, ‘you don’t air dirt on your own family,’ and of not losing face. So there’s a big difference between inside China and outside China. Certainly, it’s not to the extent of documenting it in a history book, what happened. But to come back to the ruling class of China—many of those people who were Red Guards, especially the leaders of the Red Guards, are the local officials for government, and in some ways, also the national government. However, I am quite hopeful with this current generation of leadership, who have just taken power. Many of them are called ‘princelings,’ which means [their parents] used to be in power. But also, many of them have gone through the Cultural Revolution just like me. So that’s interesting, because they have lived also like me, during those ten years or more, in extreme conditions when their parents were put away.

One of the things I found so touching in your book were the small acts of kindness, during such a horrible time. Like the Red Guard who threw you his sweater in the train so you didn’t get cold. Or the person who anonymously left food for you outside your door. These acts of kindness must have meant so much at the time.

This is why I always talk about every day, I practice compassion and understanding. Because during those times that were so cruel and so dark, those small acts of kindness were beacons of light. You really latch onto it. I realized, living through that, many people are compassionate and good, and they want to do that, and it makes them feel good. We human beings have this incredible capacity for generosity … It may not have meant a lot to the, but for me, it was like a life-line. It was huge. So today, when I’m in the position of power or prosperity, I always think about those days, and I think about giving to the people who are trying to move to a better life, or are less fortunate.

Can you talk more about the Three Friends of Winter? That’s such a wonderful parable.

My Shanghai Papa had predicted that atrocity was awaiting me and wanted to prepare me for that. I’m pretty sure that’s what he did, because China was starting to fall into chaos. I had been home, and didn’t see a lot of that [as a child], other than in the neighborhood. But he made me memorize those things—he made me memorize the Three Friends of Winter [[the pine, the plum tree and the bamboo, symbolizing courage, perseverance and flexibility in hard times]]. He took me to his scholar garden and taught me in nature what they were, and the meaning of life philosophically [that they symbolized]. And that kind of etched into my brain. And later in life, it really became a symbolism that I latched onto.

Another theme that I thought was so powerful was the importance of self-expression and the pain of being denied a voice. Like when the Red Guards burned your diary. Do you think that your book now is the end result of not having had a voice when you were so young?

I think very much so. In the ending of the book, I talk about how I wrote this book now not because of who I am today, but for the nobody that I was before. Very much so—after they burned my diary, as I wrote in the book, I literally developed a skin rash … Burning the journal was very traumatic to me, because it was like your best friend. And I didn’t have any friends. And so I couldn’t write any more—for many, many years, I couldn’t write. Even with this book, when I was contemplating writing it in 2006 already, I went back and forth. I couldn’t write it. Somehow, of course, I gave myself excuses: my daughter was too young, I wanted to wait until she was 18 to write it. And that was a good reason for it, but subconsciously, I’m pretty sure it was an excuse. But in six years, every time something came up, I recorded it, just to kind of gather all this material. And I thought, well, maybe someday I’ll write it, just for my daughter.  I’m not going to publish it. Because to real publish it takes courage.

Has the book come out in China yet?

It hasn’t, actually…the Chinese bureau of Penguin felt it is still too controversial. Which I think is true, because the new government has just come up to power. I do have the hope that the current government will be more liberal. If anything is going to open up China, it’s going to be this generation of leaders. So I think give them a year to settle in. [Then] the book may get picked up in China—I’m optimistic about it.

Do you think it would get a good reception?

I think it would get a good reception among the people—really, it depends on whether or not the new government would think it would be embarrassing to them. Would they be willing to tell the world what happened? Because if they publish it, they would be openly acknowledging what happened. Inside China, a lot of Chinese folk write about the Cultural Revolution—it’s not news to anyone. But it’s an English book, and to allow it to be translated into Chinese would signal an openness.

Are you able to go back to China now? You were exiled because of your college paper on forced abortions—but have they softened their policy on that?

I was only able to go back to China when I became a U.S. citizen.

You write about how you felt very Chinese in America, but when you went back to China, you realized how American you’ve become… do you feel like you have a dual identity at this point?

I think I have a dual identity at this point … when I became an entrepreneur and community leader, I felt that I owed people the responsibility to tell them what the true China is. But when I was in China, there wasn’t objective material to study about China. So if you read it, it would have been Communist material. But today, you can do research, there are a bunch of wonderful books about China—the history books, the old literature. I wanted to study that, so I can get a PhD on that! And I realized that 15 years of my life in the darkest period of China is not China. It has thousands of years of history, it’s get a rich culture. It’s kind of like how the Holocaust does not define Germany. The Cultural Revolution does not define China. So I’m just fortunate to have lived through that period—unfortunate or fortunate to have lived through that period.

It seems like a lot of the country’s traditions went underground but weren’t snuffed out during the Cultural Revolution—such as when Mao died, and the universities were immediately reopened.

Yes, because China has traditionally very much put education at the top of the ranks. In the old China, the country’s minister equivalent is usually the one that won the national competition on education and then got to marry the emperor’s daughter. It was always this modest person. [So] education was the way that you would move up, regardless of where your family came from…the provincial officials and the country’s officials were the ones who were number one in the [education] competitions. So having that period of no schooling was very unusual in China.

In the book, it seems like many lessons you learned in your youth were applicable later on when you faced challenged as a CEO.

I think the young education I received, before I was eight, certainly shaped my view of life. And in terms of business, and bringing social consciousness to business, interestingly, I believe that was a lesson from the Communists. Communism is a Socialist concept, and I’m also very much a capitalist in the United States. Now, in the 2000s … we in the United States have a renaissance movement of social consciousness that I did not see in the 90s or the 80s.

I’ve seen many, many businesspeople talking about doing good. Not just for the company…but how we can contribute to society, to the next generation, to the Earth, to people as a whole. And I think that’s very interesting for businesses. And another thing I thought was interesting was, if you look at Communist or Socialist or Green parties, they are all very proud of what they are representing. And we’re a capitalist society, and we still have a little bit of guilt, that it’s dirty. People are not going out there waving [flags] saying,‘ capitalism is a good ideology’. But today, with socially conscious capitalism, people have started to be proud of that. So capitalism does have its good side. And a free market does contribute things. It’s the inequality, it’s the ‘it’s all for me’ that people are against. But the good concept of capitalism is to be proud of. I believe that, too. I combine the two. I’m totally interested in the socially conscious capitalist movement.

One of the things that I found interesting about your business philosophy was this idea that the world isn’t flat, it’s 3-D. You advise President Obama—when you talk to him or other leaders, what do you say to them when they want to create local jobs in America? Because your company has done a great job on that.

Currently, I’m pushing advanced manufacturing as a national agenda to bring the jobs back. Because I do believe that manufacturing is a country’s backbone of the economy—it’s where innovation goes, it’s where jobs go…yes, we’re moving to information technology. The last 30 years, we’ve tried to turn everything into bits. All atoms become bits. Lots of businesses moving into digital. Google and Facebook become the leaders of the industry. But we don’t eat e-food. We don’t sleep on e-beds. And we don’t drive e-cars. We use tangible stuff. The Earth is a tangible space. People are tangible humans. So I think we can’t lose the manufacturing. Now, we are not going to bring back the commodity, low-cost labor kind of job. The only way to bring back jobs is to focus on advanced technology that enables manufacturing. So how can we bring the Internet into traditional manufacturing? How can we lead again on that?

And for production to be made local makes sense. Because it’s more green, a smaller footprint, more customized service. It is how we have done things always. And in the future, everything we make will be off a code. It won’t matter where we make them. It can be designed [remotely] and made locally, which is how we should do things… shoes made to my size, medical devices. Customized medical devices, customized medicine. Another one, a company I’m involved with called Modern Metal—they are looking at 3-D printing leather and meat without slaughterhouses and without having to raise animals. Providing high-protein food for 3 billion people who have a rising standard of living and want to eat meat like we do, but it’s not sustainable. If we would raise more cows for those 3 billion people, we would create eight times more pollution. So it’s very interesting, this technology.

It must be very exciting to be in that field right now.

It is very exciting. I get so excited when I wake up in the morning! I feel like my life keeps coming back full circle. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a little girl. I couldn’t study that, but I ended up writing technology for NASA to bring the safe return of astronauts. I would never have dreamed of doing that. In China, with there being no freedom of expression and being completely suppressed, to end up writing technology to help the U.S. government and the National Park Service preserve the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of freedom—I bow to the Statue of Liberty, because I’m like, you are the Mother of Freedom! And being the company that’s helping them preserve that. And not going to school, being sent to a factory to build radios and making stuff—and today, trying to be in a space to introduce another Industrial Revolution. If I didn’t go work in a factory, I probably never would have thought about starting Geomagic in this space. So that’s why “life is a mountain range” is a good symbolism for me. Because I think life has many peaks. Each peak has different views, and for people to want to experience such a rich tapestry of life, to enjoy different views, you have to be prepared to go down before you can go up.

If you could tell that little girl who was eight and sent to Nanjing—if you could get in a time machine and go back and tell her, ‘This is what your adult life is going to look like,’ what would she have said to you? Would she have believed you?

[Laughs] I don’t think she would—I don’t think so. But I have always been a dreamer. And I think when I was a little girl, dreaming was the only thing that gave me hope. So even if the girl doesn’t believe me, I will tell her to dream. Some of your dream will come true. To be a dreamer. To fly in your dreams. And when it does become true, you will be so awed by that.

Speaking of peaks and valleys in a career, you talk about how you advise women to focus on making personal or social progress in their jobs rather than just gain a superior title or position. Can you talk more about that idea? You talked about how American women talk about a glass ceiling, whereas in China there’s a completely different perception of workplace equality.

When I came to the United States, I went through a lot of training. Every time I saw there was training being offered, I took it. I always saw them talking about affirmative action, about glass ceilings, corporate ladder. If you think about ‘glass ceiling’ or ‘corporate ladder,’ it’s a metaphor of going up, and up only. And I just find that to be so limiting. First of all, going up is a very difficult thing to do, and many of us have a fear of heights. And there’s not much place you can go if you go ‘up’. But if you move ‘forward,’ the world is your oyster. You can keep moving forward, because the Earth is round, even if you go one circle, you can go another circle and another circle. There is no limit of where you can go if the metaphor is going forward, making ‘forward’ progress rather than going ‘up’. I just find most of the training material that I have in the United States is the metaphor of going up. So that’s why I give women that advice.

I think that what mental metaphor you use in your head is important to your attitude in life. And another thing I tell women is that you can’t control what life will throw at you. It’s messy. Humans are messy. But what you can control is how you feel about it. And what kind of day you want to have. You can design the experience of your day and you can design how you want to feel about it. And how you feel about it, and what experience you want to have today, are related to the mental metaphors of our life.

You were able to show your vulnerability as a CEO and turn it into a strength. That runs so counter to what many women are told in corporate America, which is to not show weakness.

I learned when I was little, as I wrote in the book, when I was in a situation where I couldn’t help any more, to show vulnerability. And I realized that people actually helped me when I did that. Of course, you can’t do that to manipulate people, but I just stumbled into it by accident. And I realized that vulnerability is not necessarily a weakness. Then after I came to the United States, I saw Dr. Brown, Brené Brown—she has a TED talk, and she’s a vulnerability expert. And she has a wonderful line—she says, vulnerability is the birthplace for love, connection and creativity. And she says, think about it—love is vulnerable. Creativity is vulnerable. But if you are not willing to be vulnerable, you’re not willing to know that you may be hurt or you may fail, you’re not going to be creative, or be loved.

Do you think that being a young mother as you were starting your business helped with that?

Being a mother is the most wonderful way to learn vulnerability… Having another person depend on you, being frustrated and not knowing what to do, then watching this kid growing up to be a wonderful person, you really learn about leadership, vulnerability, caring, everything. I think being a mother changes a woman—or a man, being a father changes them, too. To add a company takes things to a different level. Because now you have all these people depending on you. And there’s no book to teach you how to be a CEO. Every day, you have to make hard decisions. And most of them, you don’t know whether they are good.  I notice men often appear to be very confident. But I’m sure they have just as many questions and doubts as women do, they just don’t show it. And they may have a better support system…or, I don’t know. They don’t actually talk to each other very deeply about these things.

That’s why it was very enlightening when I was in GE, and Jeff Immelt was running this women’s leadership workshop. I was one of the speakers, and Jeff came in to give a talk to us. He said something very interesting. He said, ‘When I come into work in the morning, I feel like I’m on top of the world. I know what I’m doing, I’m very confident and ready to conquer the world. And it’s only when I come back home in the evening, in my bedroom, behind a closed door, that I let my vulnerabilities show. That I tell myself that I don’t know everything. That I allow myself to cry.’ He said it very authentically.

So in Q&A, I raised my hand and said, ‘Jeff … that was very moving what you said. What about if I’m a woman, I work for you, I come in, in the morning, and I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel like I’m on top of the world. And I don’t feel I know everything. I actually feel I don’t know a lot of things. And I show that. Is that acceptable?” And he thought about it. He said, “You know, I don’t have anybody like that. Everybody who works for me comes in confident and knowing what to do.”

So what does that tell us? It tells us that either you’re going to pick people just like you—or that people mimic what their leaders do. Right? So I go into work and I practice compassion and understanding. I show vulnerability. So that my people can openly show vulnerability, too. And they know that I will have empathy for them, and that I will try to understand what issues they have—or that I have, and I can seek their help, and welcome their help, and I will help them, too. And that’s the kind of work environment I like to create. Now, in other companies, they might like it differently. I’m not saying one is right or wrong, I’m just saying that everybody has that.